Under Feet Like Ours (2000)
Album Score: 10/15
The worst thing I can say about Tegan and Sara's debut album (along with their follow-up, This Business of Art, which shares many of the same songs) is this: After I am finished listening, I remember almost nothing about the experience. At this point I'd say I've listened to the album around 25 times, and in spite of my best efforts, almost none of it sinks in. Not that this is a bad album; even at this early stage Tegan and Sara, teenagers at the time, were proving to be gifted singer-songwriters. More than that, they'd already cemented pat their distinctive, stylistic and impassioned vocal style. What's missing here however are the songs that pop out at me--like they'd do in albums they'd release later in their career. At the same time, though, nothing pops out at me in a bad way, either. This is a solid, consistent debut, if lukewarm.
Everyone & everyone out there compare this album to Ani DiFranco, and they do have a point. These are the things this album has in common with Ani DiFranco: All of these songs are sung by a female; the manner of singing is stylistic, distinctive, and rapid fire; all songs are primarily acoustic-guitar based with a few augmentations here and there to keep things diverse; there is nothing particularly fancy about the production but it's all nonetheless well polished; the lyrics are complex; the melodies are solid. The major departure from Ani DiFranco, I'd say, is more fundamental: DiFranco fancied herself as a folk musician in the same vein as Blue-era Joni Mitchell, whereas Under Feet Like Ours is a pop album at its core.
Tegan and Sara are identical twins, by the way. I am unable to tell them apart. There are 12 songs on the album. Tegan wrote 8 and Sara wrote 4. The 13th track is a grainy old recording of a little girl saying "Bye!!" (which I'm guessing is a recording of one of them).
So how exactly do I write a review of an album that has no particular highlights? I managed to write reviews of the individual songs and did the best I could. You can read those if you want... I can say at least I generally enjoy the experience of listening to the songs. Tegan and Sara might not have been at the stage of their careers when they could make their songs pop like they would later on, but they did at least have the instinctual knowledge of how to keep their songs from growing tedius. Songs like "Clever Meals" might not be so interesting melodically, for instance. It starts out as an unexceptional piano ballad. However, halfway through--just as soon as I would otherwise have given up on it--the singing gets more impassioned and it gets built up with a rapidly strummed acoustic guitar.
My favorite song might just be one of the album's simplest: "Freedom." It's fearlessly sung song and instrumented with a boisterously strummed acoustic guitar. By the end, there's a busy drum section that helps give it a big ending. At a little over two minutes, it's short and sweet, too.
More than I do for most albums, I studied these lyrics, and they are OK. They are complex and well-written. They're bitter and usually about love, which is what all their songs are about. Though, unlike many of their later songs, it doesn't feel as though I can relate so well with these. They hadn't quite gotten that down yet.
Tegan and Sara fans are going to love this album, of course, and they should no doubt own this. Anyone else, I wouldn't start with this. I'll let you know which album you should start with as soon as I post the review.
Read the track reviews here!
This Business of Art (2000)
Album Score: 10/15
The main difference between this album and their independently released debut is that it has different songs on it. Well, some of the songs are different. They rerecorded six of them: "Proud," "Hype," "Freedom," "More for Me," "Come On" and "Superstar." This was the first album they recorded with Neil Young's Vapor Records, and I suppose they were able to get an album out quicker by retooling some of their previously recorded songs (which I think almost nobody heard anyway).
All of these songs, even the new ones, are performed more or less in the same style as they were for the debut--the difference being that the production is generally heavier and more polished. And, even then, they're really not dramatically different. Their debut album might have had a charming, scrappy quality to it, but I can't say I miss that too much listening to these retooled versions. I mean, not that I fell in love with any of these songs in the first place.
And yes, you can continue on with the Ani DiFranco comparisons if you like. These songs can generally be characterized as rapidly sung pop-folk tunes with dense lyrics. But truthfully, it's difficult to think of anyone who truly compares to Tegan and Sara, even in these earliest stages of their career. They were already crafting a unique sound for themselves. When I listen to these songs, there is something about them--be it a melodic twist, an evolving texture, or an interesting embellishment from a synthesizer--that gives me pretty strong hints of these ladies' burgeoning super-powers. They might not have come out yet with one of their songs that I fall in love with, but there are some pretty strong hints that they're coming.
