From self-imposed humble beginnings, Minnesota's Tapes 'n Tapes have made it in the indie biz rather quickly with this, their proper XL debut. Singer and principle songwriter Josh Grier first had 'tapes and tapes' of strange songs improvised with a roommate, none of which would see release. Then the name became a joke with the full band's original trio: one guy was Tape 1, another guy Tape 2 and the third guy was the 'n. The original trio recorded their debut EP themselves in a Wisconsin cabin in three day's time. With 2005's The Loon, they took what must have seemed like a relaxed pace with two weeks in a basement -- with new drummer Jeremy Hanson -- and with someone other than themselves manning the boards. That guy was Erik Applewick, who has since been added to the band taking over on bass from Shawn Neary, and Matt Kretzmann on keys, making the group a foursome. Thanks to the buzz surrounding that album and their live gigs, the band got picked up by XL who re-released The Loon. Now with a big name -- Dave Fridmann (best known for producing the Flaming Lips) -- at the helm, they took a lifetime of THREE weeks to bring their sophomore album to the world.
I'm a fan of Fridmann's work, and he played a part in helping Clap Your Hands Say Yeah get even weirder with last year's Some Loud Thunder. Has he had any effect on Tapes? Grier told Pitchfork that they weren't going to give into indulgences in the studio and just get songs right and move on. Opener "Le Ruse" makes Fridmann's production presence known immediately with the help of this balls-out song. The crunchy distorting cymbal attacks are a Fridmann trademark (prevalent on The Woods) and they blend with the overall nature of the track, which transitions nicely to 6/8. "Conquest" has tons of room in the mix and reverb on the guitar, making the band sound much bigger than the bedroom rock of their birth. By the time the chorus kicks in it's the band we know, with a driving tom-heavy beat, buzzing square-wave synths and a catchy vocal. Grier's voice on "Blunt" is distorted and kinda buried, and when the song breaks down to an ultra-fuzz rock-out, you have to think Fridmann had a hand in taking that tune to the next level. But for the most part, I think the change in the band's sound is just the result of being in a proper studio with an experienced guy. It's definitely brought the rock to the proceedings, without bringing in any gospel choirs or string quintets.
"Hang Them All" goes from minor key verses to a stomping Modest Mouse prechorus ("Are you gonna tow that line?") with tasty organ lines. What appears at first to be the chorus -- a breakdown and major key shift with the title sung gloriously with organ doubling -- turns out to be a coda. It's a tease that this awesome jam only happens once in the song, which ends prematurely before the three-minute mark. I guess it gives the song replay value -- better than chorus overkill. "Time of Songs" is a subdued and spare reverb-heavy track with a kick-ass bassline that acts as a countermelody. It reminds me of Wolf Parade, a connection I never would have made with any songs from Loon.
The band was never confined to specific sound, and I never fully agreed with the Pavement and Pixies comparisons piled on The Loon. Just because they play 'indie rock' and are difficult to pigeonhole beyond than that, they got lumped in with other gimmick-less indie rock. Their debut saw them fooling with polka-country on "Insistor," throwing in fake keyboard Latin percussion on "The Iliad" and just plain slop-rocking all over on "Cowbell," enough to even support a (basically) instrumental track, "Crazy Eights." So on Walk I was hoping for some silly tangents, and "George Michael" is an odd one in more than title alone. From a Bonham-style-swing drum intro to the brass chords and the chiming electric piano (throw in an atonal guitar solo for good measure) and there you have it. Closer "The Dirty Dirty" has an odd bass and drum intro that has a weird topsy-turvy feel because the hihat does a quarter-note triplet thing, making it feel like the they're doing two time signatures simultaneously. It's funky in an awkward way, yet still the most epic tune the band has attempted with its near six minutes of rock. But I feel overall that Tapes have actually confined their sound more here, and there's nothing that could be called silly.
One thing that keeps me from fully attaching myself to this album is the lack of quote-able lyrics. Grier admits that the lyrics come last, and in an '06 Pitchfork interview he went as far as saying "The whole idea is to have words that don't detract from the music, but hopefully will enhance it." Now I'm not a freak for lyric analyzing or anything, but there's an increased unintelligible nature in the vocals here, and for me it's hard to fully grab onto songs you can't sing along with. "Hang Them All" rules, and I dig the "Where did all the money go?" lines from "The Dirty Dirty." Other than that I'm not picking up much.
The former blogosphere darlings could be considered veterans in this current mindset of 'find the next big thing first,' with a whole TWO full-lengths and an EP to their name. The band is rocking harder than ever and the professional production does them well, but part of their charm was the DIY try-anything nature of previous work. I wouldn't call this a sophomore slump, though they didn't exactly hit it outta the park. I still stand by 'em and think Walk It Off will still hold its own against 2008's best.