Tegan and Sara Quin’s debut album from 2000, This Business of Art, wasn’t overly spectacular, but it was pleasant enough to warrant attention from many listeners who first discovered them when they opened for such artists as Neil Young and Rufus Wainright. The 21-year-old twin sisters from Calgary, Alberta aren’t ashamed to display their devotion to feminist folk icon Ani DiFranco for all to see, and that first album sounded little more than a tribute to DiFranco, and if it weren’t for some excellent production work by Hawksley Workman, Tegan and Sara would have been dismissed as just another Lilith Fair spin-off act. So, when it came time to record their crucial follow-up album (insert tired sophomore jinx cliché here), the duo had a choice to make, to either continue to appeal to the folkie crowd, or to do something a bit bolder.
If It Was You isn’t a shocking change in direction, but it’s a good enough change that has, potentially, a more broad appeal. Recorded with co-producers John Collins (who produced The New Pornographers’ Canadian indie classic Mass Romantic) and Dave Carswell (a New Pornographer himself), this new CD has more of an electric, pop/rock feel, and is louder and more upbeat than their previous effort. Tegan and Sara had a tendency to sound like dour teenagers on their first album (after all, they were teenagers), but If It Was You shows more maturity, more ambition, and less confrontation.
The pounding opening track “Time Running” immediately lets you know this is a different Tegan and Sara record, the two-minute song’s urgency also reflected in the lyrics: “I’ve got more for the world than this / I’ve got love that I need to give.” “You Went Away”, with its jangly guitars, is two sweet minutes of infectious powerpop, while the equally catchy “Monday Monday Monday” describes a relationship that’s turned as bland as that day of the week (“Your house or mine / I don’t really care about it anymore / I close my eyes / I make myself unhappy so you’ll go”). “City Girl” is a lilting, emotional ballad that expertly dances the fine line between emotional and unbearable (“I cry so hard that you push me further away”) while evoking thoughts of Juliana Hatfield, and the easygoing “I Don’t Know” comes awfully close to Sheryl Crow territory. The raucous “I Hear Noises”, with its combination of twelve-string and distorted electric guitars, sounds influenced by Nick Lowe’s work, both as an artist and a producer, and the song’s Moog synth accents further enhance that circa-1980 feel.
Three songs on If It Was You stand above the rest, the best examples of the duo’s growing songwriting talents and the best combinations of their folk influences and their new, louder direction. The Britpoppy “Want to Be Bad”, with its combination of a shuffling drum beat, acoustic guitars, and ethereal electric guitar solo licks with an excellent vocal performance by Tegan (at least, I think it’s Tegan . . . they sound so much alike). According to their bio, “Under Water” was inspired by Sara’s attempt at writing a children’s book, and it possesses a real sing-song quality along with some more 12-string guitar (think The La’s), with its very pretty chorus of “All I need is time / Time to love you” and the odd facetious aside (“Your silly love songs / A bird’s chorus and such”). Tegan’s fun, bluegrass stomp of a song “Living Room” is the album’s catchiest tune, as she describes the view through a neighbor’s uncomfortably close window and the voyeuristic desire to keep staring: “My windows look into your bathroom / I spend the evening watching you get yourself clean / I wonder why it is they left this bathroom so unclean / So unlike me.”
It’s good to see that Tegan And Sara know the difference between singing an emotional song well and just trying too hard to get the message across; most singers their age simply beat a song to death with their vocal histrionics, ripping off Alanis Morrissette, et al, but these wisecracking sisters possess a maturity and easygoing feel that’s sorely lacking in the Young Female Singer/Songwriter subgenre. If It Was You doesn’t break new musical ground, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the more pleasant surprises to surface in recent months.