And of course, Tegan and Sara could sing circles around Ani DiFranco, even on their worst day. Not that DiFranco was a terrible singer or anything. Their highly stylized, highly confident vocals are absolutely unique to them, and they were only getting better at it. Truly, their vocal performances are the best aspect of many of these songs. No, I wouldn't call them emotional singers (I mean, maybe they come off somewhat perturbed sometimes), but they do always seem sincere. Sometimes singers (particularly those under the indie-rock umbrella) who heavily stylize their vocals can come off as obnoxious. (*Cou--Jason Mraz--gh*) But Tegan and Sara don't. They just have too much charisma.
So in the end, let it be known: I love Tegan and Sara, and I love listening to them even in this early album. As a whole, I enjoy this album reasonably. However, I just can't seem to get myself attached to any of these songs. As much as I might want to.
Read the track reviews here!
If It Was You (2002)
Album Score: 13/15
While I thought Tegan and Sara's two previous albums were fine, they really weren't much for me to write home about. (That is even though I literally wrote reviews of them--I just didn't send the reviews home.) This third album is where Tegan and Sara seem to jump ahead a few spaces on their hopscotch board, and they generate their own truly unique identity. No more am I tempted to compare them to Ani DiFranco--or anyone else. The big change here is Tegan and Sara decided to embrace a more pop-rock sound, and wouldn't you know it? They could write an excellent pop-rock melody. Really, it's staggering to me how catchy this stuff is.
This is also the point where I have to say that Tegan and Sara come off so incredibly likable to me. It's like they could be my friends, or something. This due to the fact they not only have singing voices with decent range with a distinctively cute, zesty timber, but they also come off like they're genuine people. A song like the album closer, "Don't Confess," which consoles someone after a rough breakup, when I listen to it, it er, it seems to me like I have a new friend. . . .No, I'm not going to stalk them or anything.
Speaking of stalking, the best song of this album is "Living Room," which can be characterized as a delightful, infectious bluegrass stomp. The song also happens to be about stalking--about looking into a neighbor's window over long periods of time and becoming obsessed with their lives. ("My windows look into your bathroom / Where I spend the evening watching you get yourself clean / And I wonder why it is that they left this bathroom so unclean / So unlike me.") I even remember hearing the song for the first time and it giving me shivers up my spine. It's that catchy. Truly, the subject matter is a little bit creepy, but as I said in the previous paragraph of this review, Tegan and Sara are so incredibly likeable that--well, obviously they're obsessing about these strangers only because they care.
And my goodness, the structure of these pop songs is impressive. If I were to guess, they were listening pretty heavily to Beatles music, since most of these songs come in immediately with a vocal hook and an interesting instrumental texture, which leads quickly and seamlessly to a differently textured chorus. They even sometimes bring in middle-eight sections. Also like Beatles music, they cram so much into these songs that it surprises me most of them only last two or three minutes.
I love so many of these songs. The jumpy album opener, "Time Running," produces a terrific amount of fun. "Monday, Monday, Monday" has such a catchy chorus that it makes me want to sing along with it--loudly. "Terrible Storm" has such an epic ending you'll just have to hear to believe. I mean, it sounds like it comes out of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or something. "I Hear Noises" is an excellent jangle-pop song with a passionate, stylized vocal performance where they convincingly sing barbed lyrics that are about a soured relationship.
Unquestionably what helped this album sound so good was that it was produced by John Collins and David Carswell, who often worked with The New Pornographers. (Well, Carswell to be exact was a New Pornographer.) The textures throughout the album are crunchy, varied, and served to enhance Tegan and Sara's vocal performances. Of course, it also helped that they gave us such a large variety of songs. Not one song here is like another.
Now, when I compare this album to Tegan and Sara's later albums, this does come off like basic pop-rock. Their later albums would be more complex than this, so I'm sure there is a tendency for their fan base to pass over this early album. While it's true it might be basic pop-rock, it is wonderful pop-rock, and I enjoy this about as much as any other Tegan and Sara album. (But, no, I wouldn't call this my favorite, either.)
Read the track reviews here!
So Jealous (2004)
Album Score: 12/15
I’m going to spend most of this review being a jerk and talking about what I don’t like about the album. Even though I love the album. Where Tegan and Sara start to lose it for me is diversity. Unlike their previous album, these songs are all orchestrated similarly. All 14 tracks—as far as my ears can tell—use the same instruments. Even the keyboard settings seem to be stuck. Surely, they only would have benefitted from experimenting a bit more.
But now the good stuff. I would characterize this as a power-pop/new-wave album reminiscent of The Cars’ debut. Most of these songs are bright and poppy, even if their lyrics are a bit angsty. (Then again I don’t know what “My Best Friend’s Girl” was supposed to be if it wasn’t a little bit angsty.) This comes off as a very clean album. Albeit, a few songs do have a slight punk flavor to them. I have no trouble imagining The Ramones making covers of some of these tracks and turning them into stuff your dad would call classic. The lyric ”I love that rock and roll!” in “I Bet It Stung” is a phrase that sticks in my mind the same way as—well—any catchy line David Byrne came up with. The songwriting throughout this album is on-point—almost startlingly.
