Tunng Good Arrows

[Thrill Jockey/Full Time Hobby; 2007]

Styles:  “folktronica”
Others: Beta Band, Adem, Four Tet, King Creosote

When rural die-hards rally against new-free-freak-tronica artists sullying the oral tradition and history of folk music, they're probably talking about a band like Tunng, and unfairly so. Truth be told, Tunng have always been a few hectares adrift from both the trad folklorists and the knob-twiddlers they are often lumped in with. Since 2003, the duo of Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders have uniquely cranked out plenty of peaceful and rousing tunes characterized by cryptic stories, electronic sounds and samples, and unconventional instrumentation (hammered dulcimer, tinkling sea-shells played with the toes, etc.). Good Arrows is Tunng's third album and their first for Thrill Jockey. All of the tell-tale Tunng signs are present: sections of unaccompanied singing, click stops and starts, knockout ballads, and, as always, stock dialogue snips (I am not sure where "And how your tiny hands played with my buxom” comes from, but it works nicely at the end of “Spoons”). But there is something different going on with Tunng this time around. Something different and better.

This is the first Tunng album as a fully realized band -- they are a confirmed sextet now instead of the Genders/Lindsay core plus assembled studio helpers -- but that doesn't reflect itself immediately on Good Arrows. Tunng have to be one of the more deliberate recorders around, with every note labored over and meticulously placed. It has always been this way; moments on this new album sound arranged and played by half a person, while moments on their debut album sound performed by a polyphonic wing-ding. But what is different on Good Arrows, apart from the presence of these extra bodies and the economic one-word song title concept, is the variance of sound embraced.

The lengthy "Bullets" is the most adventurous song the band has written. It has many elements familiar to Tunng fans, but it takes on a maudlin, cabaret style that is welcome for those possibly fearing the group has mined the same sonic well too many times. It ends with regaling sing-song vocals that would not be out of place on, gulp, a Supertramp album. After “Bullets,” there is "Soup." Toying with expectations, the song begins with a familiar blend of static-y sampled voices, bells, and plaintive acoustic guitar before morphing into a mélange of metal riffing and Bonham beats. Is this a heavy skeleton crashing out of Tunng’s closet or a deliberate change of style to placate naysayers? It matters little because it works well.

Apart from these two odd turns, the rest of the album plays along the same lines of Tunng’s first two full-length efforts: full of inimitable beauty with occasional sidetracks into dark-corner lyricism. Newbie Becky Jacobs is used to the hilt. She takes the lead on "String" and delivers the chilling “blood and bone and bits of string,” one of Good Arrows' barest, creepiest tracks. Singing in tandem with Genders on tracks like “Bricks” and “Spoons,” she provides an even more engaging voice to the band (Genders himself already enchanting as hell). “Arms" is a stuttering piece of lovely with a cute chorus of kids providing sporadic shout-outs. Closing number “Cans” is another great example of the band’s slight skewing, with an ending that sounds like someone slyly dropped a mic into the pocket of someone leaving the studio for a leisurely street walkabout.

Good Arrows is a change in direction for Tunng, who, as a young band, have chosen the right time to swerve and swivel a bit. But it's not as radical as you might think. They have taken on a wider range of styles and adapted them to their strict sound, but it still sounds like Tunng, which is never a bad thing. Like The Beta Band before them, Tunng’s songs have often possessed a hazy catchiness (minus the folk hop beats) while portraying a murky story. I hope they continue to take drives on somewhat tangential roads here and there to show us other sides to this always exciting band.

1. Take
2. Bricks
3. Hands
4. Bullets
5. Soup
6. Spoons
7. King
8. Arms
9. Secrets
10. String
11. Cans

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