You know, maybe Tapes ‘n Tapes hit the nail on the head with thier first full length, The Loon, but 2008’s follow-up, Walk it Off, hardly deserved the shrug-off it got from many critics and fans. Sure, perhaps bombastic producer Dave Fridmann wasn’t the perfect fit, and maybe there wasn’t all the giddy genre-hopping of the debut, but those were some good rock songs (“Hang ’em all”? Come on, that song is gold.) But with that shrug-off, this Minnesota band became the epitome of blogosphere boom-and-bust. Lauded out of the gate, and then chastised for not meeting our lofty expectations for a growing band.
So it’s no real wonder their new album is called Outside. Because they’ve been sort of off the grid since then. Their coverage dropped a bit in the wake of Walk it Off’s release, and they took their time with this new record. But judging by the results, that is exactly what they should have done. This record shows — perhaps a little more clearly than its predecessor did — that Tapes ‘n Tapes is a tight and distinct rock band, one that can write compelling songs and deliver them with an immediate punch.
The band members produced the record themselves this time around, and it’s clear their music sounds best in their own hands. After just the lean, seething opener “Badaboom” and the dreamy shuffle of second track “SWM,” Outside shows the band back to its shapeshifting, jangly pop roots. Without Fridmann’s interstellar gauze, it is the tight hooks and Josh Grier’s striking howl to carry the day, and together they do so with a striking charge.
And though they seem to have tightened up to a very Loon-esque skin-and-bones rock, these songs still have a size that can sneak up on you. “Outro,” oddly in the record’s middle, starts with guitars faintly glinding over the song, and Grier’s howl lowered to a yelp. But Grier starts to bark as the song goes, and the guitars and drums build up into a frenzy. No production tricks here, just good ol’ gut-rumbling rock band power. Lead single “Freak Out” kind of plays like a slightly subdued cousin to “Insistor,” but here too the band’s restraint is fleeting, and the song’s crescendo marks the album’s stunning high point.
There’s also the Latin feel of heartworn travelogue “One in the World,” the spacey blues-rock of “The Saddest of All Keys,” and the oh-so-quiet-to-deafening “Hidee Ho” to give us the shifting variety we expect from these guys. Outside sees the band bursting forth with energy, and delivering some great rock songs, but the exciting edge the band has showed in the past is worn down. So while it’s still impressive to seem them jump from sound to sound, it’s not quite as surprising as it once was.
Still, all that means is that Outside is another great record from a great rock band, and not their masterpiece. It should show those who dismissed Walk it Off just what they should have seen behind Fridmann’s sonic heft. But luckily Tapes ‘n Tapes doesn’t give you a chance to throw the baby out with the bathwater this time around. Instead, they just give you 12 solid, pretense-free rock songs. So give Outside a listen, then maybe invite these guys in again.