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The Tear Garden, "The Brown Acid Caveat"

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cover imageI had absolutely no idea what to expect from a new Tear Garden album, as it has been nearly a decade since the last one and The Brown Acid Caveat slowly came together while cEvin Key was dealing with cancer and Edward Ka-Spel was deeply immersed in I Can Spin A Rainbow.  Despite that, the impending release bizarrely took on a near-mythic significance for me, as this project has inspired several of Ka-Spel most enduring moments of genius ("Romulus and Venus," "Hyperform," etc.) and he has been riding quite a (fitful) hot streak over the last few years.  Also, the time simply felt right for The Tear Garden to return.  Happily, Caveat largely lives up to my unreasonably high expectations even while it subverts them, as the duo largely eschew deep psychedelia in favor of propulsive, tightly structured electronic pop (albeit with some inspired detours along the way).  Naturally, the album’s hookiness is mingled with Ka-Spel and Key's deeply skewed and oft-hallucinatory aesthetic, but I was still completely unprepared for the throbbing disco groove of the opening "Strange Land."

Metropolis/Sub-Conscious Communications

I dearly wish I could have been at the listening party that Key and Ka-Spel threw in LA for the release of this album (it was a crowd-funded release), as I would have absolutely loved to see the looks on everyone's faces when they hit "play" and the sexy bass throb and disco thump erupted from the speakers.  "Strange Land" is definitely the first Tear Garden song that I can imagine someone blasting as they speed along the Autobahn in a classic convertible, but Edward Ka-Spel is still Edward Ka-Spel, so the infectious groove, jangling guitars, and strong melodies are still shot through with a healthy dose of surreality–it just happens to be couched in stronger hooks than usual.  While the naked catchiness of "Strange Land" turns out to be a bit of an exception (sadly, this is not quite The Tear Garden’s "party album"), Key and Ka-Spel definitely place a very strong emphasis on groove and tight structure here.  The closest thing to another would-be hit single is only "Calling Time," which boasts a similarly fluid bass line, 4/4 thump, tight structure, and penchant for catchy vocal melodies.  Within that poppy framework, however, the duo allow quite a bit more weirdness to kick in, as the beat features an exhalation-like call-and-response snare and the piece becomes increasing buffeted by sputtering and jabbering electronics as it unfolds.  Less accessible still is my favorite piece on the album, "Lola's Rock," a classic Ka-Spel narrative about a giant meteor speeding toward the earth that unfolds over an erratically stumbling beat mingled with woozy Theremin-like synths, squiggling electronics, deranged-sounding textural intrusions, and dubby percussion flourishes (quite fitting, given that Twilight Circus's Ryan Moore had a hand in some of these recordings).

The rest of the album is a considerably less groove-centric, however: the first half feels like an appealingly hooky gateway designed to lure me into the deeper and more lysergic waters of the second half.  The duo's pop instincts largely remain intact though, even as they leave the surrealist dancefloor far in the rearview mirror.  On the lovely and lilting waltz "Kiss Don’t Tell," Key and Ka-Spel craft a gorgeous piece of psychedelic chamber pop that feels like it was recorded inside a snowglobe: the swaying and elegant rhythm, the twinkling synth melodies, and the languorous glissando of Martijn De Kleer’s guitar all combine to evoke a wonderful illusion of timelessness and dreamy unreality.  Elsewhere, the duo shine again with the simmering and faintly menacing "Sinister Science," which weaves a brooding spell from a skeletal groove, a richly textured haze of electronic effects, and Patrick Wright's Romantic and melancholy strings.  "Stars On The Sidewalk," on the other hand, feels like a reprise of the winning "Hyperform" formula: a slow-burning and minimalist pulse of insistent synthesizer endlessly creeps forward beneath Ka-Spel's ominous and understated vocals.  More than anything else on the album, "Stars" sounds like a return to the classic Tear Garden sound, right down to an extended length and an interlude of expected psych tropes like a guitar solo and some space-y whooshing.  I like it, but this latest reconvening of the core duo has largely transcended the more straight-forward psychedelia of their early years.  The Tear Garden is on another plane altogether these days, so indulgences and rock-isms feel conspicuously out of place now.  Even during its weaker moments, The Brown Acid Caveat shows that Ka-Spel and Key can engage in any kind of stylistic tourism they wish and still come out with a memorable song that nimbly dodges pastiche and feels very much like Tear Garden (i.e. the acoustic blues of the closing "Object").  During their stronger moments like "Lola’s Rock," however, Key and Ka-Spel display a distinctive vision and synergistic chemistry that no one else could possibly replicate.

If The Brown Acid Caveat has a flaw, it is probably its length: it would be much stronger if it were condensed into a single LP rather than a double one.  In Tear Garden's defense, however, they simply had an excess of fine material to share: while this might be an overwhelming album to take in in one sitting, it is nevertheless a solid and filler-free affair from start to finish.  Also, plunging into an epic like this feels like a legitimately immersive and mind-bending event, which is probably something that could not be achieved with a condensed version that pared away everything but the highlights.  My other minor quibble is more of an observation: previous and more uneven Tear Garden albums have yielded some of my favorite songs ever ("In Search of My Rose," for example), yet there is tentatively nothing on The Brown Acid Caveat that quite joins that rarefied pantheon.  The compensation, however, is that this album is probably the strongest whole that the union of Key and Ka-Spel has ever produced: everything here is at least very good and a handful of pieces are even better than that.  In more practical terms, I will probably be putting "Romulus and Venus" on mixtapes until I die, but when I want to dive into an entire Tear Garden album, this will most likely be the one that I choose.   As such, my minor grievances are mostly just reasons why this legitimately excellent album falls shy of being a legitimately perfect album: my overall impression is almost entirely delight.  I would have been happy with just a return to form, but The Brown Acid Caveat feels like the reinvigorated beginning of a promising new chapter, which is a truly astonishing feat from a project three decades into its run.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 30 July 2017 23:46  


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