Poor Tapes ‘n Tapes. They are certainly victims of the blogosphere. Without a doubt, hype these days is incredibly fickle. Bands come and go like a stiff breeze, and if you don’t put out a well-respected record in a timely fashion, you’re headed for the Land of Lost Bands. After a critically savaged sophmore sophmore album back in 2008 titled “Walk It Off”, it was the respect and love of many a fan that actually walked off instead. This was a far cry from the huge buzz they had going back in 2005-6, where their debut record “The Loon” earned them rave reviews and a record deal with XL Recordings. After their fall from grace and the poor sales of that second album, the band ended their relationship with XL (some say they were dropped by the label, others say the band waited until their contract expired). Whatever it was, Tapes ‘n Tapes were looking to re-focus their efforts for a third album and win back all those lost fans. Now completely on their own label and free to do whatever they please, they’re re-approaching the music industry from the fringe, which may be a big reason why they’ve called their new record “Outside”.
Under what guise does one get away with titling a song “Badaboom”? Is it intended to be a mafia reference, or perhaps a “Fifth Element” reference? Neither? Whatever the logic, with a title like that, the song had best be explosive. It’s what leads off “Outside”, and it’s got a propulsive, fun vibe to it. If Vampire Weekend were a little heavier on the guitars and stripped back their Afropop leanings a bit, it’d sound a whole lot like this song. The hook may not be incredibly strong, but one of the best things “Badaboom” has going for it is the rather interesting guitar breakdown at the end of the song. It feels a lot like old school Tapes ‘n Tapes, and that’s a good thing. “SWM” is a fluffier keyboard pop song paired with a jingle-jangle guitar that’s pleasant enough. The issue is that the song builds what amounts to tension, as if it’s ready to explode at any given moment, but then never offers a release. It comes oh so close at the very end but then peters out instead. “One in the World” succeeds at bringing a tropical vacation vibe to the record, but once again holds strong echoes to Vampire Weekend without quite reaching that band’s craftsmanship and smarts.
So after a halfway decent start with the first three songs on the record, Tapes ‘n Tapes suddenly get pretty vanilla. “Nightfall” drags along the ground with its blandness, spiced up only by some horns that are criminally underused. “Desert Plane” kind of picks a course and stays on it without much instrumental variation or a hook that’s anywhere close to memorable. And I’m thinking the band chose the title of the song “Outro” based solely on how strong that is compared to everything else in the track. Not much happens when it starts, but then it builds to this fiery guitar solo that deserves to surrounded by something more compelling to make it seem earned. So what it does is blatantly point out how mediocre the rest of the track is.
On a quest for a very strong song, it delivers in the form of “Freak Out”, the record’s first single and what actually renewed a lot of interest in the band. It’s legitimately catchy and fun, energetic and wry, with a brief guitar solo that unlike the track before it is actually earned. “The Saddest of All Keys” is a dark nightmare of a song in the best way possible. Josh Grier’s vocal performance is rough and dirty like old school Tapes, and there’s a distinct blues vibe to the track with the guitars and swirling organ that’s impressive. It feels like a different angle on a Black Keys song, which feels so right even if it’s not. Should you want to hear what Tapes ‘n Tapes would sound like attempting a Walkmen song, fear not, for “Hidee Ho” is about as close as you’ll get. The sparse electric guitar work mixed with Grier’s world-weary vocal performance practically screams imitation, save for the rippingly great guitar work that populates the second half of the song. There’s a very 1950’s vibe skating around “People You Know”, a wholly inoffensive ballad perfect for a high school sock hop where girls in floral dresses and guys with their hair parted carefully to one side can have an innocent dance with their hands on each others hips. Such a goodie-goodie, prim and proper era. As such it was also boring, much like the song winds up being. “On and On” feels like it goes…on and on, at least until the very end, at which there’s an ocean of white noise that’s positively delightful compared to what came before it. Another song where the ending fares so much better than the beginning. Translated, it’s half of a good song. Thank goodness the band ends with a 100% strong song in the form of “Mighty Long”. It’s exactly the sort of tune that made their debut “The Loon” such a compelling listen – an upbeat, jangly guitar tempo with a hook that actually grabs you and won’t let go. It’s songs such as this that make you want to give the band another chance to win you over despite having done you wrong on a bunch of tracks that came before it.
Credit goes to Tapes ‘n Tapes for a couple things. First, deciding to “return to their roots” by self-releasing “Outside”. They earned their initial shot at the big label leagues by hard work and earnestness, and appear to want to reclaim that crown by doing the same thing again. It takes courage to go down that road, so nice going gentlemen. Secondly, the band seems to know what they did wrong on “Walk It Off” and are working on a course correction. They are smarter than ever and are more attuned to what their fans are looking for from them. That being said, Tapes n’ Tapes are also in the midst of an identity crisis. A few of the songs on “Outside” seem to have been intended to recall “The Loon”, while others push in different directions as explorations of new options. Most of the time, the band comes off sounding like cheap imitations of better-known and more popular indie bands. Variety may be the spice of life, but you’d hope they’d come up with something better in terms of expanding their sound. And finally, what this band could really use is a chill pill. No, most of the songs aren’t angry, but rather come across as a band that’s simply trying way too hard. The record doesn’t smell of desperation, rather it lacks legitimate fun. Manufactured fun, or at least attempts at fun are present, just not believable. Part of what made “The Loon” such a great record was how openly loose and relaxed it was, like the band was making music just for shits and giggles. “Outside” is the product of a band doing a careful study of what worked for them, then strategically trying to recreate that with a small touch of forward momentum. It’s like returning as an adult to a place you have fond memories of as a kid, and realizing that maybe things weren’t as good as you remember. Maybe the lake you used to swim in every summer is now so polluted most creatures can’t live in it, let alone swim in it. Whatever it is, some of that magic is now gone, and the harder you try to get it back, the more you fail at it. “Outside” proves that they’ve lost some of their old magic, but like any redemption story, all is not lost. If they’re able to figure out the exact key to what made their debut so compelling, there’s still the possibility they can rise from the ashes and surprise us once again. It’s a near impossible feat, but everyone loves a good underdog story. Best of luck to you in the future, fellas.