For whatever reason, it’s hard to get excited about a new Tuxedomoon release. Unlike their late ’70s/early ’80s avant-rock brethren – Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Wire, Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, and the like – for whom new albums come as a pleasant surprise at worst and a revelation, expansion, or worthwhile commentary on their other works at best, Tuxedomoon doesn’t seem to create any stir. For this reviewer at least, it’s really more of an “oh, they’re still around?” than anything else. Even the Residents, whose recent releases are more confounding than anything else (ok, all of their releases are a little confounding), still manage to seem relevant. But this new Tuxedomoon music just doesn’t demand our attention.
I think this lack of excitement may come from the fact that Tuxedomoon never really actually rocked. They definitely lived on the edge musically, at least at first, but that edge was more intellectual than dangerous, the result of disorienting synthesizers and ominous atmospheres. But even then, there is still a dissatisfying, distracting sheen on top of everything, probably the result of their choice of saxophone and trumpet tone and their choice of drum programs. And at no point did they really engage with rock music as rock music, preferring to skirt around it, showing flashes of it when necessary and completely ignoring it at will. I don’t mean to sound like the rockist; I’m totally fine with the avant-garde ignoring all of those conventions, embracing intellectualism, and generally fucking around with our musical values. But that kind of intellectualism seems to be more compelling when it has “rock” at its core. What all the groups mentioned before have in common is an intellectual approach to what rock music means and how it means, and as a result their new music has a progressive, teleological drive, even when the music is contemplative or spaced out. Tuxedomoon seems to be lacking all of that.
Maybe I’m just put off by all the dangling references throughout Vapour Trails: the faux-Miles Davis trumpet complete with Harmon mute and reverb; the not-Wayne Shorter saxophone work; the ultra-wide sounding bass; the random text strewn throughout the packaging; the alien synthesizers; the beats that feel like rejects for the theme song to The Sopranos; the slightly too crisp production values; and Steven Brown’s not quite Nick Cave baritone. All of these could combine to create some new kind of meaning, a new way of conceiving songs, but Tuxedomoon don’t actually do anything with them. They’re content to just let the signifiers signify. The songs just sit, content to vamp, gradually changing but not in ways that actually do any heavy lifting, losing any sense of progression that would justify their lengths. It all ends up feeling a little too much like smooth jazz or bad prog rock for its own good.
I’m not sure how those lines could be skirted in a way that would be more effective – maybe if the production were less crisp or if they took more chances or even if they just varied the beats some, it would feel more complete and exciting. All that said, this is not a record that could have been made by a bunch of kids in Brooklyn or L.A. or wherever; Vapour Trails is a record of age and experience. It just picked a set of lessons that don’t add up to anything new.