[8 April 2008]
Tapes ‘n Tapes may always struggle to outrun their influences. In 2006, the Minneapolis four-piece released The Loon, an itchy collection of lean indie rock ditties that, at most turns, eagerly referenced Pavement, the Pixies, and the Talking Heads. On first contact, its charms were nearly irresistible. The Loon brimmed with an underdog’s aplomb, as if, acting on a challenge, Tapes ‘n Tapes set out to prove their ironclad fealty to indie’s forebears. They were convincing to a fault. The album’s easy familiarity floated too close to the surface and was a nagging reminder of who Tapes ‘n Tapes aspired to be, and not who they really were. Inspiration trumped individuality.
On their mixed bag of a follow-up, Walk It Off, a different kind of influence plays on Tapes ‘n Tapes, namely in the form of indie rock’s stand-by producer, Dave Fridmann. The ex-Mercury Rev bassist has molded the work of Phantom Planet, Mogwai, Sleater-Kinney, and the Flaming Lips, with many encountering his fetish for shaggy, expansive fuzz. He prefers pop that crackles and explodes (few albums rival The Soft Bulletin and its ability to loudly unravel and then gleamingly reassemble soon after). So, of course, the recognizably small-scale rock of Tapes ‘n Tapes was autumn-ripe for a left-field revamp. Enter Fridmann and his tempting weirdness.
Fridmann rarely trades in subtlety, though. With a touch so overt, he can end up straddling that curious line between producer and unofficial, add-on member of the group he’s guiding. Some Loud Thunder, the Fridmann-helmed second release from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, is the pudding’s proof (among others). Whereas their self-produced debut offered crisp and strangely poignant mood-pop, Thunder was cracked and caterwauling, with much of the band’s emotion apparently buried in the prevailing onslaughts of fuzz. The handiwork of Fridmann was as evident as Alec Ounsworth’s trilling, underwater moan.
His presence on Walk It Off is unmistakable: guitars often fuzzily pound away, rhythms reverberate where they once plugged along, and the vocals of lead singer Josh Grier arrive caked with distortion more than before. To their credit, Tapes ‘n Tapes didn’t settle for a cosmetic touch-up of The Loon. They upped the ante and recruited Fridmann, a la Clap Your Hands. But their gamble only brings sporadic gains and certainly no leap forward.
The Clap Your Hands comparison continues. In both instances, the thickness of Fridmann’s style overpowers a key attribute of the respective band. CYHSY sacrificed the richness of their woozily beating heart to the whims of Some Loud Thunder‘s maelstrom. On Walk It Off, Tapes ‘n Tapes at times bypass their skill for controlled, linear songwriting in favor of more sound and more tangents. It’s a problem of proportion. Tapes ‘n Tapes perform to their strengths in a balanced state while Fridmann’s inclination is to move pop off its center. Both are active on Walk It Off, but one carves out a deeper, less rewarding impression.
The album leads promisingly. “Le Ruse” and “Time of Songs” are a skillful one-two punch, each exercising measured progression and a directness that are undersupplied on the whole. Propelled by the snap of Jeremy Hanson’s compact drum-work, “Le Ruse” steadily accrues speed and bulk and, near its close, cashes them in for a hit of squelchy guitars. The surging bridge, though, doesn’t divert the song’s natural flow. “Time of Songs” is a tighter display of restraint, more content to be subdued. Hanson, again the standout, monitors the groove with a shivering, military roll of percussion and holds off a forced climax. Critically, Fridmann doesn’t suffocate either song. He supplies nibbling texture to what might have been more polished strummers, a la The Loon.
Deeper into Walk It Off, Tapes ‘n Tapes go hazardously widescreen with their sound, ratcheting up the excitable fuzz while shedding their former ear for progression. The added heft can provide a distracting, even if lively, rush. At worst, it’s plainly grating. On the temperamental “Headshock”, Fridmann’s rumbling, storm-cloud effects bog down Grier’s vocal and mute the color that its sonics should emit. Further along, “Demon Apple” is all drunken, dirty blues-rock that staggers around deaf to its own overwrought rhythm. The album reaches its apex of excess with “Blunt”, an almost sinisterly-delivered garage thrasher. It smacks of Slanted and Enchanted-era Pavement but without the knowing humor that Stephen Malkmus undoubtedly would have affected. Amidst the screeches and crashes, Grier plays it straight, leaving the overkill unexplained.
This is too common on Walk It Off, when Tapes ‘n Tapes, clearly swayed by Fridmann, unleash swarms of sonic debris. They don’t match the noise to a cause greater than its own noisiness. Their songs simply don’t make you feel anything (the somberly trotting “Omaha”, off The Loon, might be an exception while “Insistor” is still little more than a blustery wind). With Grier’s vocal often opaque and his lyrics full of hipster non-meaning, Walk It Off communicates only through the reach of its buzzing instrumentation. And the language it speaks is not one of resonance.
Tapes ‘n Tapes still can charm, though, in ways that recall The Loon and almost increase its stature by association. “Conquest” shimmies blissfully to jaunty, warm-weather hooks and a galloping rhythm. It’s too innocuous in the end, but it doesn’t demand much in return. “Say Something Back” and “George Michael” are both pleasant near-misses, lightly rumbling tunes that boast a fetching, if inconstant, appeal.
Regardless of success level, they’re scaled-back songs that don’t bear the pressure of Fridmann’s flourishes. They’re small constructions, and Grier and the rest seem comfortable inhabiting them. But, for the third of Walk It Off that Fridmann excessively toys with, his new underlings aren’t there enough. His shadow conceals their star. Tapes ‘n Tapes need to cast off the weight of these influences and come into their own.