Xylophone players around the world are rejoicing. Seen by many as a faux instrument, lumped somewhere in the bell family, and barely ahead of the triangle in the evolutionary chain of high school band instruments, the xylophone lacks the brashness of the electric guitar or the coolness of the drums. I wonder if Barrett Martin of Tuatara ever thought his xylophone lessons would land him a gig with an all-star instrumental side project including the likes of REM’s Peter Buck, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Luna’s Justin Harwood, to name a few. It must be great on the road when the 9-piece band hits the bar. “So are you with the band?” two gorgeous women ask (as they do you know). “Um, yeah, I’m the xylophone player.” “Oooooh, we love xylophone players.” Sex. Guaranteed.
I single out the xylophone player because with a band that has styles and sounds as widespread as funk, jazz, new age, oriental, lounge, espionage and the often neglected ’70s cop show genre, the reverberating chime of the xylophone provides a constant aftertaste.
In all fairness, Martin (of Screaming Trees) does a whole lot more than stroke the xylophone (or chimes as they refer to it) on Trading With The Enemy. He’s adept on several percussion instruments ranging from African Ashiko drums to Balinese gamelan to Vietnamese woodblocks. It’s like the guy raided a drum store and said, “Give me everything you got.”
To call the songs on Trading With The Enemy eclectic is an understatement. It’s a rhythmic Romper Room for a gaggle of Seattle musicians left alone to create untamed noise with dozens of instruments they can hardly pronounce.
The pace is often fast and furious and right out of a 1970’s cop show car chase. When listening in the car, I find myself nervously peering into the rear-view mirror, my foot weighing heavy on the accelerator as I take turns on two wheels.
Tuatara takes you around the world in 12 songs, making stops in the Orient with the Kitaro-like “Kyoto Song” and India with the haunting mysticism of “Wormwood.” Each song contains several twists and turns, traipsing across different continents and different musical styles. You get the feeling that even the band isn’t quite sure what direction the songs will go in at times or often when to stop.
It wouldn’t hurt to edit some of the marathon songs that can’t seem to find a suitable place to end, but it’s understandable – they’re obviously having fun. It’s an outburst for them, a way for these artists to experiment with music in ways they couldn’t with their full-time bands. Michael Stipe wouldn’t stand for some of the exotic material Peter Buck is creating for Tuatara.
A growling didgeridoo opens the aptly named “The Bender,” creating a dark, swampy, buggy vibe. Before you can say “Yoda,” the song turns a corner onto the set of Kojak with whining off-key horns and classic car chase guitar riffs. The song makes a quick stop in the 1960s before resuming its feverish chase.
Another multi-directional song is “Fela the Conqueror.” It goes from Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” to a slick horn groove evoking Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces” before opening into the theme song to Miami Vice. Hard to believe, I know. I just call them like I hear them.
“Afterburner” is another juiced-up song that would be an ideal fit in any Quentin Tarantino film. It reeks of bad guys in brown plaid slacks and bushy mustaches yielding machine guns. A bongo solo begs for a choreographed fight sequence. If many of these songs sound like movie soundtrack material, it’s not a total coincidence. Tuatara co-founders Barrett and Harwood had movies in mind when they launched the project.
A tuatara is a three-eyed reptile commonly found off of the islands of New Zealand (Webster’s Dictionary). I don’t know for sure why the band chose the name, but I do have a theory. I think the name is a tribute to band member Peter Buck. As far as I know, it has never been proven that Peter Buck was not a three-eyed reptile commonly found off of the islands of New Zealand. I always wondered what that long, scraggly hair was hiding on his forehead for all these years. Lord knows a haircut was within his budget.
Makes you wonder.