Ambient soundscapes show real promise, but something’s missing
With a name like Jimmy Tamborello, one would expect the man behind Dntel to be a percussionist. But on Tamborello’s 2021 project The Seas Trees See, his tenth full-length release as Dntel, there’s hardly a kick or snare to be found.
That wasn’t always his style. Best known from his critically acclaimed glitch/IDM project Life is Full of Possibilities (2001), and as one half of the indie-pop collaboration The Postal Service, Tamborello has since transitioned into experimental ambient music. And like any experiment, there is the potential for things to go awry.
That’s unfortunately the case on The Seas Trees See. Dntel certainly plays with some interesting textures and soundscapes throughout the record, but without the luxury of a beat, he struggles to hold it all together.
One of the project’s bright spots is opener “The Lilac and the Apple (remix),” on which Dntel takes the word remix very seriously—the track is almost unrecognizable compared to the original version by iconic folk singer Kate Wolf. Wolf’s vocals are slowed, pitched down and layered with an unsettling android voice, and Tamborello adds some droning synths to the bare instrumental. It’s a fascinating way to flip a vocals-only folk tune into an electronic track that’s somehow creepy and brooding and heartbreaking all at once.
The other tracks on the project are all imbued with loose melodies that evoke a sense of whimsy, but none of them really achieve what “The Lilac and the Apple (remix)” does. “The Seas Trees See” is a pretty tune with its rippling xylophone tones, but it feels like more of a transitional track. “Whimsy” is intriguing at first with its odd slide whistle synths, but it gets old after a few minutes. “The Man On The Mountain” piques the interest with its storytelling format, but the story ultimately isn’t very good unless there’s some convoluted deeper meaning buried between the lines.
There’s a couple more high points on the next batch of tracks, though. “Back Home,” “What I Made” and “Fall In Love” all have a warm, organic quality to them with their lofi sound and woodwind accents, although they do overstay their welcome just a bit. Sandwiched between those three, the song “Movie Tears” comes the closest to matching the emotion of the opening track, as a lofi keyboard plays a beautiful melody that feels weighty and lonely. However, for the most part, the tracks are much too cyclical and repetitive to be compelling as compositions.
There’s no denying the production ability of Tamborello—his ability to coax out the most indescribable of sounds is impressive, and he definitely creates some memorable ones here. But when he puts everything together, the album seems to meander into repetition, and the sounds become drawn out.
It almost seems like Dntel tried to include too much nuance. There’s tons of neat little sounds and effects happening in the background of his mixes, but sometimes they aren’t noticeable enough to give the feeling of a changing, progressing song. The Seas Trees See has its moments, but it relies too much on its novel sound engineering and not enough on telling a story through the music.