Tamaryn Dreaming The Dark

[DERO Arcade; 2019]

Styles: post-punk OG in 1993, minor arcana, In the garden
Others: Simple Minds, Xmal Deutschland, The Associates, Annie Lennox fronting This Mortal Coil

What is an album review anyway? I just finished watching a famous video reviewer discussing the artist’s process in excruciating detail. I don’t think I could ever do that. Would anyone even care to spend 15 minutes reading the fastidious breakdown of a 36-minute album? Either way, the chance that this was going to be an average review was small from the start. I picked Dreaming The Dark to review because I was seeing Tamaryn live on the day the album was being released, and I had hoped for a little serendipity to help me out. While I enjoyed the show and could envision myself typing this very review as the band presented their new material, I spent the next day in the hospital for unrelated reasons, checked Tamaryn’s Twitter feed, and ultimately decided against my original plan. So, this is where I instead hijack the review to ruminate on interpretation, narratives, music reviews, and criticism in general. Of course, the next five or so paragraphs will still be about Tamaryn and Dreaming The Dark — I just wanted to warn you in case things got gimmicky. It’s a good album, and if you clicked and continued reading despite the score, I can assure you that Dreaming The Dark won’t disappoint you. It’s a lusher, synthy, melodramatically gothy version of Tamaryn’s sound. More Soft Cell, less Chapterhouse. The opening song “Angels of Sweat” is great and definitely not about vampires.

A version of this review, perhaps the simplest to write but one of little interest to readers not well-versed in Tamaryn’s work, would have me trying to contextualize Dreaming The Dark, placing it in the band’s trajectory and making sense of the changes in styles and configurations that Tamaryn Brown’s creative outlet has undergone. (I actually did a bit of that in the last sentences of my opening paragraph.) I would add a paragraph about the thematic continuity of darkness in her songwriting and, in the train of persisting and declining gestures, would mention that while the first sound we heard in Tamaryn’s debut album The Waves was, tellingly, a guitar, here synth arrangements and quasi-pop beats dominate. Or the way Tamaryn’s vocals are fuller and more upfront in the mix. Maybe quote an interview where she discusses her love of 1980s pop and NIN-like 1990s goth, and how they feed into Dreaming The Dark. Perhaps explore the process of her music turning more rhythmic after the sensual, dreamy, Cranekiss. You get the idea. A chance to show off my knowledge of the band? Quite the opposite. More like a lazy regurgitation of the press releases music writers get. Sorry for possibly bursting your bubble, but for those who might not already know, music writing is oftentimes a paraphrasing of PR emails. Then again, I wish things were simple enough to close this paragraph right here, with a bogus claim of moral superiority. As if I had never lifted an idea or two from promo material. It’s probably wiser to say that such a review, had I finally committed to writing it, would make it easy for review aggregators’ bots to clip a blurb to post on their sites.

A more interesting variation of the previous type of review is not immediately possible in the case of Tamaryn, because it requires a different temporal perspective. It’s the kind of review that gets to place an album in a band’s career with the hindsight of preceding and succeeding works. Here, aesthetic and discursive evolution becomes a richer subject of analysis, opening up to synchronic and diachronic argumentation, and leading to an examination of the album as a product of (or reaction to) a cultural landscape. This, of course, we can’t do with Dreaming The Dark — at least not at the moment. All we know about Tamaryn’s future is an upcoming tour and her desire to work more with collaborators, ideally toward an album where every song has a different guest. It’s an intriguing prospect, but there’s not much more to say about that right now.

Another common type of review would try to impose on Dreaming The Dark a narrative derived from our understanding of Tamaryn Brown’s personal life. Mention her hippie upbringing to dissect the tarot-based imagery found on this album’s videos. Base Tamaryn’s use of archetypes in her matriarchal, Jungian formation. Spend a paragraph or two to mention former collaborators and their departure from the band, as well as the impact that has had in the practical aspects of music-making and beyond. Use a song like “Fits of Rage” to discuss female empowerment, using aggression and confrontation as a way to regain control. Armchair psychology at best, rancid pablum at worst. We’ve seen so many of these reviews, sometimes eliciting angry blowback from the artist. And, outrageously but unsurprisingly, it’s the kind of interpretation favored when critiquing the work of female artists or singer-songwriters, and especially female singer-songwriters. Personal, confessional, unguarded, vulnerable, intimate… drop a few of those in there, and it’s a wrap.

