Let’s reiterate something that has been written time and time again about Tapes ‘n Tapes: If you had told me in 2006 that Tapes ‘n Tapes were going to be the next big indie rock band, I’d probably finish the sentence before you could. Their debut, The Loon, was raucous but sweet, full of hooks and steeped in energy. I always felt that TnT did enough to assimilate their sound despite being heavily influenced by Modest Mouse, The Pixies, and Pavement. Their follow-up, Walk it Off, was the misfire of all misfires, however. The Loon’s momentum was totally killed, and they couldn’t even get the cheap “hey, we were good two years ago” credit. They were dead and everyone forgot about them. Luckily there were a few of us out there who kept The Loon in mind.
Walk it Off
got their nice XL record deal axed, and* got them totally passed over as a blooming band. Give TnT points for the self-awareness to realize their decline and retreat back to their original Ibid label and back to the basics by recording themselves. So five years after their debut took off, the band finds itself starting all over, and thus we have Outside. So yes, there’s a lot of Modest Mouse and Pavement again, and Josh Grier screeching, mumbling, and colliding into hooks, but there are also little pieces missing from every song that really start adding up over an album. It’s almost as if TnT knew, and tried to fill those spaces with keyboards and horns. The horns are absurd and useless, like on the disastrous “One in the World”. The song runs a start-stop melody in the ground with a mess of horns; I can’t imagine anyone liking that song and I’m not sure how it cleared with the band.
The Loon had a lot of rousing moments, like “Jakov’s Suite”, that were gloriously catchy bursts of rock n roll. Those moments are far too sparse on Outside, however. To steal some basketball terminology, there was better spacing on the first album. There were loud, fast songs, and slow ballad types, and slow ballad types that had loud choruses. But they were arranged in a way so that there was room to move around and each track could marinate in itself. It feels on Outside, however, the band is stuck in one gear and ultimately the album suffers from suffocation. TnT spend forty-five minutes beating you over the head with herky-jerk melodies and racing rhythms, and the moments that are quieter get lost and seem back-loaded on the album. From “Hidee Ho” onwards, the album significantly slows down. That’s particularly curious because they’ve done this rock thing before; why the hell would they slow down the last third of the album? When has that ever been good for album cohesion?
TnT seem to have lost their sweetness, which is maybe understandable. I could see them feeling spurned and adding this air of pissed-offness to their music. But they just seem less tender is all—the choruses try to get pretty rowdy, but really they pale in comparison to the fist-raisers on The Loon (“10 Gallon Ascots”). So they really didn’t add anything besides the inconsequential keyboards and the few, misplaced horns, they just took things away.
Musically, the band remains angular and catchy (except “One in the World”, of course). Grier sings just like he always does, with the same melodic style and bark. Obviously they didn’t stop playing that TnT-sounding guitar (which a lot of times sounds like Isaac Brock’s of Modest Mouse or Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, but whatever). Many people think TnT had to die out because they wrung out all of their influences on their first LP. I don’t buy that, though. Pavement blended their sound from The Fall, Swell Maps, Can, and Sonic Youth; Radiohead blend from Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, and U2. There’s a way to stay ahead of your influences if you’re good enough, and I think The Loon would have never gotten big if TnT didn’t stay ahead of theirs, as well. Think how easily critics could have cast them out for being retreads. Easy! We do it all the time. No, I think TnT have just lost their vision. They seem so caught up in going back to those big moments on their debut that they’ve forgotten all of those little moments surrounding the big ones were just as important. Many times, like on “SWM” and “Nightfall”, the band overlooks the verses and just goes through the motions. It’s not until a chorus or a bridge do they hit on something worthwhile, but by then, they’ve wasted half of the song.
The opener “Badaboom” is a classic Tapes song, which gave me some false hope. This is really their only moment of tenderness, where the verses work just as well as the deserved payoff in the chorus. “Desert Plane” is the only other song that finds space to harbor the gaunt melodies, without being slowed down. Even that song gets a little too messy in the chorus, like they’re trying to do too much, instead of just letting Grier do his thing. It hurts to have to bury a band that have an album I revere, but two albums in a row TnT have stumbled as an awkward incarnation of their former selves. Despite my best hopes for Outside, it’s simply too cluttered to let their knack for sticky hooks shine through.
*correction: XL did not ax Tapes 'n Tapes, TnT left XL to go it alone.
3. One in the World
5. Desert Plane
7. Freak Out
8. The Saddest of All Keys
9. Hidee Ho
10. People You Know
11. On and On
12. Mighty Long