The main problem with East of the Sun from Tuatara — a band built around R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, musical journeyman Scott McCaughey, and ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin — is that it’s too good, too put-together, too clean. It sounds like every little banjo pluck and flamenco flourish was thought out way in advance, like nothing organic was allowed to arise from these three and all the talented musicians they brought onboard.
It also doesn’t help that the album’s concept — something vague involving deserts and demons — never really coalesces. Opener “Waterhole” sets the western scene, all barren lands and skin-scorching sun, with McCaughey intoning, “If you believe in hell, the road is paved.” It’s followed by album highlight “The Spaniard.” The song, with Gary Louris on vocals, is full of colorful characters: a junkie panhandling outside a “smoky little old café,” vendadores, a cripple hobbling home. The tune is accented by great work from flamenco-guitar legend Ottmar Liebert and trumpeter Dave Carter.
Louris puts in another good performance on “Love Is,” but other guest vocalists don’t fare as well. Dean Wareham is poorly used on two songs. With his sardonic voice, it sounds like he’s trying not to laugh while delivering the apocalyptic darkness the album peddles. And who exactly the three spoken-word pieces by poet Coleman Barks are supposed to appeal to is unclear.
Victoria Williams’s duets with Mark Olson on “All the Colors of the World” and Carter’s muted horn line on “Rainbow Drops” help redeem East of the Sun. But high notes here and there shouldn’t have to be the only redeeming qualities on album featuring this much talent.