Dntel The Seas Trees See

The first of the year's two promised Dntel albums offers an intriguing glimpse into Jimmy Tamborello's sketchbook for Will Salmon

In ‘The Lilac And The Apple’, the opening track on the new Dntel album, a robotic voice croaks out the first few bars of an eerie acapella folk song. It's joined a few moments later by the far more human tones of Kate Wolf, the American singer-songwriter who originally wrote the song in 1977. The two singers – in fact both Wolf, processed, vocodered and time-stretched – duet with each other in uncanny harmony.

It's not the first time that producer Jimmy Tamborello has used such effects. His breakthrough 2001 LP, Life Is Full Of Possibilities, also warped and twisted the human voice to often searingly emotional effect. But there's something uniquely haunting about hearing Wolf – who passed away in 1986 aged just 44 – singing about the way that life carries on regardless, even if we’re not around to see it. It’s unsettling at first, but the song grows more moving and beautiful with every listen, her voice now a ghost in the machine.

If The Seas Trees See peaks with its first track, the rest of the album is still shot through with moments of quiet beauty in a similar electronic pastoral mode. There’s a bucolic tranquility to the burbling, aquatic synths of ‘The Seas’, while the sun-bleached clutter of ‘Back Home’ recalls Rounds-era Four Tet. ‘Fall In Love’ is joyful, a soft, shy serenade with the vocals warped to near abstraction, but you still get a sense of the meaning. 

Tamborello has referred to these tracks as a collection of “sketches” and that’s evident in a couple of places. A few of them don’t feel quite fully-formed, with the tape-worn piano of ‘Movie Tears’ and ‘What I Made’ both built around meandering loops that simply peter out. They’re unobtrusive ambient doodles, pleasant enough, but also fairly forgettable. ‘The Man On The Mountain’, meanwhile, is a spoken-word narrative that doesn’t add anything to the record aside from some nice sound design.

More interesting are the moments where he chucks a rock in the water to disrupt the calm. There’s nothing as energised as the skittering glitches of his last full album, 2014’s Human Voice, but ‘Whimsy’ sounds like the sort of stark electronic experiment you might find on a knackered LP from some forgotten 1970s music library, while ‘Hard Weather’ closes out the record on soaring synths worthy of M83.

The Seas Trees See is the first of two Dntel albums this year, with the second, Away, said to be more pop-influenced. That will likely appeal to fans of Tamborello's work with The Postal Service and may overshadow this entirely. That would be a bit of a shame. It’s a little ramshackle in parts, but this is a wide-ranging, evocative, and never-less-than intriguing glimpse into the producer’s sketchbook.

Review in The Quietus