But that does lead into another complaint I have. While Tegan and Sara’s vocals sound great here, they also don’t have that same organic quality as they did in If It Was You. They don’t adjust their tone much at all. Even while I imagine the songwriting quality being roughly equivalent to The Cars or The Ramones, I am imagining versions of the songs with more rebellious spirited than what I’m hearing. While the songwriting is undeniably great, it is decidedly the presentation that leaves me wanting more.
While I may not find this album as delightful overall as what I’d heard on If It Was You, I do give them all the credit in the world for making important strides in their songwriting craft. That is, these songs are flawlessly engineered. Intros/outros/choruses/middle-eights, etc… Perfect. Their previous album occasionally had some awkward transitions here or there. This album has none of that. I also have to observe that many of these songs have sudden ends—as opposed to fade outs. Usually what starts to play in the next track immediately captures my ears. That’s not so different than the ending of Abbey Road.
Whenever, I look at the album cover, it's anybody's guess which of its many excellent melodies will pop in my head. Although I do have my favorites. Mostly, my favorite is “Walking With a Ghost.” Geez, is that song catchy. I would put that head-to-head with any of your dad’s music. Put them all on the same playlist, even. Make your eardrums dance! For so many albums with one song on it that I like a lot, it gets sad for me when that song is over and it's time for me to move onto the next track. Not so here. It follows into the title track, which is almost as good, as it goes back and forth between a section with low, wavy synthesizers and then a dramatic chorus. It’s relatively short but they put enough into it that it neither comes off too short nor does it overstay its welcome. After that, we get “Speak Slow,” which has a chant-ish chorus that’s forever stuck in my mind. “Speak slow, tell me love / Where do we go? Ah, ah / Where do we go? Ah, ah” I can imagine The Ramones making a classic out of that. If only we knew how to manipulate the space-time continuum.
I would have to collect some stats to know for sure, but I don’t think I wrote too many reviews of 12-scoring albums that had so many A+s appearing in the track reviews. Maybe that means this album actually deserves a 13. Well, I wouldn’t dwell on it too much. The fact is I love cranking this album up in my car stereo like anything else. However, I'm still keeping this at a 12, because I think most of their other albums overshadow this one—in particular their immediate follow up is immensely creative. And then they create some truly mind-spinning pop music in Sainthood. Not to mention the synth-pop gloriousness of Heartthrob. …Am I getting too far ahead of myself?
Read the track reviews here!
The Con (2007)
Album Score: 13/15
If I were to wager a guess, Tegan and Sara must’ve went into a time machine, read my review of So Jealous, then got back in their time machine, and came up with The Con. (Where there contemporaneous reviewers who said the same thing I did about it? I don’t know—probably.) That is, my assessment of So Jealous was that it was filled with brilliant pop tunes, but it was brought down a mite by its lack of creativity in the orchestration department. The Con is quite the startling contrast. It marks a severe 180-degree turn. These songs sound completely different from one another, and the arrangements are so dang creative and out-there that I start to ask myself: Did they take it too far?
Well just to be sure, we haven’t accidentally stumbled into the Pere Ubu department or anything. Tegan and Sara are pop-meisters to their core. Their prime concentration continues to be crafting strong melodies, and pretty much everything here is quite hooky. However the albums is also supremely artsy-fartsy, and I have to mention that outside their first two albums, this is the one I had the most difficulty getting into. Well, I got over it, obviously.
The closest thing I can compare this to is Field Music and their self-titled 2005 album. Is that an obscure album? Well, it is filled with a ton of terrific, meandering, quirky pop songs. But that album is more lighthearted, whereas Tegan and Sara is darker. Of course they’re not too dark. Just dark enough to give it an edge. It usually matches pretty well with the mood of their angsty lyrics. …I suppose the lyrics are the one thing about Tegan and Sara that doesn’t change much. Other than their singing style!
