Leave it to a set of identical twin lesbians to defy the banalities of the fem-rock stereotype. On So Jealous, their follow up to 2003’s If It Was You, Tegan and Sara allow their Lilith Fair roots to dissolve into their own unique breed of emocore and new wave revival and craft an album that is revolutionary in its identity politics if not entirely authentic in its sound. Neither effete folk rock nor vamped up riot grrrl, their bright and mercurial tunes glitter with ultra cool mechanical synth tones and rock old school with raucous lo-fi garage sneer. With songs that are smart, catchy, and achy without being overly effusive, the duo has the ears of the rock audience perked to a new sound and a new vision of women in music.
They say that behind every great man is an even greater woman, and yet the reverse is true for these young Canadian hipsters. Its hard not to miss the new wave influence of New Pornographers producers David Carswell and John Collins throughout the album, with the emphasis on a layered but spacious mix laden with synthetic beats and edgy guitars. In the role of obligatory celebrity cameo is Matt Sharp of Weezer and the Rentals fame, whose primordial emo energy is translated through a bit of Moog circuitry as his keyboard solos fail to obscure his own musical influences in Tegan and Sara’s awkward romanticism and high powered hooks. The man with perhaps the most influence, however, is the one who’s signature sound doesn’t come through the album, but whose musical soul most certainly does. That would be label patriarch Neil Young, whose open-hearted lyricism and cool rock and roll swagger is echoed in Tegan & Sara’s own rough-necked emotionalism. Ultimately, however, the women are in the driver’s seat, and their songs reflect a unique personal understanding of modern femininity that is neither sweet nor sexy, but mature, jaded, and riddled with contradictions.
Tegan and Sara write songs that are harmonically simple but musically rich, merging contrasts that tend to verge on seething diametrical oppositions. Songs like “I Can’t Take It” have the two singing “I’ve got nowhere to go / Don’t move so slow”, while the song itself moves at glacial speed, cautiously churning itself into an emotional frenzy of surging guitars and swooping electronics. The melodies are bright and catchy, yet the musical accompaniment is often ponderous, reminiscent of the ’60s “wall of sound”. “Fix You Up” feels like a direct Beatles quote with its bright vocal harmonies and heady lyrics with heart. Yet even when the band is at the height of what one might hesitantly refer to as happy jangly pop, they always have an eye to dark emotional honesty, and the lyrics tend to vacillate between cool detachment and fierce animus. Most tracks open with an underwhelming and unsurprising steel-toed beat, but the driving pulse underlying Tegan and Sara’s gritty, androgynous vocals crafts a not-so-subtle image of two women out for blood.
The album’s finest tracks find Tegan and Sara building up these musical contrasts and making the most of their identification with the new wave sound and its gender bending possibilities. The restraint of the new wave beats and the vaguely danceable intent they describe allow the two to be romantic without sounding soft, or in other words, to write lyrics drenched in metaphor without reeking of pretense. “Walking With a Ghost” is the premier example of these qualities, with its understated melody, enigmatic chorus, and hiccupping robotic swagger. Mysterious and seductive, the song’s anthemic quality defines the twins as avatars of changing youthful identities as well as poets of the postmodern era. A similar example is “Take Me Anywhere”, an exuberant ode to ambivalent puppy love that rivals any emocore with its soaring chorus and lo-fi vocal harmonies that are simultaneously beautiful and off-color.
Upon listening to Tegan and Sara’s latest album, it’s hard not to come away with the sense that one has just heard something completely new. Their unambiguous allusions to emo and new wave seem less like theft and more like thrift by using their cultural cache to construct their own identities and a musical niche. Emo and new wave are both song structures that have redefined male sexuality, either by opening up the idea of masculinity to include emotionalism, or by confronting the nature of manhood as it meets the challenge of the machine-age. Disillusionment and irony abound, but through the synthesis of gender and sexuality contradictions the music world can finally point to an example of self-made women unencumbered by the need to be sexual objects or vehicles of heterosexual female fantasies. Moving beyond the punk/diva dichotomy, Tegan and Sara are something more, and their music reflects a new feminine sensibility and style which cannot be summed up in their ascribed identities as women, lipstick lesbians, or side-show twins, but rather the loaded term that describes them best is perhaps the word sisters.