Album Review: Tamaryn – Tender New Signs

[Mexican Summer; 2012]

Tamaryn exists somewhere is that diffuse middle ground between My Bloody Valentine and The Cocteau Twins. It’s that feeling of clawing your way up through layers of reverb and hazy sun-drenched vocals toward some obscured pop heart that makes her a perfect fix when you develop that inevitable autumnal lethargy. Her songs seem to crawl by, with bits of flash and unexpected instrumentation thrown around in dramatic fashion. So yeah, her and her production partner, Rex John Shelverton, were automatically labeled as shoegaze when their debut The Waves came out back in 2010. But far from trying to shrug off any anticipated associations with that label, the duo has stayed the course and made only minute changes to the densely layered sound that spreads out across their latest album, the deceptively named Tender New Signs. This album doesn’t really go about introducing any new musical elements as much as it does a refinement of the MBV-meets-Elisabeth Fraser aesthetic that seems to have had a resurgence in the last few years and which Tamaryn has adopted for her own purposes.

Like their debut, Tender New Signs sounds vast without feeling pulled apart, and its starkness is matched only by the pomp and roar of the occasional Kevin Shields-esque guitar theatrics. The album combines the creeping malevolence of Loveless with the doe-eyed introspection of So Tonight That I Might See by Mazzy Starr and forms a stirring combination of emotionally wrecked vulnerability and over-stimulated nerves.  Opening track “I’m Gone” feels like a continuation of The Waves, with a hesitant drone gently wrapping around Tamaryn’s otherworldly vocals.  The reverbed guitar seems to cascade out from some inner reservoir of churning emotion, but in the band’s resolute hands, it seems more inquisitive than aggressive and much more inclusive as result. This is noise attuned to the brain’s innate sense of curiosity—discovery even; it demands attention and a thorough understanding of its conception. The band seems to be pulling back the curtain in the studio and asking us to take a look.

The foundation of these songs, though built upon decades-old forms, feels concrete and not without some measure of that creative spark that gave rise to their predecessors. And though there are several points on Tender New Signs where the songs seem to roll off into unrelated tangents, such as on the wheels-spinning “Prizma” and apparent The Waves reject “Transcendent Blues,” they do manage to somewhat overcome these missteps due to the almost sacrosanct feeling that each song gives off. These songs feel less like concise narratives and more like a painter in love with erratic brush strokes and gallons of vibrant paint thrown haphazardly across a blank canvas. This album provides ideas and hazy outlines of songs but leaves any real details up to the listener. In its almost purposeful lack of specificity, the album draws the listener in further than would be expected, and, by turning our expectations against us, causes a slight disorientation as to the intent of these songs. It’s a sometimes frustrating, though always fascinating, approach to familiar genres.

As strong as the album starts, with “While You’re Sleeping, I’m Dreaming”‘s  nod to blistering dark jangle pop and “Heavenly Bodies” aspiring to take the place of your Dum Dum Girls records, the closing two songs really say more about the duo’s evolution from their debut as anything else here. “Afterlight” seems to be built from every jangle pop predisposition but curiously never seems indebted to any one band or sound for any sustained period of time; as Tamaryn’s cooing vocals glide over the mostly noise free atmosphere, Shelverton’s intricately picked electric guitar seems to bend and coalesce around the subtle bass notes inhabiting the small corners of the song. Album closer “Violet’s in a Pool” marks the duo’s most direct and precisely ordered song to date, with an opening tambourine so quiet that you never really notice it until it drops away into the song’s background. And amid surging waves of distortion and vocals that seem to disappear and reappear at random, the song feels lightyears away from the hesitant first steps they took on The Waves. And while Tender New Signs may not point you in any dramatically different directions than their debut did, it certainly displays a growing maturity in both Tamaryn and Shelverton. If they can continue to develop this balance between the open-air feel of the music and the hushed intimacy of Tamaryn’s vocals, then I have high hopes (and expectations) for their next record.