Rarely are minimal beats as warm as they are on Spider Smile, the sixth album from duo Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok, veterans of the East Berlin avant-garde post-rock scene. The beats are tasteful and agreeable, rejecting sterility and never calling attention to themselves. They and the lyrics are distant and detached, and a broad swath of melodic instruments fill out haunting electronic spoken-word pop. The lyrics, which appear on a handful of tracks, are in a glibly British and Germanic monotone, knowing and straightforward. The vocals serve more as a rhythm instrument than a melodic feature.
The eerie melody line of standout track “Lower Manhattan Pantoum” perfectly suits the mysterious lyrics. New Yorkers amassed on the sidewalk, gazing upward: “Always a bad sign/ People on the sidewalk looking up,” Lippok speak-sings. “I step into the pool of them/ Become the pool/ And gaze, like the others/ Mothers, peddlers, suits.” Although we can probably guess, it’s never exactly clear whether these urban dwellers are witnesses to a tragedy or a spectacle, a daring rescue attempt or a cheap publicity stunt. The episode remains as hauntingly ambiguous as the album, and it’s all the more powerful in its ambiguity.
In certain songs, Tarwater is smart enough not to muck up the grooves with extraneous vocals; nearly half of the tracks are instrumental. The squirrelly talking-drum witch-doctor tribalism of “Witch Park” holds the ear just fine without lyrics. But when the wavering tweaks of an otherwise unremarkable descending riff lead gracefully into the spoken-word poetics of “A Marriage in Belmont,” it makes perfect sense.