This is. . . Tunng
oxes full of cast-off attempts at trend-and-genre naming clutter the music criticism closet, and the increasingly empty label “folktronica” will soon be buried at the bottom of one. The term was useful once: electronic music has few geographic centers, Berlin and Detroit excepted, so it evolves differently than rock in a hot spot like New York. There (and this structure can describe movements from Chicago post-rock to Atlanta rap) new sounds are played nightly, and musical movements congeal quickly due to the natural imitation and musical interbreeding among the musicians in the audience and on the streets.
But electronic artists are a more stay-at-home lot; they form an odd kind of Internet-mediated musical diaspora, in which the imposition of the “folktronica” tag—in a strange reversal—helped birth the aesthetic before its musical vocabulary had even been defined.
But now the label acts as more of a limitation. “Folktronica” is identified with circular guitar melodies, hushed vocals burdened with cliched rural lyrics, and the occasional banjo and mandolin flourish, all backed by with electro-pop production. Unfortunately, the folk aspects of “folktronica” so often sound like tired imitations desperately striving for authenticity, hence the reliance on tried-and-true narratives and the unadventurous finger-picking sitting blandly somewhere on the continuum between John Fahey and Nick Drake. I blame much of this stagnation on the label itself, a clunky portmanteau that suggests the collision rather than integration of “folk” and “electronic” music. Since the two labels are presented as juxtaposed yet irreconcilable, a dialectic relationship emerges in the minds of artists, and the resultant music sounds like two songs played at the same time-one and old folk ditty, the other an IDM burner.
Since music is all about synthesis, musicians are already bursting the boundaries of the genre. So the term will die naturally. In the meantime, we're going to experience a wave of typical “folktronica” albums, some better than others. This is. . . Tunng fits snugly into the better end of this category. Though the album suffers from its adherence to folktronic norms, the duo of producer Mike Lindsay and guitarist/singer Sam Genders have enough talent to overcome their suspect chemistry.
Far from the standard beat-junkie, Lindsay incorporates many Books-inspired found noises and vocal snippets into his compositions. Lindsay has an ear for the musical in the non-musical, so these additions—instead of being symptoms of token avant-garde syndrome—fit right into his skittering, glitchy electro-pop. His rhythms are subtle but driving, composed of hyperactive robo-finger-snaps and quiet heartbeat bass throbs well suited to their complementary role to Genders songs.
But the group seems more adept at electronic composition than traditional folk songwriting, so I would prefer that Lindsay have a more prominent role, instead of merely providing a backing band for Genders. When Lindsay treats Genders guitar and voice as another sound source to be distorted, cut, and pasted, Tunng does come close to shaking off the folktronica straitjacket-electronic music inspired by folk rather than enslaved to it.
But too often Genders seems lost in his repeating melodies and hazy imagery, unaware of the buoyant electronics underneath.
Luckily, Genders shows a lot of potential as a lyricist. “Mother’s Daughter” (though the three-part vocal harmony alone would have validated this track), “Beautiful and Light,” “Tale from Black,” and “Code Breaker” display a confident narrative voice, one that balances poetry and clarity so that the songs are coherent but far from over-determined. He slips into the gooey love song trap on “Surprise Me 44” and he stumbles through stiff early modern English on “Fair Doreen,” but otherwise he acquits himself admirably.
The guitar lines on the other hand, while initially interesting and always pleasant, become repetitive by the end of every track. The songs are otherwise busy enough that this can usually be forgiven but you fill find yourself irritated at the guitar more than once here.
Since Tunng performs unusually well, and folktronica hasn’t quite become stale yet, this release left a good impression on me despite its flaws. In fact, for the listener less annoyed by the characteristic problems of the genre, This is. . . Tunng may be a revelation.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2005-04-04