January 30, 2013

Test Spins: Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob

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Tegan and Sara spent the first decade of their career making their names synonymous with charming indie-folk duo. On their first six records, the twin sisters paired acoustic guitar with twee vocal harmonies, baring their souls on lovelorn and often understated albums. Records like This Business of Art and So Jealous were all about introspection, reflection and, eventually, expression. On The Con and Sainthood, released in 2007 and 2009,  respectively, they forayed tentatively into more upbeat territory for the first time, though their music could never be considered  to have a dance-y vibe.

Their newest album, Heartthrob, signals the duo’s first significant shift in sound. Synth-heavy and pure pop, Heartthrob sounds unlike any of Tegan and Sara’s previous material. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Sara claimed that the band “wanted to take a big step.” Heartthrob is certainly a major change for the duo.

In the past, the two have basically been the Taylor Swift of indie Canada, that is to say that each of their records seems to be a breakup album. Desolation and heartbreak remain a theme on Heartthrob, but it’s delivery is much more straightforward and, often, far less original than their previous albums. Perhaps this is a side effect of the pop production: everything about Heartthrob is large and obvious, foregoing subtlety in favor of heavy drum-and-bass programming.

Aside from the flaw in originality, however, the album’s directness is largely successful. Heartthrob feels immediate, and the many approaches it takes to love seem urgent, yet never stagnant. The bombastic opening track “Closer” tells of temptation, as the girls outline a plot of seduction — “All I’m dreaming lately is how to get you underneath me” — over a disco-inspired groove. It is sweeping and grandiose and one of the more successful pop songs released in recent months, thanks in large part to producer Greg Kurstin.

In “Goodbye, Goodbye,” Tegan and Sara pack an impressive number of new wave-esque hooks into three minutes — think more Missing Persons than Metric. The third track, “I Was A Fool,” is one of the least emotionally impactful on Heartthrob, relying on post-breakup clichés like “stand still is all we did / love like ours just never fits” or the repeated refrain of “I was a fool for love.” It’s not that “I Was A Fool” is bad per se, but it is simply one in a lineup of many synth-pop love songs that are hard to distinguish from each other — which can never be very good. Next come “I’m Not Your Hero,” “Drove Me Wild” and “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” all maintaining the Heartthrob status quo of irresistible ‘80s hooks.

“I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and the album’s first single “Now I’m All Messed Up” deal with the aftermath of a romantic rupture, perhaps the “love that just never fit.” “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” questions the classic “we can still be friends” myth while layered in vocal “oh’s” that would somehow make both Lady Gaga and Sufjan Stevens proud. The latter track, “Now I’m All Messed Up,” according to the band, began as a piano ballad. That is until producer Kurstin programmed some throbbing drum and bass into it. This is the strongest song on the record and offers some of the ladies’ most nuanced lyrics of the album (“Why do you take me down this road if you don’t want to walk with me?”). It showcases Sara’s vocals at their best, though the production often masks her impressive range. Heartthrob closes with “Shock To Your System,” a slow, pulsing track that sounds as though it could have been made by Peter Gabriel’s producer.

For all their radio-ready bluster and newfound accessibility, Tegan and Sara do risk alienating their fanbase (though if the fawning Soundcloud comments are any indicator, the devotees are far from disappointed). For longtime Tegan and Sara fans, it may seem overproduced or too drastic a departure from their former sound. Even for newcomers, Heartthrob may at times feel as though it’s trying too hard, grasping at musical straws that vanished when 1990 came around. Tegan and Sara’s new sound, however, dares to attract a totally new following. Brazen and unrepentant, Heartthrob may not be what Tegan and Sara fans expected, but it’s a major — and in many ways largely successful — statement from everyone’s favorite Canadian twins.

Original Author: Gina Cargas

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