September 11, 2010

North of Northwest: Tegan and Sara

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Every time I hear a Tegan and Sara song, I have some version of the same odd thought: “Wow, I like this band more than I remember.” I’m not sure what causes this strange fondness amnesia, but I’m going to try to cure it right here with a little Note To Self: HEY SELF, YOU LIKE TEAGAN AND SARA.

I’m certainly not the only fan. Sainthood, the duo’s November 2009 album, debuted at #21 on the Billboard 200, and received 4/5 stars from Spin and a respectable 7.3 from Pitchfork, who praised the band’s “musical evolution and maturation.” They sold out two nights at New York’s 1500-capacity Town Hall, and this year’s Sasquatch festival awarded them an evening mainstage slot.

Sainthood, 37 minutes of irresistibly toe-tapping new wave, certainly dropped at an ideal time. With Lady Gaga performing to the tens of thousands and Katy Perry a Blilboard-topping teenage dream, there’s no denying that dance pop is “in.” Crediting Tegan and Sara’s success merely to a trend, however, both cheapens their work and oversimplifies their appeal. It’s not just – or even primarily – Top 40 fans who buy Tegan and Sara records. Your teenage daughter probably likes them, but your middle-aged male coworker probably does too.

So what is it about two thirty-year-old twins from Calgary that attracts thirty years’ and two genders’ worth of fans? What were the 22,000 people who bought Sainthood in the first week of its release looking for?

The dominant characteristic that distinguishes Sainthood from other works of its genre is honesty. In dance music, lyrics are generally either absent or endlessly self-referential: “We can dance until we die,” “Just dance, gonna be okay,” “I left my head and my heart on the dance floor.” Tegan and Sara, in contrast, write about real things, about life and love and emotions and stuff.

“For people to trust you and believe you, they have to see you a little bit. I’m not afraid to expose myself in that way,” Sara told Exclaim! last year. Sainthood finds both sisters laying their hearts bare, Tegan singing primarily about pursuing (unsuccessfully) a new relationship, and Sara dealing with the end of an old one. Interestingly, lyrics from both sisters, though written separately, return to similar themes: a forthright mixture of friction, anguish and lust.

“Watch, with a bit of friction I’ll be under your clothes. With a bit of focus I’ll be under your skin,” Sara sings in “Sentimental Tune.” The words are simultaneously sexy and menacing, adding depth and tension to the upbeat radio pop instrumentation. In “Night Watch,” Sara lays an agonized “I need distance from your body. I deserve this anguish on my house” over the synth before kicking in to a club-ready new-wave chorus. Tegan channels her punk-rock past for the angsty “Northshore” and confesses, “Something’s so sick about this, my misery’s so addictive.”

There’s really not a single throwaway or lyrical dud on Sainthood, and the dance energy never lets up either. (Listening to the album on the train the other day, I had to repeatedly remind myself that one-woman Amtrak dance parties were not encouraged by the management. Or other passengers.) Frankly, this is as solid and cohesive a record as you could ask for. But does that make it great?

Well, kind of.

Sainthood is important, I think, because it reminds us that there is pop and dance music for grown-ups. Tegan and Sara take a frequently one-dimensional genre and fill it out, beef it up. They express their emotions and sentiments without feeling confined to the styles of music (folk, indie rock) generally reserved for that type of expression. Also, they make us very very badly want to dance in public.

Sainthood is probably not an album that is going to change the course of music as a whole. It is, though, an exemplar of its type, and I hope to see more like it. Your teenage daughter and your middle-aged colleague do too.

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