#12: Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

(Warner Bros., 2013)


(Image from Wikipedia)

I’m going to be honest, the first couple of times I listened to this album, it came as a shock to me when it ended. A lot of that I can chalk up to the relatively short running length of the album (it falls a few minutes short of the 40-minute mark). It bears the hallmarks of a classic pop album in that way – sub-40-minute running time, no songs past 4 minutes (“I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” being the exceptions, tipping the scales at 4:19 and 4:09, respectively), and each a solid, densely-packed little nugget of catchy melodies and ear-catching tones exploring personal themes of love and heartbreak. It also all kind of sounds the same.

There is an insistent beat that moves throughout every track of the album, moving it along at a reasonable pace, doling the bass drum out fairly and liberally which serves to sort of flatten a lot of the proceedings – you never get a chance to forget you’re listening to a pop song; there’s no sort of “out” moment that makes you cock your head and say “wait a second…”, there’s no sharp chord or quail that juts out.  It’s all determined by the straightforward beat.

The glossy production has a lot to do with the uniformity of the sound. The details within the tones of the songs have been tweaked to within an inch of their lives. The synthesizers are buzzing with just enough gain to be noticed, very occasionally pulling back their lips and baring their teeth, but never with malice. Every corner of the aural space is filled right up most of the time, leaving no space for extra emphasis or ‘heightening’ come the chorus (the slower piano-based “I Was A Fool” provides a couple moments of respite).

Having a homogenous sound is detrimental in some ways, but can afford the listener a different perspective on things. Since each song is using the same set of instruments – the same constraints – it’s easier to focus in on the differences that do exist between each song. In the case of the sisters Quin, it’s the melodies.

The melodies themselves are quite engaging – swooping down, stopping and starting, charting an actual interesting course through each song, in sharp contrast to the ‘bed’ upon which the melodies sit. These comprise the heart of the album and the rewards to be taken away from it. They are surprisingly heartfelt and would sit just fine on top of a threadbare acoustic guitar as they do in their original context.

When blended together, Tegan & Sara’s voices actually sound like a patch on a very articulate synthesizer, which provides a solid vehicle for delivering the melodies – a very rounded, whole sound with the harmonies woven into the structure as opposed to just sitting on top of the ‘real’ melody.

Overall, I found this album fairly disappointing. The core of the songs are quite good, and would not be out of place in a singer-songwriter context, but are confronted on all sides by instruments taking up the vast amount space that exists between the headphones and a glossy sheen that lays on top that would rather you dance instead of getting too close.


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