I like bar food. I like veggie burgers and fries and the occasional (okay, extremely frequent) plate of nachos. I like feeling that when I go somewhere for such food, I can show up looking however I please, that no visual or behavioral state of being (barring unruly and destructive) will be frowned upon.
In 2005, Minneapolis’ Tapes ’n Tapes released a record I consumed like bar food — ravenously, insatiably, uninhibited. The Loon was initially released via their own label Ibid, then re-released in 2006 when XL picked up the album to widespread — and widely maligned — buzz. At the time, they were the quintessential blog band, for better or for worse.
The Loon felt as weird and haunting as its lonely avian namesake. Frontman Josh Grier howled and barked. His vocals seemed booze-soaked, manic and crazy-eyed, and the sparse, bottom-heavy, stop-and-start instrumentals provided by bandmates Matt Kretzmann, Erik Appelwick, and Jeremy Hanson only compounded the air of brooding ruefulness. It was delicious.
When 2008 came around, Tapes ’n Tapes released their sophomore record Walk It Off, again via XL, to an unexpectedly large, hungry fan base. Because the band has since cut ties with the imprint, I can’t help but wonder (perhaps unfairly) if the label itself had something to do with Walk It Off being a far cry from the little, unpretentiously tasty Tapes ’n Tapes I had come to crave. It was like going to your favorite bar and being unexpectedly treated to fancy, unsuccessfully prepared gourmet-style dishes and awkward fine-dining service. It was okay, I guess, but it certainly wasn’t why I’d gone there.
So with a fair amount of trepidation, I sat down with a fork and knife to consume Outside. I needn’t have feared.
One of the criticisms I was armed and ready to levy at any new Tapes ’n Tapes album when compared to The Loon was that, like Walk It Off, it was too much of a full-band affair. It had lost its eccentricity, its sparseness, the sort of aching, spastic charm that glowed so brightly from within what seemed like a perfect vacuum. But within the first few seconds of Outside, I am clearly wrong to have assumed that The Loon’s stylistic era had concluded. Leadoff “Badaboom” is alternately so lush that you can barely pick out buried parts (it’s got these cathedral-large overtones) and so restrained that its occasional complete silences halt you in your tracks. It’s unexpected from a band that I was willing to dismiss as having wandered away from its best sound.
Sure, there are throwaway tracks here and there — while “One In The World” is campy and catchy, I find it a little annoying despite its high-ratcheted energy; and “People You Know” is the millionth recycling of the same doo-wop progression everyone feels like it’s a fresh idea to put their spin on — but the bits where Outside either returns to original Tapes ’n Tapes form or goes somewhere new are plentiful and nourishing. “Desert Plane” features an interesting interaction between the repetitive guitar part and the counterpoint bass line below it, as well as the minor melody that soars above jiggling tambourine and thudding drums. Likewise, “Nightfall” breaks away from its dark brass pop into an eye-tearing, distorted guitar riff. It’s a really gutsy — as in abdomen-punching — moment, and no band that’s actually lost its stuff could ever deliver it.
“The Saddest Of All Keys,” out of all the songs on Outside, perhaps most convincingly channels Tapes ’n Tapes circa The Loon. Its rambling vocal line rolls over the top of an instrumental backdrop that’s all hips and thighs, referencing blues motifs subtly without losing sight of the pop backbone on which the band’s always relied. Grier talks about things that are “hot and wet in spots,” and the lyrics, as in the band’s strongest work, are anything but literal. But for me, “Hidee Ho” is Outside’s standout. It showcases Grier’s heart-stopping wail, and its lonely, meandering guitar rehashes one of the things I always loved best about Tapes ’n Tapes. When he barks “hey!” or something to punctuate the end of each verse, I’m truly won over. The song eventually blooms into a short-lived noisy jam and then subsides into sparseness to end the song. It builds, climaxes, and resolves. Lovely.
So Outside tastes like having returned to my favorite bar to find they’ve redone the menu. Only this time, all the improvements are positive ones: they’ve used better ingredients to revitalize the same staples they always served, and the place is as welcoming as it ever was.