Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pulling "An A-Phair" To Remember

Tegan and Sara’s new album will be considered brilliant or the iceberg that sank a stable if underwhelming cruise ship. Titled Heartthrob, they aren’t even denying the purpose and mission of it: to enter the mainstream.

As the proud owner of four T&S albums, someone who discovered them after The Con and bought the album before (So Jealous) and and then Sainthood after, I love them for their utter awkwardness. Much of what makes their signature sound is their ability to harmonize in ways that often go against the instinctive musical grain.

Their place in the “indie” scene is very similar to The Cure almost 30 years ago. While the two bands have little in common sound-wise, they both occupied similar real estate on the musical grid. They wrote pop songs too quirky to be digested by the mainstream, but it was still, at its heart and in its intent, pop music.

Quirky. Awkward. Uncommon. These are not the words one uses to describe most of the pop music dominating the charts in 2013. Anything quirky or uncommon is the product of marketing research, “manufactured awkwardness,” if you will. Ke$ha and Lady GaGa are not genuinely odd anymore than Twiggy is capable of genuinely crying.

But Tegan and Sara’s awkwardness is legit. They’re Canadian and gay and identical twins -- can you get more uniquely unusual than that?? They’re the girls in high school who, while pixie-adorable, rightly freaked everyone out. Not because they were just weird, but because they were weird and clearly smarter than you, like Jordan in Real Genius who only sleeps a couple of hours each night and spends the rest of her time learning a bajillion times more than normal people.

Whether the adoring masses will accept this duo won’t be answered for a few weeks or months, but it’s clear the music critics want them to succeed. Is that the kiss of death? Usually, but this time, maybe not.

I believe pop music needs Tegan and Sara more than Tegan and Sara need pop’s warm money-coated superficial embrace.

Heartthrob is to previous Tegan and Sara what jumping into a swimming pool after 45 minutes in a hot tub feels like. It’s chasing a Giant Pixie Stick with a 6-pack of Red Bull after spending two weeks on Valium. To blanche against this sugary-sweet, change-of-temp rush to the sonic cortex is only understandable, but holy moley ohmyfugginggawd it’s exciting! These gals just totally risked every fiber of musical indie cred they ever built up! They pulled a Liz Phair... after knowing full well what happened to Liz Phair!

[Note to those who don’t know: Liz Phair emerged on the scene with one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the ‘90s, Exile on Guyville, a brilliant and low-fi not-quite song by song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. While the critics stroked themselves over its brilliance, it failed to garner much popular love because it wasn’t terribly catchy, because sometimes good art isn't. After several albums and the realization that there aren’t enough music critics to fill her concerts and pay her bills, she totally sold out and attempted to fly closer to the pop sun. Unfortunately, it worked well enough to offer her a brief glimpse at the glories of pop stardom but pissed off most of her fans in the process, and she quickly sunk, with her burnt wings, into musical denouement.]

Heartthrob still sounds like Tegan and Sara. But it sounds like Ladyhawke kidnapped them for a few months, and it sounds like Kelly Clarkson’s management team stole the demos and souped ‘em up reeeeal goooood.

“There’s nothing love can’t do,” they sing repeatedly in “Love They Say” toward the end of the album. If that’s true, can it go pop without bursting?

Come a little closer. Find out. They won't treat you like you're oh so typical.

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