Cranekiss displays Tamaryn’s new retro sound

Photo courtesy of Mexican Summer

Tamaryn are a dream pop music group formed in 2008 in San Francisco, CA consisting of vocalist and namesake Tamaryn Brown and multi-instrumentalist Rex Shelverton (of acclaimed post-hardcore band Portraits of Past). They play a style of dream pop and shoegaze drawing heavy influence from Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Love Spirals Downwards.

Previous album releases “The Waves” and “Tender New Signs” followed the more traditional format of British shoegaze, employing noisy reverb-drenched guitars and hushed female vocals with post-punk bass driving most of the songs.

While Tamaryn did not emerge as a genre-blending innovator of what’s being called “nu-gaze,” they have been exceptional recreators of the early 1990s shoegaze and dream pop sound. The Waves relied on a big, sludgy atmosphere combined with underlying pop sensibilities in its sound. It was a confident debut from the duo and clear in its direction.

Rotating between gritty distortion and ethereal guitars, the album pushed Tamaryn to mild popularity in the shoegaze revival scene. Their sophomore effort “Tender New Signs” plays as a slightly stripped down version of “The Waves”.

Still relying on Shelberton’s swirling guitar tone and Brown’s indistinguishable and flowing vocals, the new album draws on their previous ideas in their desire to create a sultry and seductive atmosphere. It is a cohesive and melodic piece that still maintains an ethereal and often depressing ambience. The most recent installment in Tamaryn’s discography abandons much of what they were previously built upon.

In Tamaryn’s latest release, Cranekiss on the label Mexican Summer, Shelverton is notably absent, forcing the musicians to take on a whole new sound. Due to the substantial (although not entire) lack of guitar on the new album, Tamaryn has taken strides to introduce drum machines, synth pads, loopers and a variety of samples in their songs. With an album cover eerily similar to Tennis’ “Young & Old,” it was hard to know what to expect.

With this in mind, it is easy to tell that Cranekiss is a monumental departure from the familiar Tamaryn sound. Drum machines, synths and loopers run the album while guitars and traditional percussion are thrown to the curb. Swelling and swirling atmosphere is replaced by narcotizing synthetic beats and dance-pop vocals.  The main weakness of the album stems from the monotony of many of the tracks. Several of the melodies and structures sound under-cooked and insufficient compared to their 80s roots.

Brown’s voice just does not sound suited for this new synth pop direction as she exits her traditional heavy, low and lush style for spot higher in the mix. Still there are definite interesting angles on some of the more experimental tracks on the new record. Tamaryn delves into new fields with their music and, overall, comes out with an album taking a new direction that contains equal number of favorable and unfavorable tracks.

The album begins with its namesake, the single “Cranekiss.” Immediately apparent are an array of soft synth harmonies stacked atop a 1980s style drum machine. A reverb-ridden guitar strums lightly in the background as Tamaryn sings softly. The song progresses as the familiar swelling guitar sound emerges in the background while synths continue to twinkle as the song comes to a close. As a whole, the song serves as a good introduction to the general style.

“Hands All Over Me” follows the title track, exploding with dissonant synths and stadium-like vocals from Brown higher in the mix than usual. The song continues as an 80s dance-pop track combined with glorious hand-claps and retro-style synth patches. The next song, “Last” slows down the pace of the album quite a bit, returning to hushed vocals but retaining the dance-able beat.

The track screams 80s 4AD in the reign of Colourbox and Cocteau Twins, even making references to the latter in the track. Tamaryn’s lyrical themes follow suit as well, dealing with heartbreak, lost-love, altered states, a familiar topic for many bands of this style.

Succeeding “Last” is a surprisingly contagious track, “Collection”, in which Tamaryn returns to a more favorable lower vocal register, gingerly singing “You got to give me your love. Time is taking over.”

“Softcore” shows Tamaryn’s darkwave influence neatly combined with a familiar and hypnotic 80s drum beat. Tamaryn utilizes various samples to clash with dissonant guitars then suddenly burst into a double-time as ominous groans and moans fill the backdrop of the song. Although the track is likely the most unique of the bunch, it feels like a low quality rehash of Depeche Mode.

A later track, “Fade Away Slow” does just what it says and comes across as another unremarkable track. It creates a soporific vibe, but not in a good way. “I Won’t Be Found” sounds like what the previous track could have been. The drum machines take a step back and let Brown’s lush voice shine through, trying her best to sound like Rachel Goswell of Slowdive.

While the track is a bit sto previous shoegaze material, it is enjoyable in that it is not relying on the typical criticism nu-gaze gets for the blasé wall-of-sound effect. “Intruder (Waking You Up)” is the tenth track and closer of Cranekiss. A distorted and droning bass leads the song as a range of percussion later enters the mix.

Brown takes several refrains in the track with washed out humming and singing as an echoed guitar sweeps by occasionally. The song as a whole is a decent closer, but further induces the excessive sameness that plagues the record.

Our Take: 3/5 stars