Pioneers in performance-oriented synthesizer music, Tuxedomoon started out in San Francisco at the very beginning of that city’s punk upsurge, in 1977. The mercurial aggregate of musicians and artists later relocated to Belgium and became a leading light in the international post-rock avant-garde. Sidestepping the mistakes of many early synthesizer bands, Tuxmoon leavened their attack with sax and violin and were quick to integrate electronic percussion as a true substitute for real drums.
Prior to their Ralph records, Tuxedomoon had released singles and EPs on their own label. No Tears, a four-cut EP also known as New Machine, after its leadoff song, is an early new wave DIY effort, which sounds coyly dated but still exciting at the time of its reissue seven years later. It was immediately obvious that Tuxedomoon was a step apart from many other bands of the era. Winston Tong had been a mime, and brought a theatrical approach to singing; plenty of synths and electronic percussion (when they were still called rhythm boxes) dominate, violin gets some use and two of the songs exceed the five-minute mark. The succeeding Scream with a View (also four songs) is noticeably more art-damaged; itemization of instrumentation cites parallel thirds guitar, vocal concept, six-part doo-wahs and CB interference. In retrospect, this release makes obvious the direction in which they were headed.
Half Mute is a balanced assemblage of pop (“What Use?”), futuristic chamber music (“Tritone”) and impressionistic sound collages (“James Whale”). Desire is a generally unsatisfying follow-up, save for a sneaky parody of “Holiday for Strings” entitled “Holiday for Plywood.” Divine, the score for a Maurice Béjart ballet, jettisons the synth beat that makes their best work so attractive. A Thousand Lives by Picture is a compilation of tracks previously issued on Ralph.
By the time of Ship of Fools, only Principle and singer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Brown remained from the original lineup. Trading in clever humor for selfconscious artsiness (always just beneath the surface anyway), the LP falls flat on its face, especially on the second side, where the band proffers “pieces” rather than songs; titles include “A Piano Solo,” “Lowlands Tone Poem” and “Music for Piano + Guitar.” Flirting with both light jazz and 20th-century classical styles without getting much of a grip on either, the music is about as creative as the nomenclature.
You is a squeaky-clean, virtually bloodless record of meandering jazz-rock fusion with lots of mellow trumpet and sax riffs. Yuck. In “Never Ending Story,” we’re told “This is only the beginning of a long story that will take many more songs to tell.” I’m not sure if I’ve heard it before, but I’ll stop you anyway. Side Two introduces a Twilight Zone-style three-part yarn spoken with minimalist backing. Skip it.
Pinheads on the Move is a two-disc compilation dating all the way back to the band’s California beginnings (the title song was their first 45) and contains singles, B-sides, rehearsals, live tracks and jingles for radio programs. Most of the material and performances date from 1977-’79, and the lengthy liner notes (an excerpt from an Italian book about the band) provide an intensive history lesson.
Tuxedomoon continues to eschew the commercial success they likely could achieve; meanwhile, the members have undertaken many outside projects. Violinist Blaine L. Reininger, Tuxmoon’s co-founder, recorded Colorado Suite with Mikel Rouse of Tirez Tirez in 1984 as part of Crammed’s Made to Measure series. The four-track, 28-minute mini-LP of a performance piece is similar to Philip Glass in its bright timbre and repetitive motifs but lacks Glass’ technique of introducing changes so subtly that they’re barely noticeable. This suite goes for a little while on one riff, then another similar one, then another and so on, often with Reininger’s violin counterpoint dominating. Not a winner.
Reininger’s Live In Brussels 82-86 contains defensive, condescending liner notes and credits him with vocals, violin, keyboards, Captain Beefheart impersonations and snide comments. Okay. The sound — a well-played synthesized mélange, not dissimilar to early electro-pop … la Ultravox — only gets to be rough going when the vocals turn overly pretentious.
Book of Hours is an intelligent collection of songs driven by synths and guitars, but Reininger’s full-of-himself voice cancels out much of what’s in the plus column. An ill-advised cover of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” sounds more like a Las Vegas arrangement, and there are too many cuts with plodding tempos. Steve Brown of Tuxmoon guests.
Expatriate journals is a compilation of this prolific artist’s work, some of it good (“Birthday Song”), some of it weak (“El Paso” again), some of it indicative of a taste for Eurochic (“A Cafe au Lait for Mr. MXYZPTLK” and “Ralf and Florian Go Hawaiian,” a song about half of Kraftwerk on holiday). Overall, an admirable showcase for Reininger’s versatility.
About half of Sedimental Journey, bassist Peter Principle’s first solo record (also from the Made to Measure collection), is a video film soundtrack. The one-man show is stylistically similar to the off-center pop of the first two Tuxedomoon albums — lots of mild synth dissonance with found voices drifting around. Agreeable enough, but nothing the band hasn’t already accomplished.
Tong’s solo album, Theoretically Chinese, features an all-star cast, including New Order’s Steve Morris, ex-Magazine keyboardist Dave Formula, Jah Wobble, A Certain Ratio’s Simon Topping; then-Associate Alan Rankine produced. Although literary name-dropping under the guise of inspiration is a little annoying, working with a different cast suits Tong well. The LP combines artsy dance cuts with deliberate electronic tone poems; although Tong is sometimes strangely buried in the mix, he seems in control of the proceedings. A Eurodance version of Marianne Faithful’s “Broken English” concludes the album.