Perhaps trying to stay away from the personal-interpretation minefield, another typical route would center on musical descriptors. Yes, the rockist version of whatever a voice-to-text processing software would churn out: Reference Kate Bush and Tinderbox. Name the producer, Jorge Elbrecht, who he’s worked with. Note how Tamaryn’s look grew darker as her music got harder and more synthetic. (Don’t forget those drum machines and how that links Dreaming The Dark to 1980s synth-pop deities like Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode!) Point out the drift from heavily-layered dream pop to dark pop melodrama, with vocals as the gravitational center. Maybe mention that the songs sound really different from one another, even under a unifyingly gloomy vibe. Call the album transitional or liken it to a greatest hits compilation. Slyly remark that the second half of the album loses steam, going from a set of five unimpeachable songs to four generic, post-punk cuts: how “You’re Adored” is fueled by deep sentiment, even if it fails to coalesce as a song, and how “The Jealous Kind” is just… tacky — think Madonna impersonator riffing on Strawberry Switchblade. But what is the point of writing something like that? Would a reader not be better off searching the internet or even the album credits while they listen? At least in the first type of review we mentioned, one could try to create value from the interpretation of a historical cycle, but putting sounds and music into neatly typed words… that’s a task we have no sympathy for.

Another version of this review would take a lot of booze and sleep deprivation to write. The result would be a surreal, twisted piece of semi-academic prose. A heady analysis of power dynamics and discourse in the industry, melodrama, camp, Sontag, Derrida. I know you’re familiar with this one, but bear with me. We’d make sure to bury dependent clauses in dependent clauses, throw in an epigraph if need be. Dreaming The Dark invites such an analysis, lifting its title from Dreaming the dark: Magic, sex and politics, a 1970s tome on ecofeminism and the occult. There’s plenty to bite there. Oh yes, believe you me. Neopaganism, alternative forms of spirituality and social organization, the deconstructions of eroticism and sexuality from a feminist perspective. This is all right in TMT’s ballpark. Too bad I gave up alcohol for Lent.

The final alternative version of this review would tell the story of how I cracked this album while watching Tamaryn live. This is where I could be the corniest, flexing my literary muscles in search of affectation and dime-store depth, since poetry is so outside my reach. I’d devote a whole section to describe the way Tamaryn gazed out in defiance when she kicked into “Paranoia IV.” Underline in other section how the tenderness of the old material is highlighted by her new, stripped-down sound. The review’s big showpiece would be a paragraph where I’d explain how it all made sense to me when my eyes drifted from the stage and started to follow some guy’s hands, who had a dance that was halfway between voguing and interpreting the lyrics by striking melodramatic poses. Yes, Dreaming The Dark is about voicing big, bold feelings; about the pursuit of high camp in form and content. But even if I tried my best, it would still turn out awkward. The text might’ve been poignant for those who know me, but it would ring as hollow and solipsistic to those who come here trying to learn if career highlights like “Softcore” or “Cranekiss” find any continuity in Dreaming The Dark. Also, the chances that people could identify themselves in the piece would’ve been high. There were roughly 30 people at the show that night, and I brought 4 of them along. (Hello, if you’re reading.)

So, those are five and a half sketches of music reviewing tropes I could have followed for this review. Would any of them been a good choice? Is this long, convoluted, masturbatory text any better? Or is this a smug gesture typical of an entitled and privileged fool? A wacky way out of a corner I had painted myself into? Me failing big, faceplanting on TMT? Is this a Dreaming The Dark review? That last one is harder to answer. But what is an album review anyway?

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