Tilly and the Wall’s first album was titled Wild Like Children, and fittingly it was filled with stories of wild children — partying, rebelling, making out, falling down the stairs, falling in love, singing, dancing, and carrying on. The music sounded like it was made by wild children, too. With their resident tap dancer as percussion, they stomped and sang their hearts out, declaring that they will sing “pretty songs about love” as loudly and fiercely as they want to.
Their second album, Bottoms of Barrels, opens in the same territory, but its even more wild. Or, at least, their fuller, bigger sound makes it seem so, right from the opening track, “Rainbows in the Dark”. After playing one note on the instrument of yesteryear’s rebellion — harmonica — they yell out a count of four, Ramones style, and the furious tap dancing begins, followed by the reintroduction of this world of brave misfits, lost but life-hungry youth, with the first words: “I was kidnapped real young by the sweet taste of love”. The song quickly rolls through the whole continuum of events, from growing up to leaving home to the rat race and love and death and so on. In unison, the group’s three singers offer a litany of images –- “The newly born crying / Realizing what life is / The eyes of my grandfather / Right before dying” — presenting in one fell swoop Tilly and the Wall’s paramount concern: life, the movement of it and energy behind it. Or, as they put it more optimistically, “the stitching of beautiful seams”.
“Urgency”, the next song is titled, and that’s the perfect word for the feeling of the group’s music. Add it to the last album’s “Reckless” as a musical description. And throw in “Lost Girls”, the title of a gorgeous pop ballad midway through this album, as a subject matter description of the way their songs continually empathize with nonconformists who feel lost in the shuffle, while exemplifying those same characteristics. Theirs isn’t a paranoid, suspicious, or aggressive sort of urgency; it’s more like a dominant energy, hopeful yet rambunctious. And it’s not a recklessness born of boredom or petulance, but more like the desire of experience, of throwing yourself into life.
The group’s musical approach amplifies these feelings — especially the way the three vocalists sing and shout together, and in the tap dancer-led emphasis on percussion. Bottom of Barrels is especially percussive. Tap dancer Jamie Williams is even more present in the band’s sound than before, to great effect. Augmented by an army of handclaps, foot stomps, and other forms of percussion, and even a bit of drums on two tracks, her tapping serves as the steady voice of rebellious energy underneath even the slow songs. On the uptempo songs, the tapping is especially explosive, and the songs are especially on-fire because of it. Yet it’s not a one-dimensional technique — notice the flamenco tone of “Bad Education”, or the way Williams’ tapping softly augments the album’s saddest, quietest moments — and it’s certainly not a gimmick, but instead a key part of what makes Tilly and the Wall’s music unique.
A bass line, a few keyboard notes, singers’ voices, some feet touching the ground… these are the building blocks that Tilly and the Wall compose with. All of these components seem especially refined on Bottoms of Barrels, but they’re also helped by an assortment of other touches, each making their music fuller and richer. There are additional voices on three songs, in the form of a women’s vocal group from Omaha called Trip the Light Fantastic. There’s some gorgeous piano, taking center stage for the Pressnall-sung closing ballad “Coughing Colors”, but also present on other songs. There are some electronic beats that blend in nicely with the human-made ones. There’s also violin, bells, trumpet, accordion, saxophone, mellotron, slide guitar — much of it often falling together in a swelling wave of music. Yet they know too when to keep things stripped-down, when their sound should be small and not big.
Their careful yet in turns boisterous approach shows great sensitivity to the listener, an awareness of what sounds good together and what effect it creates. And those outcomes are always in service to the songs themselves, to these empathy-driven tales of misfits and rebels. “Oh pretty boy”, one song starts. “Girl, I know,” starts the next. The tone is always personal and direct, whether it’s a letter directed straight to a “you”, a story told in the third person, one in an autobiographical voice, or a group declaration of intent — i.e. “We’re taking our turn with the kids that don’t learn”.
In every case, the focus is on people, on people helping each other through tough times, or remembering good times they shared. None of these songs seem like fantasy, but instead more like experience, like life. “The Freest Man”, a plea to a friend to stop giving into demons, has a standout line — “I’ve been there too / And I swear to God / If I can help you please / You’ve got to tell me how” — which stands out because when you hear it you relate to it, and because that straightforward, heartfelt quality is representative of the whole album’s tone. In fact, that emotional line isn’t given any extra attention within the song, no melodrama; it’s not foregrounded as a tearjerker, it’s just part of the fabric.
“Black and Blue”, one of several vivid, detailed, and moving songs about love and/or friendship, leaves me with the image that keeps coming to mind to encapsulate the album overall. In a song about remembering how someone made you feel, about the connection between people, there’s a simple line that paints a picture of two people in a car, singing along to the Cyndi Lauper song on the radio: “When we are driving in our cars we will sing / If you’re lost and you look you will find me”. That image says much about what simple pop songs do for people, the way they serve individuals as reminders that they’re not alone in their awkwardness and fears, while also serving as bonding glue between people.
Of course, the other predominant mind-image for Bottoms of Barrels is an all-night party, which with its joyous mood and colorful textures the album is constantly reminiscent of. Bottoms of Barrels, then, is all about various sorts of human connections — and it’s also wonderful pop music, perfect for singing and dancing and forgetting your troubles and feeling an absolute connection with, like you’re truly being yourself when you listen to it.