Tub Ring’s follow-up to 2004’s Zoo Hypothesis is one of those discs that’s less a full-blooded successor to a critically under-rated album than a kind of distant half-brother, just stopping in for a drink or two while he’s passing through town. Sure, you don’t mind the company and he’s good for a quirky story or a bizarre joke. But there are no deep bonds, no revelations, no mind-blowing observations.
Such is the fate of the between-projects B-side collection, whose colorful assortment of flotsam and jetsam can become a die-hard fan’s wet-dream in their finest moments and semi-disposable after-thoughts in their worst. While Tub Ring’s latest offering falls closer on the spectrum to the former, it’s not rushing to stake its claim as a major contribution to the group’s catalog. And maybe it doesn’t need to do so.
Optics & Sonics, whose running time clocks in around three hours, is nothing if not exhaustive. You get your share of demos, remixes and second glances (the Zoo Hypothesis interlude “The Night Watch” gets slapped around with a grunting choir and bittersweet strings), as well as noteworthy compilation contributions like “2Minus3.” The band offers up both its frenetic patchwork of Mr. Bungle-inspired punk/punk-pop and unexpected, eclectic fare like the country-and-western romp “One Piece At A Time” or the flapper-fueled 78 RPM jazz of “Farnsworth Road.”
When you’re done with 12 songs on the first disc, you can skip to the second, sifting through a DVD packed with MTV-ready videos (“Habitat” — again, Zoo Hypothesis), “documentary” tour footage, puzzles and oddball features like a custom-made Atari-style video game. Some of the material invites repetitions. Some of it’s less than impressive. (I’ll leave you to decide where handheld footage of band members tricking a drunk fan into sampling someone’s urine belongs.)
All in all, though, the disc’s brightest moments shine pretty brightly. “2Minus3,” which kicks off “Sonics,” is classic Tub Ring: all distorted samples, burping synths and turntable scratches behind a wall of grinding guitars and distorted Middle Eastern scales. “Panic The Digital” gets under your skin when Kevin Gibson, after posing the poignant question “Can we scare ourselves/ to the brink of death?” starts barking “Panic! Panic! Panic! Panic!” to the crunch of the group’s rhythm section. (The answer, one’s led to believe, is “Yes.”)
The remainder of the CD’s an interesting dance between passive and aggressive extremes. The scathing “The Emperor’s Song” goes right for your throat. Two songs later, the anger’s more contained as the band applies a poppy lacquer to the chorus-friendly “All The Rules Have Changed.” “The Dockyards,” all swelling keyboards, gauzy horns and torch-singer harmony, hits all the right marks. The melodramatic techno contortions of “Greenest of Stages” does not.
“God Hates Astronauts,” when compared to the songs that opened the disc, is downright sleepy, an unexpected way of ending the disc with a sedative and a glass of milk instead of a riot and a Molotov cocktail. But, then again, those expecting Tub Ring to play entirely to expectations aren’t the group’s intended targets. And that might say as much about this off-handed but engaging odds-and-ends release as the group’s direction as it works toward its next project.