Tusks is a one-woman outfit led by vocalist and producer Emily Underhill from London UK. Performing since 2014 with an ethereal set of ambient effects and haunting vocals, she is now following up years of work with a major release Dissolve – a ten-song album which came out ominously last month.
Although Dissolve is a fresh album, the tracks itself have been circulating, some already for years. Many titled tracks such as ‘For You’ were out in 2015, and others slightly more recently like ‘Toronto’ last March. They are available on Youtube, many with official videos. Additionally, the viewership of the dance remixes of Tusks work surpasses most of the original tracks. The house group ‘Submotion Orchestra’ made a remix for the Tusks track ‘False’ which currently has around six hundred thousand views. Underhill’s emotionally poignant vocals – combined with subtle yet effective ambient backing textures – seems to make the music easily lend itself to that extra dose of bass and rhythm.
The style of music itself has been compared to 80s indie pioneers like The Durutti Column or Cocteau Twins.(1) Indeed, the level of synth and distortion on some tracks like ‘Last’ or ‘Paris’ to really evoke a bit of a retro feel, without to say, the sentimental echoing strings of ‘Dissolve.’ However, the overall slow, unfolding and emotionally boiling tone of Underhill’s songs, especially ‘Toronto’ or ‘False’ seem more comparable to contemporary acts like Adna or Daughter. The formula of a lone guitar lick, accompanied by a single vocal verse building tension, and then a chorus/second verse with the full band set kicking in is fairly standard in a lot of the genre today and those tracks off Dissolve> fit in very snugly.
That being said, the overall feel of the album contrasted to these contemporaries is much darker and more brooding. While Adna or Daughter flutter between cloudy and blue skies with the odd extra instrumental punch, Underhill’s songs are strictly for rainy days. Distorted, somber songs that hit with the occasional clap of some heavily dissonant thunder. ‘Last’ especially evokes a kind of hurricane of overlapping synthesized vocals, bringing the listener into a calm of the storm then throwing them back out again. The title track ‘Dissolve’ brings a similar layered approach to the building of Underhill’s ethereal voice in the chorus.
Yet for all the production’s aesthetic beauty and texture, I cannot help of recall that maxim in art that ‘less is more:’ the degree of sound manipulation on these songs seems to take away from the overall effect. The style on ‘Dissolve’ reminds me of an anecdote about Beth Gibbons of Portishead, where she would often over-distort her voice for the band’s work until producers insisted on just the simple thing itself for the balance of the song. It’s a balance any artist needs to strike with an arsenal of technology at their fingertips, and fans of textured, finessed soundscapes will doubtless find no shortage on Dissolve. Personally, I was a bit overwhelmed, longing for the simplicity that would compliment the emotional poignancy of the songs.
Were the work veers away from both the guitar-lick-buildup formula, and this heavily distorted brooding style, is in my opinion where the artist really shines. ‘Ivy’ sticks out as the most evocative showcase of Underhill’s talent in a very simple, yet touching ballad. It’s pure songwriting, and simple vocal power go straight and yank the heartstrings, without the same level of over-production on voice that you’ll find on other tracks. Remixes already exist for this track, but compared to the other Tusks-takeoffs, the added noise from ‘Throwing Snow’ seem to just obscure and take away from the essential heavy-hitting meat of the song.
Emily Underhill is likely a name you’ll only hear more of as time goes by, and as her star continues to rise it will be exciting what she continues to write, produce and publish in the future. You can follow the band and learn about future tour dates online at either their official Facebook page, or band website.
Review – David Loach