Are Tapes ‘n Tapes just a flash in the pan? Their 2006 debut The Loon exploded into being with copious amounts of shrapnel that we joyously stood in the path of. Released on the band’s own label Ibid, it was the kind of ramshackle, rough-cut affair, abstract and angular, awaiting its seat alongside feted works by underground giants Pavement, the Pixies, et al. Needless to say, it got many a blogger’s tongue wagging. All of which inevitably threatened to bury Josh Grier’s outfit six feet under before it had the chance to screw up with whatever followed. But there turned out to be plenty of life yet. The chance to make an underwhelming sophomore album was gleefully seized upon, with the band outgrowing their homely basement-cum-recording studio for the stately trappings of label XL.
But despite the hired talents of uber-producer and ex-Mercury Rev bassist Dave Fridmann, the resulting album—Walk It Off—smacked of “sell out”. The band’s lovingly piquant edges were rounded off and buffed, the visceral eccentricity of The Loon reined in as if it were an errant child rather than an idiot savant. Consequently, the sound was beefier and less nimble. And if Walk It Off ever teetered on the edge of barmy, as in “Blunt”, it sounded like a pounding hangover from The Loon with road works going off. The album accordingly went on to receive a lukewarm reception, and the band was coaxed into a period of relative inactivity—given up for dead by some—before they decided to resurrect Ibid and recapture the buzz from the grassroots.
In the run up to Christmas 2010, for instance, the group held a contest on their website that encouraged fans to support them in concert. By sending in some proof of a ticket purchase to the listed email address, 250 lucky persons received a humble little cassette of Tapes ‘n Tapes’ third and latest album, Outside, autographed and branded with unique artwork created by the band members themselves.
Back in 2006, the NME went so far as to cast Tapes ‘n Tapes as synonymous with ‘indie’. Outside, being the band’s first recognition of this laurel since their heyday, has Greir—and occasionally Peter Katis of Interpol fame—firmly back in the driver’s seat, and even on the production panel. But you probably wouldn’t know it from listening to Outside. It has all the lustre of Walk It Off. While this accomplishment is ordinarily a good thing, the shambling quirkiness of The Loon, accompanied by images of the band as self-producing novices with a bunged up cassette recorder, is why we paid attention to Tapes in the first place. But Tapes 2.0 has clearly moved on.
The band now endows their craft with a semblance of cohesion, strung together by chronic brooding over an unrequited love. Surprisingly, the stage on which they choose to play out their drama is stadium-sized. “Badaboom”, which really does kick off in onomatopoeic style with its off-kilter percussion, ushers in a Kings of Leon largeness with its Edge-like guitar work booming around some vast expanse, while Greir’s wretched voice claws to the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, the plaintive “Desert Plane”, with its tribal drumming and searing guitar, weds Echo and the Bunnymen with Interpol, another band with grandiose ambitions.
But you don’t get more grandiloquent—this side of prog, anyway—than the crashing denouement. “Hidee Ho” begins with Greir’s voice flirting away with a slide guitar. The peace doesn’t last long, though. There is an eventual upping of momentum and decibels until a roof-raising pandemonium ensues, with Greir firing up his lungs, ejecting inaudible salutations, and generally losing it. “On and On”, which sounds like the Chemical Brothers circa Surrender on really slow mo, also descends into mindless chaos. Finally, “Outro”, an under-three-minute instrumental at the album’s halfway mark, is brought to a roaring halt by a bravado display of interlocking guitar solos and drummer Jeremy Hanson choking on his own adrenaline. Suffice to say that the urgency found so wanting on Walk It Off is back like an invading army.
Is the histrionic version of Tapes ‘n Tapes preferable to the quirky, knowingly indifferent Tapes? If The Loon had plenty to distract us from Greir, he now makes an upstanding frontman. His bleeding heart, scotch-sodden vocals are a gift to tunes like “Nightfall”; when he wails “No holidays, no weekend stays, no conversations please” in his dithering over ending a relationship, you damn well believe him.
Nonetheless, despite its polish and mood swings, Outside confirms the fear that Tapes ‘n Tapes just aren’t that exciting anymore. Where surprises once lurked at the point a certain frail guitar line turned the corner, and glockenspiels were paired with thundering bass and jazzy riffs, now we have broad strokes for a big stage that are made neither pleasantly peculiar by simple-minded lyrics or cacophonous endings. The conviction with which the band revived their indie cred just isn’t in any way matched by their music. Some of the worst moments don’t even belong in the stadium rock blueprint: the folky “One in the World” sounds like the Fratellis at their risible worst.
So, yes, Tapes ‘n Tapes are a flash in the pan. And a free cassette is scarcely a consolation prize.