When most bands break up, or go through some kind of seismic lineup change as has befallen Tigers Jaw, it’s usually pretty messy. Canceled tour dates, bitter feelings and tarnished legacies rise like so much smoke from the ashes. For fans, there’s a sudden and jarring finality. The discography, as it exists at the time of the announcement, is suddenly all that remains of that group of people making music together. It can be heartbreaking.
Uniquely, Tiger’s Jaw’s original lineup disbanded, then proceeded to make Charmer. We now get to see what it’s like when five people go into the studio to create a record that, as of now, represents the end of their artistic output – full stop. Tigers Jaw will continue not as a five-piece band, but as a two-piece, featuring just Ben Walsh on guitars and vocals with Brianna Collins on keys and vocals. Naturally, this will put new limits on the sounds they can put out. Previous Tigers Jaw albums have been gravely, distortion-laden and guitar-driven affairs. Collins’ keyboard was all but imperceptible, and most (if not all) of the vocal work fell to Ben and Adam McIlwee.
So, is Charmer the last hurrah of the loud, frenetic mess of guitars and emo yells with male harmonies? Is it a transition piece that reflects the new sonic palette that’ll be in employ for future Tigers Jaw records? Actually, Charmer sets out to be both. What’s so surprising is that it pulls it off without feeling spread too thin or lacking identity. Charmer deftly moves the tried and true Tigers Jaw sound forward toward indie-pop without losing any of the emo conviction or punk grit and sincerity.
The result? Not just a good Tigers Jaw album. The best Tigers Jaw album.
Charmer opens with “Cool,” which sparkles with the same restrained, vulnerable punkish energy as prior releases and groans under the weight of more poetic, singable snippets like “It’s a cruel world / But it’s cool.” Next, on “Frame You”, the organ-like tones of Collins’ keys, clear and sterile, come through as a primary texture. This becomes a theme of the record. You’ll notice it a lot more here, which changes the aesthetic a bit, but not for better or worse. “Hum”, the third track and also the lead single, might be the moment that shows us what Tigers Jaw is capable of in future. Collins’ takes the lead vocal for the first time – and she’s enormously capable, bringing a clear and bell-like voice to contrast (fantastically) with the deep-yet-nasal ones of her co-singers. “Hum” explores the phenomenon of familiarity masking the toxicity of relationships.
Memories are taped on our walls
hung as a reminder
How easy it could be
when we weren’t growing apart
“Charmer” opens with big, echoey, Pixies-ish bass, dark and subdued, eventually inheriting that band’s loud-quiet-loud trope as well. The arrival at the final chorus here is exquisite. There are no shortage of sing/shoutable refrains on Charmer, Tigers Jaw’ calling card. “Nervous Kids” proffers that “We’re just nervous kids / we’re just …”, while Collins bemoans “I don’t wanna be lost like this anymore” on “Distress Signal”. “Slow Come On” is a painful lashing out against a frigid lover, with the brutal turn of phrase “So I don’t ever take your calls / ‘cause I don’t ever want them.”
The finale is the unusually-long, shuffle time “What Would You Do,” which is heavily the Smiths-inspired, or at least sounds like it. It’s the last song we’ll hear by Tigers Jaw as we know them, and you don’t want it to end – and at just shy of six minutes in length, it honestly seems like it won’t. There aren’t many emo jam sessions that deserve a runtime of that length, but this one is the exception.
Overall, Charmer never reaches the hectic punkishness of their self-titled record (probably their best up until now), but somehow maintains its passion and urgency. My only real quibble: the textures and effects applied to the guitars and keys – and, to be fair, this is typical of Tigers Jaw – are extremely similar on every song. There’s not a ton of range in color as the record progresses. That said, with the addition of Collins’ occasional lead vocal and presence on the keys being brought to the fore, this is still the most diverse Tigers Jaw record to date.
If you’re the kind of person who’s bored to tears by recent releases from the National and Real Estate, but enjoy rock with that kind of indie sensibility, Charmer could be the best thing you’ve heard all year. Armed with an urgent edge that arrives with fuzzy guitars, an indie softness that ebbs and flows across the album’s entire runtime, and the succinct moments of lyrical genius and vulnerability Tigers Jaw have always delivered, Charmer is 2014’s best emo record so far. This record is a brilliant end to the Tigers Jaw we’ve come to love – and signals good things for the Tigers Jaw that we’ll have going forward.