Tapes ‘n Tapes released their debut album in 2006, at a time when the music press had finally come to terms with the star-making power of the online hype machine, when every blogger and upstart music mag was looking to pimp the next Strokes or Arcade Fire. It was, in hindsight, a very good time to be a little known Minneapolis foursome with a facility for indie-rock pastiche. And I don’t mean to imply that Tapes ‘n Tapes simply got the hype while the hype was good: Listening to The Loon, you got the impression that these guys had spent much of their adolescence listening to the same indie records, learning Pavement riffs, and deciphering Black Francis’s cryptic tirades as you did. They weren’t just hip, they were relatable. Loveable, even.
Now it’s 2011, and it’s not just that the T-‘n-T house blend has grown more predictable (you know from the way “The Saddest of All Keys” begins as a plodding dirge what kind of squalling finale is headed your way), it’s the more nagging suspicion that Tapes ‘n Tapes is still worshiping Steven Malkmus and faithfully awaiting the return of Jeff Mangum while every other indie band that’s three albums deep has either moved on or folded in. On the one hand, bands like Arcade Fire have embraced the classic rock of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, Sufjan Steven has embraced the synthesizer, and even the misfits in Deerhunter have started writing songs with choruses. On the other hand, does anyone even care what the Decemberists or Wolf Parade are doing these days? Does anyone still listen to that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album that was supposed to have saved rock n’ roll? About the only relevant band still carrying the torch for the once-formidable genre of yelpy, angular indie with hyper-literate lyrics is Vampire Weekend, who succeed in large part because Ezra Koenig is proving to be one of his generation’s most gifted songwriters.
That means trouble for acts like Tapes ‘n Tapes, who, unschooled in the art of the gratifyingly huge chorus or the indefatigable groove, make as much as they can out of abrupt shifts in tempo and mood, supposing that if a song is dynamic then it must also be interesting. This, as the stop starting “Freak Out” and the initially slight and eventually cacophonous “On and On” demonstrates, is not the case. In fact, Tapes ‘n Tapes sounds best when they play it straight and straightforwardly imitative: The opening pair of “Badaboom” and “SWM” may recall the Strokes and Modest Mouse, respectively, but they’re fine songs in their own right, and it’s not as though either of those bands has released a lot of stellar material recently. Obviously, Tapes ‘n Tapes wouldn’t be content as a glorified indie-rock cover band, but what Outside lacks is a sense of what they would want to be instead. If this isn’t just meta indie meant to entertain folks who love indie rock and not a whole lot else, then what is it?