Every little cog of this great piece of indie-rock machinery is, of course, some PR person's wet dream.
In what I do when I'm not writing music reviews, we have a term for this: a "soft launch". It's when a small company releases a product onto the market without fanfare, to test the waters, so that they're more certain of a positive response before they sink a lot of expenditures into marketing. You don't think of this concept of the "soft launch" for music; it kind of goes against our idealistic (maybe overly idealistic) conception of music as art-form. But Tapes 'n Tapes' eminently listenable debut The Loon may be the closest we get to this idea.
Originally released last year and distributed by the band themselves, the disc hums with a combination of classic indie sounds and just enough dilettantism that's almost universally likeable. Sure enough, that inimitable arbiter of hype, the blog bandwagon, jumped all over the group, and they've scored a re-release through XL Recordings. The group doesn't have the star-power of Montreal's Wolf Parade, but the music will likely appeal to the same folk, though it's a little simpler, more melodic and accessible.
Let's get this gripe out the way early: every little cog of this great piece of indie-rock machinery is, of course, some PR person's wet dream: the home-made, DIY quality; the easily nameable indie-god references; the inscrutable words. And it's easy to count out the Minnesotan group's sound-likes (Pixies, Pavement) -- an impressive roster. I mean sure, I perked up the first time I heard the bit with "Harvard Square" in it, but on sober reflection, what does "I called your name like Harvard Square holds all inane" even mean? The appeal almost seems manufactured. And all the place names -- it's like they're saying, 'This is an Indie Rock Song' -- with its references to Oslo! Or Manitoba! And there's a song called "The Iliad" (not about the Iliad, as far as I can tell)! Not to burst the bubble, but sorry, until you've said "Reykjavik" in a song (like Lazy Susan) you're no indie god. But of course the key there is 'almost' manufactured. Just when you feel singer Josh Grier's smarminess grate, he warbles some sweet, cracked melody and there's no resisting.
The album's best songs refuse to let you dismiss them as standard indie rock fare. Among many melodies that stand the test of repetition, three hit best-of list heights: "Insistor", "Manitoba" and "Omaha". "Insistor"'s the one most blog-posted, with its countrified guitars, up-beat drums (one step removed from dance-rock) and surging chorus. The other two more ballad-based, "Manitoba" balling up from the disc's most gorgeous melody into a scuzzy bit of lo-fi campfire singalong; and "Omaha", all syncopated prettiness.
But as with anything built up off such disparate parts, there's some hit, some miss. "Crazy Eights" is a bit straight blues for too long to be anything but a passing enjoyment, and "In Houston" is a bit too in love with its own swirling harmonics to be completely tight as a song. The closer, "Jakov's Suite", really sounds like Green Day and it's an unexpected end to the disc.
But in the end, The Loon impresses despite its reputation; despite its occasional snark ("I've been a better lover with your mother", or the way Grier lisps when he pronounces the word "lisper"). 'Impresses' is almost the wrong, because The Loon is really likeable: here's a solid, solid debut with enough tunes to last the summer, at least.
Tapes 'n Tapes -- Insistor