A Stellar Lineup Produces a Stellar Album

From time to time, we need a break from the quotidian trials of everyday

life. Normal people take vacations and visit exotic lands. Rock stars end

up taking a hiatus from their bands to get together with other rock stars

to form new bands. And why not? Artistic collaboration between

non-bandmates oftentimes proves to be the wellspring for some wonderful

music. At the very least, it takes the pressure off of established

musicians to produce music that's stylistically consistent with what

they've done in the past, freeing them to follow paths which otherwise may

have gone unexplored. And sometimes we, the loyal public, are blessed with

the occasional collaborative gem.

Such is the case with Breaking The Ethers, the debut release from

Tuatara, which boasts an impressive ensemble of notable musicians -

R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Screaming Trees' Barrett Martin, Luna's Justin

Harwood, and rock/jazz/funk master Skerik, known best from his outfit

Critters Buggin. And as if this cast weren't talented enough, Pearl Jam

guitarist Mike McCready, Scott McCaughey (steel drums) of Young Fresh

Fellows and flutist Steve Berlin of Los Lobos lend their considerable

expertise as well. Add water, stir and presto: instant super group. Given

their work in the past, you might reasonably expect these artists to come

up with something that sounds not entirely unlike what they've done

before. It's a formula that works -- look at Temple of the Dog and Mad

Season, collaborative efforts from musicians whose work closely resembles

the music of their full time bands. But rather than taking the easy road,

Tuatara delves into more nontraditional waters.

By and large, the music of Tuatara falls into the "world music" category,

with a heavy emphasis on horns, jazz rhythms and free form instrumental

jams. Alternating deftly between moody, somber acoustic wanderings and

swift, arching melodic crescendos, Tuatara makes excellent use of acoustic

instrumentation by incorporating the ponderous and mystical sounding

Australian didgeridoo (that marvelous wooden tube which, when blown into,

resonates and hums), steel drums, a range of African percussion, vibes, a

mandolin and a dulcimer. The first track, ÒBreaking The Ethers/

Serengeti,Ó starts off with a menacing buzzing noise that escalates as

ghostly human moaning and hand drums kick in. All these sounds fade away

as a dulcimer rings out, followed by the deep-throated howl of a conch

shell. These, too, fade away as the music starts over, lead by hand drums

and the didgeridoo, only to be kicked aside by John Bonham-like drumming,

accompanied by a couple of saxophones. The song picks up a more

predictable pace as xylophones blend themselves in with the steady drum

beat and the steel drums. Interspersed with jazzy horn tangents, the song

continues to come back to the drumming and steel drums as a sort of

instrumental chorus, climaxing abruptly in a swirl of high pitched horn

noise.

Tuatara makes excellent use of acoustic instrumentation by incorporating

the ponderous and mystical sounding Australian didgeridoo (that marvelous

wooden tube which, when blown into, resonates and hums), steel drums, a

range of African percussion, vibes, a mandolin and a dulcimer. The first

track, "Breaking The Ethers/Serengeti," starts off with a menacing buzzing

noise that escalates as ghostly human moaning and hand drums kick in. All

these sounds fade away as a dulcimer rings out, followed by the

deep-throated howl of a conch shell. These, too, fade away as the music

starts over, lead by hand drums and the didgeridoo, only to be kicked

aside by John Bonham-like drumming, accompanied by a couple of saxophones.

The song picks up a more predictable pace as xylophones blend themselves

in with the steady drum beat and the steel drums. Interspersed with jazzy

horn tangents, the song continues to come back to the drumming and steel

drums as a sort of instrumental chorus, climaxing abruptly in a swirl of

high pitched horn noise.

The album continues along these acoustic lines, choosing to persue

spontaneity and the natural feel of rhythmic percussion rather than a

radio-fed staple of verse-chorus-verse pop rock. At it's most appealing,

the Tuatara sound invites relaxation, the closing of the eyes and a

letting go of the mind, giving us the opportunity to drift along the

contours of each song. The delicate, cymbal-swept beauty of "Dark State Of

Mind" suggests just the opposite of the song's title. Horn burps punctuate

the soft drum-driven beat and the mellow xylophone harmony, directing the

music toward a massive traffic jam of horns that proves neither dark nor

ominous.

Songs like "Saturday Night Church" demonstrate that Tuatara isn't as

devoted to passive instrumental fluidity as some of the other numbers

might suggest. Steve Berlin's aggressive, biting flute (which will remind

many of Jethro Tull) is both perky and antagonistic, and as he duels with

Skerik's whining saxophone, you're lead to wonder to what entity one prays

in this particular house of worship. In "Dreamscape", the warbly guitar

and haunting steel drums make for a provocative combination, and the

flamenco flavoring of "Goodnight La Habana" offers a refreshing Latin jazz

orchestration. They even manage to get the funk out in "The Getaway," as a

sensuous, beckoning sax takes on lick after lick of wah-wah pedal tweaked

guitar.

If there is criticism to offer, it's that you can't help but wonder how

some of these songs might have shaped up with lyrics. It's intriguing to

guess what poetry may have come out of this bunch of guys, and it's a

little disappointing that we won't get the chance to know. But despite

abandoning the pop-rock road to song structure -- or perhaps because of --

Tuatara offers a refreshing and satisfying melange of music that deserves

to be heard and will most definitely be enjoyed.