I'm not a big fan of this trend toward instrumental music,
with its long winding melodies and explorations in sound. I
believe rock music -- even indie rock -- should have structure
and closure. And it shouldn't take twenty minutes to get there.
Frankly, some of this stuff sounds more like Muzak to me than
rock. So, when I heard that Bill Berry was playing on the new
Love Tractor CD, I was somewhat reluctant to purchase it, even
though it would contribute well to my ongoing review series
about R.E.M. side projects. You see, before their ten-year hiatus
from recording, Love Tractor were generally known for their
lack of vocals and strong instrumentation. While the band had
a solid reputation as sophisticated musicians, I didn't find
their work exciting -- more like background noise for a formal
But, being the resident (obsessed) R.E.M. fan, I was compelled
to buy the CD anyway. Man, what a difference a decade makes.
I am pleased to report that The Sky at Night,
the band's first release after re-forming, actually includes
vocals on a regular basis. While they are still somewhat sparse,
even subservient, to the intricate string and percussion compositions,
the vocals frame Love Tractor's melodies beautifully. The lyrics
are atmospheric more than prosaic, painting pictures of images
reflected in the music with titles like Tree and Us
Desert. This mixture works: the words float above and amid
guitars and pianos like gray and white clouds, sometimes stormy
and dark, sometimes light and cottony.
With vocal additions and matured musical talent, this album
reflects the work of seasoned artists. The multiple layers of
sound are evident with one look at the album credits; some band
members are credited with two, three, or even four instrumental
parts per song. The incredible variety of sound is mixed with
exquisite delicacy. Indeed, the melodies are so intricate, they
require several listens to truly understand their value. Like
other instrumental bands, Love Tractor's music is not intended
for loud dance parties, but it quickly treats the polite listener
to both musical complexity and catchy tunes. While The
Sky at Night is best approached as an entire album,
the title track and Balthus (the Old Clothesline) could
easily be stand-alone singles.
So what would I tell R.E.M. fans who might buy this album?
Well, there's good news and bad news. First, the bad news: in
actuality, Bill Berry only plays on one song, Bright,
and he doesn't play drums. In fact, he hardly plays at all,
even on that song. The story
goes that when Love Tractor were in the mixing stage of the
album, they asked Berry to check out Bright (since Berry
played with Love Tractor back in the day before there was an
R.E.M., they still consider him to be a member of the band).
However, he didn't really think anything needed to be added,
so he grabbed a statue of Nefertiti's Bust and simply thumped
on it for a while. That ornament-thumping made it into the song
mix along with sounds from another Berry-contrived instrument
called an Eggomaniac (I have no idea what that is). I have to
admit, though, that I don't hear either percussional device.
Beyond that, the song seems more like something from the Asian-influenced
Beatles than the Bill Berry of old. Actually, the guitar sounds
a lot like Peter Buck -- especially that riff at the beginning
of King of Birds. So, if you're hoping to find out what's
happened to Berry's drumming talent after three years of retirement,
I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. Now, for the good news: much
of the string work sounds like quieter moments of R.E.M. If
you like R.E.M.'s softer, more delicate guitar melodies, there's
a good chance you'll like this Love Tractor album. I recommend
you give it a listen.