|Although Tuxedomoon recently performed live in Israel, and -- in the not so distant past -- released an instrumental album (The Ghost Sonata), the band effectively dissolved in 1987, after a career that lasted ten years. Throughout their life as a band, released approximately a Tuxedomoon dozen albums and EPs, which taken together display an almost unparalleled musical versatility, ranging from minimalist instrumental sound-vignettes, over songs of more conventional form and structure, to orchestral compositions. The instrumentation, too, varied greatly -- wind instruments, accordions and violins stand side by side with synthesizers and drum machines, as well as standard guitar, bass and drums, in their music. Finally, the moods and subjects of their songs and lyrics fluctuate between the whimsical and corny on one hand, and the serious and heady on the other. These kaleidoscopic qualities were undoubtedly aided by the international make-up of the band -- individual members came from New York, San Francisco, Rome and Bruxelles; sometimes-vocalist Winston Tong even being of Chinese origin.
Tuxedomoon's various releases have now become -- if not altogether out of print -- extremely difficult to find; even the compilation at hand (Solve Et Coagula), which came out in 1993 and combines a number of their best known tracks -- some of them in new mixes -- is only rarely seen in stores. Yet, this band, in their own subtle manner, was as seminal in the late 70s/early 80s -- as the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and SPK -- in breathing new life into the underground music scene.
The earliest track on Solve Et Coagula is the title track from the EP No Tears (1978). It is a chaotic tongue-in-cheek 'gothic' tune, which became a kind of anthem for the 'dressed-in-black' crowd at many alternative nightclubs, when it was first released. The punky drums and guitar are supplemented by a wimpy synth-imitation of a church organ, while the lyrics sound like Robert Smith with a cold: "No tears for the creatures of the night. . ." The song "Dark Companion" (a single release from 1980) covers somewhat similar territory as "No Tears" -- moody organ harmonies and a noisy, distorted guitar combine to create a rather frantic atmosphere.
Three songs are featured from the 1980 release -- Half-Mute; the album where Tuxedomoon first displayed the unique and diverse sound, with which they would henceforth be identified. "What Use" employs a groovy drummachine to generate the underlying rhythm for the sour and world-weary lyrics that the song's title promises; a saxophone adds extra texture and melody, as it lives a life of its own somewhere in the half-distance between the rhythms and vocals. "Tritone [Musica Diablo]" is a playful little piece, with a very self-important synth tune wandering over a musical landscape consisting of sequenced drumbeats and a virtuoso violin performance. "59 To 1" combines the sound of the earliest songs with a 'ticking' percussion track and saxophone harmonics. The odd title of the piece is explained by the lyrics: "59 to every one second/ of misery."
The 1981 album -- Desire (one of their very best) -- is represented with two songs, or, more accurately three. The ten minute long musical adventure: "East/Jinx" begins with a slow violin motif that is gradually complemented by a bass, a 'circus'-organ, and a saxophone; each instrument playing a variation of the original motif. At length, a salsa rhythm kicks in, and "Jinx" takes its beginning, where "East" leaves off. The seductiveness of the salsa-beats is amplified by the addition of a very beautiful violin theme, as well as a number of different wind instruments entering and exiting the song. The vocals initially run counter to the playfulness of the music by descending into some rather morbid reflections, but then, as if smitten by the over-all mood, the vocals follow along with the music -- in mood, if not in spirit. "Desire" plays like an aural collage. The vocals fluctuate between song and speech, with a chorus of whispering voices blurting out statements that connect associationally with the lyrics: "I'd like to be a pillar of strength in my community;" "Live a thousand lives by picture. . ." A droning rhythmbox, a cranky guitar, and a rising and falling saxophone add to the already saturated collage.
From Suite En Sous Sol, "The Cage" and "L'Etranger" are included. An acoustic piano accompanied by slow, weighty synth strings introduce "The Cage," which is basically a clever little song about the inherent hypocrisy of fancy night clubs. The song at one point breaks into a short absurd exchange of dialogue between two individuals in a club, the first party successively offering the second a drink and a cigarette, the second party replies that he does not drink or smoke, but as the first party points out -- to the mild bafflement of the second, he is already holding a drink and a cigarette in his hands. "L'Etranger" is unquestionably one of Tuxedomoon's greatest songs. The lyrics play like a fictional biography of Albert Camus and/or his protagonist of The Stranger. A proper middle-eastern atmosphere -- or Algerian, as the case may be -- is created through the use of a number of string and percussion instruments, over which a melancholy and very beautiful violin theme plays. The lyrics are more narration than song, as the "I" of the song confesses the circumstances in his childhood that has made him what he is -- "It isn't my fault. . ." the refrain goes. Towards the end of "L'Etranger," the vocals break into a straight recitation of the famous opening lines of The Stranger; first in French, then in English: "Mother died today, or maybe yesterday. . ."
"Some Guys," "In A Manner Of Speaking" and "The Waltz" are taken from the great album Holy Wars (1985). "The Waltz" is a jazzy, brassy instrumental theme that at times echoes Bernard Hermann's score for Taxi Driver. The other two tracks both feature internal monologue type vocals vaguely reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. "Some Guys" nicely weaves such instruments as accordion, synths, bass and drums together, and the theme constantly develops and wanders into new territory. The vocals leap between English and French, and has a very cosmopolitan air about them -- some may remember this song as featured on the soundtrack for Wim Wenders' 1987 masterpiece: Der Himmel Uber Berlin/Wings Of Desire. Winston Tong's weeping vocals are featured on "In A Manner Of Speaking." It is another central Tuxedomoon song that explores the insufficiency of language to express deep emotion. The musical side is minimal but poignant, with an acoustic piano seamlessly transforming into a reverberating guitar riff; in the background someone whistles the theme in melancholy fashion.
Dominated by a host of Latin rhythms and a number of brass instruments, "Atlantis" (from Ship Of Fools), is a happy sounding impression of being on a cruise-ship to Atlantis. "You" likewise is joyful; here the richly textured sound-picture creates a carnival-like atmosphere (but then again this is a Christmas Mix), replete with melodic loops and female chorus. At times the song sounds like the soundtrack for a picnic with Donald Duck, but the sincere vocals -- ". . .You are the scale by which I measure my own strength" -- pull it all together, and make "You" an appropriate celebratory finale to this compilation.
Solve Et Coagula is a good introduction to Tuxedomoon's rich output, but it is far from exhaustive. This compilation could easily have been a double- or triple-CD, and one can only hope that all of their releases soon will be more readily available.