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Tarwater - Dwellers on the Threshold

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Artist: Tarwater

Album: Dwellers on the Threshold

Label: Mute

Review date: Nov. 20, 2002

Speaking Softly and Consistently and Beautifully

Tarwater (Bernd Jestram and Robert Lippok) occupy their own musical niche. Few groups have brought such accessible sensitivity to electronic music, and even fewer groups have so fluidly put dusty whispered poetry over their abstract beats without sounding foolish. Their second album, 1999’s Silur, defined their sound, which is characterized by repetitive rhythms, heavy guitar strings, arty spoken vocals, and residence in the German electronic fantasy world also populated by Mouse on Mars. They draw on a number of styles, most notably krautrock, German electronics, and trip-hop, but also more discretely on American folk. In spite of their variegated style, Tarwater’s songs are immediately distinct. Moreover, they are especially rewarding/pleasing for being so experimental.

Their fourth album, Dwellers on the Threshold, is arguably a good save after their last effort, 2000’s mediocre Animals, Suns, and Atoms. The only songs that mattered on that album were the ones with the best hooks, which felt very much like pandering to an audience that wasn’t there. To Rococo Rot (of which Robert Lippok is also a member) does well with hooks, but Tarwater works best when operating at a subtler level. Though both groups are decidedly experimental, the pleasure of a good Tarwater song is in its nostalgic warmth (crackling records and so forth), whereas the pleasure of To Rococo Rot is in the melodies. Dwellers on the Threshold is a return to the style of Silur, where the music slowly created a mood whose effects were lasting.

Dwellers on the Threshold maintains a consistently high standard all the way through. Like Silur, it has an extremely tenuous coherency based more on atmosphere than arrangements. The sensation one gets listening to Tarwater, when they’re at their best, is that of being spoken to softly. Even as the songs swing with impunity from dark to light, from massive to weightless, you hear the same voice. Perhaps the ability to personalize whatever you’re performing is the mark of a truly great group.

And as I write this, the best song on the album is playing, convincing me again that it could be one of the best songs I have heard all year. “Be Late” starts with a minor piano melody as expressive as the opening to Derrick May’s “Strings of Life,” and later adds two extra melodies for a grand total of ecstatic dissonance. Entirely an exercise in counterpoint, “Be Late” is a deceptively simple masterpiece. The clashing melodies are sublimely captivating. How often are such dissonant songs the instant cut of choice for mixtapes and radio shows?

Now the beginning of the album, in itself beyond reproach, seems barely worth remembering. The sixth song (halfway point), “Tesla,” suffers no drop in quality. On “Tesla” the trademark Tarwater vocals are in full effect, with a backing almost as interesting as “Be Late”. The curious color of the instrumental tones and the way they mix is a notable achievement, recalling the play between a Hammond Organ and, say, the voice of Marvin Gaye. When an album can reach a peak like this in the middle, having begun at an already impressive plateau, then accolades are in order.


Not quite a concept album in the classic sense, but definitely best experienced as a whole, Dwellers on the Threshold sees Tarwater adding to what has become a very interesting and unique resume. Artists in general do well to seek inspiration from their instincts at least as much as they draw from listening to other artists, and Tarwater’s singularity is a testament to their willingness to speak in a most personal and instinctive voice.

By Ben Tausig

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