The Loon remains a fantastic album, every bit as strange, ungainly and adorable as its avian namesake. Why, then, do the words “Tapes ‘n Tapes” and “new album” fail to bring glints to the eyes of those who partook?
In short, 2008’s Walk It Off put paid to the band’s serrated vitality: their major label debut – produced by Dave Fridmann, who also oversaw alt-pop deceivers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah‘s disappointing sophomore – it shrank next to its hyped predecessor, and the moment seemed to have passed.
It certainly passed for XL Recordings, anyway, who bade farewell to the band shortly thereafter. It would appear, however, that the label’s loss was Tapes ‘n Tapes’ gain: Outside endeavours to revive and revise the original spark, and successfully treats the symptoms – of not the cause – of their all too apparent difficult-second-album syndrome.
Though burdened with the contrasting loads of a scintillating debut and its crushingly disappointing follow-up, the band do not pause to further ponder their situation: Badaboom’s rimshots, gaunt riffs and soft poeticism – delivered in Josh Grier’s unmistakable lament – soon progress into the tight dynamic that conjured comparisons with Pavement and the Pixies the first time around; its stop-start coda delivering the coup de grace of a genuinely enthralling opener.
SWM, too, exhibits vigour – sounding like a short acoustic Shins cover of one of Tapes ‘n Tapes’ own earlier efforts – while One In The World adopts the sunshine chimes of some South Pacific lonely hearts party, representing something of a successful stylistic departure.
The likes of Desert Plane, on the other hand, reveal the band doing what they do best: adhering to the timeless tenets of quiet-loud-quiet, erupting into a crashing chorus that seems to throttle the airwaves. The wilfully waspish Outro – track six, in fact – does the same, its patient crescendo and bruising pay-off seemingly urging repeat spins.
There is a creeping suspicion, however, that Outside represents the Tapes ‘n Tapes discography in microcosm, labouring to meet its own standards: Nightfall plods into earshot and never gets going, Freak Out improves as it progresses but pales next to the similar Insistor (despite a tasty solo) and the bombastic Saddest Of All Keys leaves itself nowhere to go.
That said, Tapes ‘n Tapes retain enough vim to ensure the album’s prosperity: Hidee Ho, a slow-burning highlight, channels the enduring beauty of The Loon’s Manitoba, while People You Know – the sound of a beer-soaked Minneapolis house band expressing their blues – betrays a growing maturity with its serene doo-wop flourishes and Brian Wilson-like harmonics. On And On, similarly, indicates an interesting potential future direction with its ominous-sounding synth line and rare sing-along refrain that brings the best out of Grier’s inimitable timbre.
It is with a measure of relief, then, that Tapes ‘n Tapes turn things around on Outside; an album that, despite appearing worryingly top-heavy during a passive midsection, represents a welcome return to form for one of alt-indie’s more distinct outfits.