[3 September 2008]
From their first demo, Woo!, up until their second LP, 2006’s Bottoms of Barrels, Omaha’s Tilly and the Wall have made uninhibited, childlike glee their calling card. That’s not too surprising when you consider the band’s hook: a tap-dancer in lieu of a drummer and its lineage, having been formed by veterans of the Saddle Creek scene. Over the course of two albums and a littering of singles, Tilly and the Wall have ably proven that a tap-dancing percussionist can be more than just a gimmick and that the incestuous Omaha scene can produce catchy, upbeat pop just as easily as it churns out lo-fi mope-pop, weepy Americana, and angsty post-hardcore. That said, there comes a time in every band’s career when it’s forced to prove that it’s more than just a one-trick pony. While some bands rise to this occasion, most bands stumble, at least initially. Unfortunately, for all their charms, Tilly and the Wall are no exception to this rule.
At first blush, Tilly’s officially untitled third full-length (informally referred to as O), seems to stay the twee course set by previous Tilly releases. “When I was young I used to sleep out in the garden / Wait to sneak in / When the house grew quiet,” lead vocalist Neely Jenkins sings on opener “Tall Tall Grass”. “Now that I’m grown I can’t seem to find it / There is no tall, tall grass / For me to hide in”. A longing to reconcile childish desires with adult needs has permeated Tilly’s work from the start and the song’s earnestly strummed acoustic guitar and sugary sweet three-part harmonies fit in quite nicely with the rest of the band’s oeuvre. By the time we’ve reached the chorus, our protagonist has found a suitable substitute for the grass’ comforting embrace. “When there wasn’t anywhere for me to go/Oh, I stumbled into deep love with you, Rock and Roll”.
Before we can get too comfortable, however, the opening track’s muted tones give way to the unprecedented “Pot Kettle Black”, the album’s first single. The song opens up not with the sound of tapping shoes but rather, with a chorus of stomps and handclaps that sound more like an army on the move. From there, a grimy, bluesy riff leads the way into a snotty garage rock verse that sounds tailor-made for a Gap commercial. “I bet you think we didn’t know / Didn’t even see the tides change”, Kianna Alarid yelps in a disarmingly mature tone as cymbals crash in the foreground. Eventually we arrive at the chorus, which finds a predictable mix of power chords, keyboards, and drums providing a bouncy backdrop for the sing-along refrain: “Pot kettle, pot kettle, black! / Talk that, talk that smack!” While the song is catchy, if fairly disposable, it’s sorely lacking the quirky charm for which Tilly and company are known, with the exception of a gossipy breakdown full of heel taps and handclaps. Amid what sounds like a playground drill squad, the girls let loose a string of sexist epithets (“What a ho, what a tramp, what a slut!”). My Tilly… how you’ve grown.
Despite its name, “Cacophony” brings a return to the tried and true Tilly formula: tapdancing, piano, and a whole lot of three part harmonies. “Jumbler” succeeds on similar terms, exploiting Tilly’s percussion abilities to their fullest and even featuring a bit of Derek Pressnall’s nasally vocals—good news for anyone who enjoyed his Flowers Forever album earlier this year. “Chandelier” and “Dust Me Off”, meanwhile, both play to the band’s strengths while incorporating new sounds: shoegazey guitars on the former and Cars-esque synths on the latter.
Like an adolescent trying on different styles or personalities, O finds Tilly and the Wall stuck between a comfortable past and an uncertain future. On the album’s strongest songs, the band displays a strong sense of self, infusing their previous sound with unexpected sonic twists and turns. On the weaker songs, however, they betray their core aesthetic, adopting attitudes and sounds that make them sound disingenuous at best and at worst, like self-conscious poseurs. This isn’t too surprising considering that Tilly and the Wall have stuck with one style of songwriting since the start; now mostly in their 30s, you can’t blame the band’s members for wanting to distance themselves a bit from the precious, childlike songs they made their name on. So here’s the question: can Tilly and the Wall explore adult topics with the same emotion, sensitivity, and exuberance that they’ve displayed when singing about childhood? Hopefully they’ll grow out of this awkward adolescence and we’ll all get to find out.