The song that I call my favorite is “Back in Your Head,” an upbeat toe-tapper. It begins with a simple, amiable homespun style piano loop. But don’t expect that groove to stick around for long. The song takes us through a little journey of twists and turns. Along the way, it never loses that upbeat momentum nor does it lose that infectious melody. But listen to the chord changes that are planned in exactly the right moments that it keeps the experience perky and interesting. I love songs that do that. That’s why I like The Beatles so much. The song is only three minutes. Most three-minute songs don’t do that much. I also love that bubbly synth texture they have decorating the background. Really, a lot of care went into these arrangements, and it shows that they trying to come up with things that were pleasant to the ear and I’d also never heard before. And yet the bubbliness of how it sounds deceives me a little bit, lest I forget what constitutes the chorus is quite the desperate plea “I just want back in your head!”
The remainder of the album has songs that are much like that. They’re on the short side, but they always seem to be rife with interesting chord changes and immersive instrumental textures. They don’t keep anything stagnant for too long. I do like all the songs here, although perhaps they get a little too alienating here and there. Well, as I said earlier, I get over that pretty quick. Maybe the only other song I’d like to call out by name in the main portion of this review is the particularly impressive “Like O, Like H.” It’s a horror movie wrapped up in two minutes and 40 seconds. It’s still playful, though, and their vocals continue to be hoppy and hooky. So don’t worry about getting too freaked out by it. But that atmosphere they create there is immersive, and it gives me a little shiver down my spine.
I’ll close this review by saying the thing about this album that is kind of weird is how short it is. It’s only 36 minutes long. I was taken aback when I noticed that. I would have thought it was 50 minutes! Well it does have 14 tracks, the songs themselves usually have a lot going on. So think of it like this: Every time I listen to this album, it’s like I’m adding an extra 16 minutes to my life! Hurray!
Read the track reviews here!
Album Score: 13/15
This might upset the 20th Century rock purist, but I think of this album along similar lines as The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, The Ramones' debut, and Sparks’ Kimono My House. Both in quality and consistently. All these albums are filled to the brim with pop songs that aren’t, to any terrible extent, stylistically distinguishable from one another. I mean, they utilize a very limited set of instruments (mainly pop guitar, bass, drum kits, and the occasional synthesizer). Yet each song remains distinguishable from the other, thanks to the terrifically unique melodies, chord progressions, and pop textures. They even make liberal and sometimes surprising uses of time signature shifts -- even while mid-song.
This is one of those albums that's difficult to pick a highlight, because there are so many in the running. "Northshore" is gruff and almost punky. The opener "Arrow" is bright and something I'd like to tap my foot to. "The Cure" is almost anthemic -- a song that invites me to sing along with it. Thirteen tracks, and every one utterly stellar, written and produced flawlessly. Driving, tight, infectious, while also remaining relatively short. The running times of these songs range from roughly between two and three-and-a-half minutes. Nothing ever overstays or understays its welcome.
This also leads me to mention that the style is at stark contrast to The Con, which used diversity like The Beatles used it on The White Album. In a way, they're regressing. But at the same time, their songwriting is sharper and more consistent than ever before, and this seemed more like a lateral move. I also don't notice the one thing that bothered about So Jealous bothering me here -- that is, there not being a whole lot of variety in their vocal performances.
The album artwork manages to be an apt depiction of what the album sounds like -- almost monotone, a bit detached, a bit oddball. Is that supposed to be a nun's wimple around Tegan's head? I guess that makes sense, since the title of the album is Sainthood. Though with that said, I don't understand why this album was given such a name. Wikipedia tells us it's from a Leonard Cohen lyrics, but is that it? (Yes, I had to use Google to figure out what a nun's headpiece is called. Also yes, I'm making a guess that I know it's Tegan, as opposed to Sara, donning that headpiece. I'd somehow gotten a vague impression that Tegan is somewhat more intense than Sara. And look at how she's staring down whatever it is she's looking at. But truth be told, I can't tell them apart unless they introduce themselves.)
With all that said, I don't want to go too overboard comparing this album to A Hard Days Night. While I do consider Sainthood to be near perfect, hearing those opening riffs in "Arrow" doesn't quite give me quite the same level of excitement as the opening chord does in A Hard Day's Night. So a somewhat lesser album, but I'm just grateful that there's something contemporaneous out there (from my own generation!) that I can find even remotely excited about.
Perhaps Tegan and Sara's weak spot for me in general, and particularly in this album, are their lyrics. I say this hesitantly because I know their dedicated fanbase cherish their lyrics. Their lyrical style remains unchanged, as it will seemingly always remain unchanged -- revolving around angsty themes of lost or decaying romance. Certain lines do pop out at me, but they don't always come across terribly meaningful to me. Maybe that's because I haven't spent a whole lot of time dating. And when I did, it was with someone who eventually found me worthwhile to stay with. Alas, I guess we all can't be brooding romantics.
Read the track reviews here!