It doesn’t seem right. Despite their communal, our-gang-against-the-world mentality, talk about Tilly and the Wall inevitably centers on a single member.
So Jamie Pressnall happens to be a tap-dancing percussionist. It’s a fun little gimmick, and it looks pretty amazing in concert. But on record, the sound of her shoes smacking the floor usually gets swept away amid a joyous cacophony of shouts, jabbing guitars and (increasingly) a real drum kit. Tilly and the Wall sink or swims as a unit, so let’s talk about them that way.
O marks the third album for this spunky Omaha quintet. Their early efforts conjured the magic of a bunch of kindergarteners set loose in a room full of musical instruments. Now, however, it’s time for upping the sophistication, scrubbing out some of the imperfections, and streamlining the sound to a dependable stomp.
Lead single “Pot Kettle Black” summarizes the tweaks Tilly has made for this outing: Pressnall’s syncopated tap patterns are replaced by the whole band stamping the floor and clapping their hands. Vocalists Neely Jenkins and Kianna Alarid come packing a bit of Shangri-Las attitude, calling out the hypocrites of the world with an overdose of sass. It all veers dangerously close to rock formula, but there’s enough spice elsewhere to make up for it.
“Chandelier Lake” sounds positively exotic, with all manner of mallet instruments, tinkling bells and ghostly piano evoking the song’s otherworldly setting. “I Found You” follows a late-night walk into mystery, leading with a menacing bass line and topping everything off with a grand mariachi horn section. And then there’s the jumbled roller coaster of “Alligator Skin,” with its bright guitar chords and sing-song refrain expertly designed to burrow deep into short-term memory.
Yet “Alligator” also works as an indictment of the album’s weaknesses: It’s a record with all the lasting depth of a summer fireworks display. Each song pops its head up for long enough to dazzle and distract, before bowing out for another to take its place. The more disposable material sticks out glaringly, like the tantrum of album closer “Too Excited.”
Once all of the pyrotechnics subside, not much of O lingers in the memory, just the smoke and afterglow of a wild party. It’s an album built to keep for what remains of the summer, but after that its shelf life is suspect. Still, its stronger moments prove that Tilly and the Wall continues to command attention, and for more than just the spectacle that its best-known member provides.
Tilly and the Wall might be the most bouyant, joyous band in indie rock, a genre with more than its fair share of mopers. (There's some irony in this, seeing as the band records for Team Love, an imprint affiliated with perennial sad sack Conor Oberst.) Tilly and the Wall's first two albums, 2004's Wild Like Children and 2006's Bottoms of Barrels, burst forth with exuberant male/female harmonies and percussion that came from the soles of band member Jamie Pressnall's feet. o ramps up the merrymaking with more of the same. Pressnall tap danced on different surfaces for different songs, many of which contain multiple-part harmonies and call and response yelps. The album was recorded in Omaha, so of course Mike Mogis produced it. The kids in Tilly and the Wall seem too innocent for the "o" of the album's title to stand for "orgasm," although the band's ecsatic music might just give you aural goosebumps.
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