Among major U.S. cities, San Francisco is unique in its ability to produce bands that are more likeable in theory than in reality. Matmos is the classic case here – it’s not that the music is unenjoyable, but that it’s often more stimulating to parse than to submit to. If “submit” raises a red flag, good: the distinction between intellectual and bodily enjoyment emerges from the music itself as much as it’s imposed from outside. Sometimes frustrating and sometimes excellent, Tussle couldn’t be from anywhere else – there’s no mistaking where the music’s emphasis on high-mindedness and tasteful restraint comes from. Throughout their seven-year existence, the band has worried the line between over- and underwhelming both live and on record, never straying far from their major influences, krautrock and no wave-era funk. By turns and unpredictably, the band can shatter a motorik lock-groove into lovely kaleidoscopic patterns but just as easily finds its four members at cross-purposes. Opening for Cluster in May, the band sounded ragged: bassist Tomonori Yasuda’s exaggerated physical cues to the rest of the band – slicing his headstock through the air in a futile ˇYa basta! – went unheeded as the four chugged through what sounded like an uninspired rehearsal.
Cream Cuts, their third LP, does only a little to alleviate the band’s ambivalence towards traditional notions of musical development. The feeling, however, is not that the band rejects the grand-career narrative arc that writers like to impose over artists’ body of work, but instead that the band is playing to a built-in audience. Working with the same materials featured on 2006’s Telescope Mind – punchy basslines, mixed junkyard/trap set percussion, and teutonic synth pads – Tussle’s only innovation with Cream Cuts is making slightly more room for ambition.
A major problem is that this sense of ambition keeps even the album’s best songs – with the exclusion of the superb, driving “Meh-Teh” – from jelling. The band has never sounded better recorded than they do here; tracks like “Rainbow Claw,” which would otherwise not be out of place on Telescope Mind, are emboldened enough by freak-folk producer Thom Monahan’s touch to push Jonathan Holland and Nathan Burazer’s electronics into something more engaging than the supporting role they played previously. On a formal level, however, Cream Cuts’ most promising tracks derail just as they gather a head of steam. With judicious editing, the driving fragments that make up “Night of the Hunter” – taken separately, these are some of the album’s most enjoyable moments – could be worked into a dancefloor behemoth; instead, they’re plumped down in the middle of this platter with little thought as to presentation.
By most measures, Cream Cuts is Tussle’s most enjoyable and fully realized release yet, but its excellence can’t compensate for the nagging sameness that plagues most of its songs. When the band retreated from dance music on previous outings, the gesture seemed like a meaningful opposition to funk-punk’s dreary imperatives. With that genre now a distant memory, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, is the purpose behind a feint like the three-minute interlude “Third Party.” Luckily, that track precedes “ABACBA,” which may begin with a familiar-sounding bass strut and the band’s usual pinwheeling percussion, but spends about 30 seconds toward the end embodying everything the band does right. On the strength of moments like these, it’s hard not to give Cream Cuts a pass – even in its most dissipated tangents, the band’s obviously convinced that they’re making their rhythmic explosions more meaningful. But the need to play up their experimental bona fides – to the exclusion of realizing the more satisfying, fuller sound they’ve proved themselves capable of – has ultimately led this quartet into something of a dead end.