The second loose configuration to feature REM guitarist, Peter Buck and Young Fresh Fellow, Scott McCaughey as core members (the first would be the alt-rock collective Minus 5). Tuatara was originally formed with Screaming Trees drummer/earth-centered fusionist Barrett Martin to create music for soundtracks, though it evolved into an on/off band over time. East of the Sun, the group's first release in four years, is half of a planned two-part release; the second, West of the Moon, is set for later in the year.
In addition to our core trio, the band has four more regular players, trumpeter Dave Carter, who adds a strong Latin texture to much of this set, violinist Jessy Greene, bassist Kevin Hudson and percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker; plus a variety of guest singers appearing on the disc. The results are more tonally consistent than you might expect. Though at times I was reminded of that disposable collections of B-Sides REM included with their deluxe In Time collection; you know, the disc that included William Burroughs' culturally-significant-but-otherwise-useless recitation of "Star Me Kitten"? East includes three spoken word pieces performed by Sufi Poet Coleman Barks, and while I didn't mind hearing 'em once, they quickly slipped into the "skippable" category over replay. I tend to pass over the spoken tracks on old VU albums, too.
The rest of the disc, I hasten to add, is consistently more durable. Two tracks featuring Jayhawks singer Gary Louris ("The Spaniard," "Maverick") sound like they wouldn't be out of place on a later REM or Jayhawks album, respectively, while McGaughey's two vocal showcases, the folk-rocky "Waterhole," and harder rockin' "Missionary Death Song", remind me just how much I miss his first band. Jessy Greene's moody vocal showcase, "Bones, Blood And Skin" blends swell Spanish guitar fingering (courtesy guest Ottmar Liebert, who also helps to elevate "Spaniard") with Buck's sixties stylings to good effect. While alt-rock lovebirds Mark Olson and Victoria Williams moan prettily in "All the Colors in the World."
It's all of a piece on an album that appears largely devoted to themes of struggling faith and life on the borders of some archetypal frontier. The only track to jump out of the mix distractingly is John Wesley Harding's "Orpheus Must Die," as its Brit-Wave poppiness doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the material. (Bet it'd sound jes' fine on one of Harding's own releases.) Two whispery banjo-driven Dean Wareham songs show the former Luna frontman to be more at home in this artily mystico Americana soundscape than I would've initially guessed.
To these ears, the only musical miss is Mark Eitzel's "A Spark in The Wind," which wastes Iraqi oudist Rajhim Alhaj on a thoroughly tune-free, lost-love lamentation. Still, in a set like this you've gotta expect at least one alt-prog mis-reach – or what's a heaven for?