The most uniquely sublime, meticulous and heroic 40 minutes of 2011.
Martin Aston 2011
There’s no track this writer’s thrashed more this year than Other Lives’ single For 12. It’s suspenseful, dreamy and awestruck in equal measures, combining undulating strings (possibly Mellotron), lightly galloping Morricone rhythms, subtle shades of piano and acoustic guitar and vocals that run the gauntlet from sighing to falsetto. Imagine an eagle’s eye view over an unbroken stretch of Brokeback Mountain prairie. Or imagine Fleet Foxes influenced by Radiohead’s Pyramid Song. And if For 12 is the absolute jewel here, the rest isn’t far behind.
Tamer Animals is the Oklahoma quintet’s second album, following 2009’s eponymous album and, back in 2006, the debut under former alias Kunek. Neither matches this watermark of quiet grandeur or strikes the same balance between lavishness and restraint. If band lynchpin Jesse Tabish’s choruses don’t instantly lasso like, say, Adele or a Simon Cowell prodigy, his tunes appear to swoon through the air and might haunt your deep sleep. File under Pastoral Americana alongside Fleet Foxes and Midlake (you could bet your house on at least three members sporting beards), but there is a major difference: Tabish worships instrumental music, and classical minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, which accounts for the album’s pulsating orchestrations. Piano, bassoon, bass clarinet, violin, trumpet, French horn, cello – in Tabishworld, instruments harmonise as much as, if not more than, voices. If his restrained, wistful, almost shy vocal is double-tracked for bonus comfort, it’s an unbroken stretch of land away from Crosby, Stills & Nash and any notion of 70s retro.
Even more than Tabish’s influences, there’s liable to be something in Oklahoma’s water, or those huge skies, that gives Other Lives their panoramic aura. Perhaps Tabish is the modern equivalent of the ‘singing cowboy’, roaming that prairie and drinking up the Mexican and Anglo-Saxon influences from America’s south-west (though strictly speaking, Oklahoma is north of Texas and geographically central-southern) which moulded the ‘Western’ half of C&W.
Lyrically as well, Tabish sounds enthralled by nature’s ineffable power. Old Statues – the most Morricone-esque cut, with a fantastic lonesome patina – documents how man-made structures will eventually fall back to earth. Other tracks are titled Dust Bowl III, Weather and Desert, reinforcing Tabish’s minimalist bent. There is an orchestral finale, Heading East (so not the usual western gold trail to California? East to Reich and Glass in New York, perhaps?), but even here he manages to embrace ‘epic’ without a hint of bombast, and all in two-and-a-half minutes. For all Tamer Animals’ expansive horizons, its only lasts 40 minutes. But it’s the most uniquely sublime, meticulous and heroic 40 minutes of 2011.