The third album from San Francisco-based Tussle, and first for Norway’s Smalltown Supersound, is the most bugged version of their tranced-out minimal garage funk to date. Its kraut-grooves will reward those who have enjoyed the endeavors of wonky percussion wizards like Excepter and Gang Gang Dance but who perhaps have been waiting for a similarly inclined outfit to cut back on the free-noise meandering and just straight go for it. In the contemporary indie scene it may seem like dance-rock tendencies have exhausted themselves for the time being, but Tussle re-engages this hybrid territory on the tripped-out echoey side of things, instead of welding the skeletal live-kit white-guy beats to cocky pop songs.
Plenty of groups, like the Rapture and !!!, can cite Liquid Liquid as an influence, but really only Tussle is concerned with really giving the proper due to the compositional possibilities that Liquid Liquid opened up -- all the messy, propulsive garage-beat glories, here swathed in a dubby swamp of headphone-friendly effects. Tussle’s sound is a whirling human clockwork of multiple drum layers and echoey, discordant sonics, where the joy is not just in the lock-groove but also in the heavy wobble of manpowered dance music.
Cream Cuts is helmed by veteran producer Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Devendra Banhart), who has a great ear for navigating the man-machine divide. Touches of stereo and filter delay abound, as well as full-scale studio invasions. In opener “Meh-teh,” what starts off as a clipped, straightforward drum break is suddenly split in half by cymbal crashes from another world, intervening like lightning and cracking open a void that is just abruptly sewn shut again.
Phantom production attacks like this are all over the album. It’s a compositional strategy that governs a good deal of the tracks here, establishing an opening minimal rhythm, accentuating it, then punishing and finally destroying it, only to feel its wrath as it crash-lands back on the scene in mutant form. Instead of simply adding and subtracting instruments over one basic rhythmic template, there’s a destructive jouissance at play, as if there’s no way the opening groove is gonna be allowed to just play through. But destruction’s not the end horizon, just part of a dialectic, clearing the path for the revenge of the drum.
“Titan” has that weird, looping gait similar to the kind that pervades PiL’s “Flowers of Romance.” Its opening groove is an index of a time-tested strategy for Western musicians interested in engaging with African or tribal drum patterns: As an American indie-rock drummer you’re going to be hard-pressed to match wits with a Nigerian rhythm assassin, so you might as well stiffen that shit up until you’ve reached that kind of arthritic lumber-funk that’s been in effect since the Talking Heads. “Night of the Hunter” opens with burst of freight-train propulsion that gets subject to all manner of aerial assaults from harsh ambient echoes to rude drum-track drop-outs. Krautian synth burbles constantly surface, but they’re never distracting or gimmicky; they’re goading the drums along, like little symbiotes riding on the force of an ocean beast.
The album highlight is “Rainbow Claw,” which rides more of a wound-tight post-punk beat and has a distinctly horror disco vibe that puts it in the camp of European acts like Zombie-Zombie and Padded Cell. Dense of siren guitars and whiplash dub effects that ends locked into a John Carpenter synth nightmare. It’s the stand-out track because it has the most distinct musical personality and sags least under the weight of studio fuckery, which sometimes threatens to topple band’s percussive athleticism.
Cream Cuts is far and away Tussle’s most experimental free-for-all of a record. There’s nary a hook in sight, hardly even a hypnotic bass riff: lots of sonic space has been cleared out for epic excursions in rhythm. The largely successful results characterize a risky proposition that in the hands of talent and artistic focus has yielded all sorts of adventurous delights.
You can think of Tussle as the dance-rock libido of the otherwise demure freak-folk movement. Andy Cabic, now known as the main man in Vetiver, was the original bassist for Tussle. His ongoing friendship with the band was instrumental in getting Thom Monahan to produce Cream Cuts. Monahan has done similar work with the likes of Cabic's current band, Cabic's good pal Devendra Banhart, and Brightblack Morning Light, among others. Cabic joined Tussle for much of the recording of the album, which went down in Los Angeles. Another cool guest was Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, who can be heard on the track "Titan." Cream Cuts is Tussle's third krautrock-leaning full-length, after the 2004 debut, Kling Klang, and 2006's Telescope Mind.