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Tamatebako Helen King , June 17th, 2014 10:04

A "tamatebako" is a complex origami cube which, if more than one of its interlocked sides is opened at a time, the geometric structure collapses and cannot be reconstituted without starting from the beginning. Tamatebako, the first album from transatlantic duo CUZ continues this fecund figuration, a record which not only bears evidence of a distinctive eastern influence in its musical leanings, but playfully builds intricate musical structures and then breaks them apart, drawing on a range of disparate styles via a bold, ostensibly counter-intuitive range of sounds and instrumentation. Fusing post-punk to folk to garagey-rock and, occasionally, tripped-out jazz and beat poetics, this is a voracious album with a belly as big if not bigger than its eyes. Like the folkloric structure from which it takes its name, the individual components which make up Tamatebako only work when hinged together and folded into each other with the considerable technical skill and innovative impulses which near enough shout out from the formed and finished document, resulting in something markedly substantial and exuberant.

CUZ are Sam Dook (of Brighton bottle-rockets The Go! Team, and reclusive yet visionary gang I'm Being Good), and Mike Watt (he of the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and The Stooges). Tamatebako is the end product of an eight–year period of long-distance (often Skype-mediated) collaboration and exchange between Dook and Watt, sparked by a backstage meeting at a 2006 festival at which both The Stooges and the Go! Team were playing. It's one of those unlikely pairings which you would never dream up, yet when presented to you induces an instinctive click of expectation; a few seconds thought and then a conviction that yes, this could be interesting.

And you'd be right. Tamatebako is a predictably off-kilter beast, frenetic and gorged with melody, small snaky snatches of sampled sound, dirty guitars, and cyclonic swathes of instrumentation which hurl themselves at a series of uber-high octane tracks and slanted slow-burners. The hurtling around is punctuated by more ruminative oddities which ground the whirlwind with soul, gravitas, and a fair dousing of humour; Dook and Watt wielding their distinctive and distinctly different voices (Watt's a deep, resonant gravel-pit of sex and suggestion, Dook's a versatile, alternately reedy and treacly affair with a range in perfect counterpoint to the former) in ways which belie a deep confidence in their respective powers and the way these are amplified by the alchemy of collaboration.

Each fold of the paper unfurls a new surprise; after the killer two-punch of cacophonous, contagious opener 'Houdini' and sharp-suited Fall-esque almost-instrumental follow-up 'France Gnarl', 'Song For Ronnie' features Watt on spoken-word vox against a stripped-back feedback-bookended jazz-funk slink through a park with The Contortions, a deep and up-close baritone tour de force dripping both sultry beat poetry and beats as missed breaths, Watt somehow sounding like a hybrid child of Lee Ranaldo, William Shatner, and L. Cohen, arch and earnest in one swoop. His words have always been worth paying attention to, and this track is no exception (the same can be said for the later 'Sand And Bones').

The title track features The Go! Team's Kaori on guest vocals; an effervescent song which is the sound of opening a present from a dear friend you've not seen in years. 'Thinking Bout Thinking' is a strange and moody interlude featuring a deliciously effective vocal exchange between Dook and Watt which flags up the ambition and scope of Tamatebako as a whole: "thinking about starting/thinking about starting/thinking about stopping". Colliding lyrical repetition and tonal structures borrowed from eastern music with an uncannily re-jigged conventional pop structure, it's as unwieldy and compelling a track as you could hope for given the talents involved.

There's something magical that happens when Watt takes centre-stage vocal-wise; I sense that it's a result of the particular balance CUZ achieve on this record. 'With No Bee Sting' is a case in point; musically, Dook's fingerprints are all over this record; he's long been a master of propulsive, arrow-tipped and insistent edgy dance-rock, silver-tongued and sharp as you like; the ultimate aural sugar-rush. When married with Watt's singular musicianship (there's no mistaking that bass) it garners a compulsive thrust all of its own, like something just waking up for the first time. This powerful, intricate musicianship seems to propel Watt's deeply charismatic vocal persona into bright, restless relief; a personality unfurled and defined with emphasis, and maddeningly listenable. Throughout, Dook and Watt encourage a pendulum-like dynamic to their composition; perhaps recognising that the wellspring of their joint power lies in the divergence between their individual proclivities, and a constantly oscillating, back-and-forth foregrounding of that divergence. It's a winning formula.

It's a testament to the strength of this record that so many ostensibly incongruent influences can be traced through it, and collided together, without that incongruity ever becoming a troubling force. During my first two run-throughs of Tamatekabo I had flinching moments of being reminded of Blur in full-on 'Tracy Jacks' mode; a jaunty melodicism and a hint of lyrical glibness which seduced at the time (at age 14) but subsequently left me cold; however, CUZ obstreperously cleave through that apparent signpost and deftly surpass it, edging closer in the end – in those songs when Dook is on the mic - to Syd Barrett at his most iconoclastic: listen to 'Fickle Fortune' or 'The Wheel And The Ring' and be haunted by bicycles and Scarborough Fair and Elliot Smith and find yourself strangely arrested rather than alienated. Dook and Watt have dowsed together and located a rare kind of magnetism, and it's evidently one which derives its charge from a constant pulling away and outwards from each other and their respective safe havens, only then to make a joy of rushing back in. Sure, it's a gamble, but CUZ play their hand with style and assurance and no dearth of self-awareness on this deeply idiosyncratic album, and that's a persuasive concoction which pays off by the gallon.