In the past several years, Tunng has evolved from a studio-only, sound-pasting, melody-loving experiment, into a full-fledged band. With this, their third album, core members Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders have integrated their six-person touring ensemble more fully into the creative process. As a result, the main descriptor that has haunted Tunng's earlier work – folk-tronica – is no longer very relevant. There are still folk elements in the melodies. The band remains enamored of the occasional sampled embellishment. But really, with Good Arrows, they've become an electro-pop outfit. Where before, misty guitar picking and delicate harmonies morphed into glitchy synthesized beats, now the whole enterprise feels more bouncy, catchy and immediately accessible. Compare, for instance, "Fair Doreen" from Mother's Daughter with "Bullets" from the new album. "Fair Doreen" might be an outtake from a Fairport Convention session; "Bullets" has the lilt and percolating beat of a Junior Boys song.
This is not a bad thing at all. "Bullets,” in particular, is a very fine song, happy on its surface and shadowy underneath. Lone piano chords anchor each line at the start, their melancholy seeping into declamations such as "We're catching bullets in our teeth / And though it's easy when you know how it's done / They split the secret up six ways before they gave it to us just before dawn / And now we don't remember." Yet the song picks up shortly after and begins to trot almost jauntily, alternating piano chords and loose change, with four-four bass drums pacing the melody. The song is infectious, the sort of thing you find yourself humming unconsciously. Like all good pop, it suggests multiple meanings and moods but doesn't quite give away the answer. You would never tag the song as folk, though, and only the most careful listen turns up anything that feels overtly electronic.
The songs all have simple, one-word titles – "Bricks," "Soup,” "String" and "Secrets" – and if there's a connective story that ties them together, it's not readily apparent. Yet these cuts do lead readily into one another; there's a musical arc to them, if not a lyrical one. "Take," the first cut, emerges out of field recordings, with oddly tuned dulcimer notes giving way to acoustic power chords. The vocals are feathery light and locked in minor-key harmonies, male and female, layered, contrapuntal, mysterious and mournful. Yet there's a clopping, horse-cart rhythm at the bottom of the track, something that keeps it from really folky. "Soup" opens with a sampled music box and a distant, static radio voice, guitar and glockenspiel picking out pristine chord patterns. It seems headed towards the old Tunng paradigm of mutated folk prettiness, yet mid-way through, a group shout and an electric guitar solo explode these expectations into smithereens. And what do say about the brief, very odd "Spoons," apparently about an assignation, but ending with a woman's voice murmuring, "How your tiny hands played with my bosoms."
Good Arrows is very different from Tunng's previous albums, with denser, more rhythmic arrangements and a sharp turn away from conventional folk forms, and while though these differences jump out immediately, the similarities come through, too. Here are very lovely songs, tempered by oblique though evocative lyrics; here are rustic landscapes juxtaposed with computer sounds and eccentric field samples; here is violence couched in the gentlest possible terms. Getting a good grip on these songs, is perhaps, a bit like catching bullets in your teeth, "It's hard to do, but they're so sweet."