Tapes ‘n Tapes’ 2006 debut, The Loon, was met with a kind of begrudging appreciation. Josh Grier and his Minnesotan bandmates had sewed a patchwork of indie rock’s greatest moments: sly, angular guitars, abstractly emotional vocals, and frenetic time-signature-switching. It was difficult to deny that Tapes ‘n Tapes’ breezy mastery of the indie canon produced an admirable, addicting batch of tunes, but the debt to Pavement, Pixies, Modest Mouse, and others was all too obvious. Ask around the blogosphere, and you’ll find that few expect Tapes ‘n Tapes to garner another enthusiastic response, to be able to once again successfully toe the fine line between inspired pastiche and brazen mimicry. It’s hardly snarky to say that even fans of Loon will approach Walk It Off expecting to be disappointed.
Give credit, then, to Tapes ‘n Tapes for braving the backlash with not a small amount of swagger and even a few doses of anger. Where Loon swerved from the blistery anthem “Insistor” to the dreamy “Manitoba” in just a few clicks, on Walk It Off the band settles comfortably into tight, barreling guitar rock. Tapes ‘n Tapes have come up with a studied update of slacker rock, allowing for less space than that found on Pavement’s lowest-fi releases; their sound has moved from the suburbs into a cramped basement on the bad side of town and become more disillusioned and desperate. The organ-bass-guitar-drums setup seems crammed tightly together, with mics feeding into one another and Grier’s warble barely rising above the raucous accompaniment.
Consider the album’s forgettable first two numbers, the power-punk leaning “Le Ruse” and tremulous dozer “Time of Songs,” stylistic throat-clearers. “Hang Them All” begins the album’s strongest section, a quartet of uninhibited rockers throughout which the band suddenly stops self-consciously revisiting their favorite bands and starts living up to their legacy with tight-fingered determination. The choppy guitar licks and bass interplay on “Hang Them All” ascends to an organ-led coda that sounds like an American workingman’s Bloc Party. The distorted, low-register “Headshock” is The Moon and Antarctica, Brockian neurosis substituted by Grier’s spirited wailing. Jaunty strummers “Conquest” and “Say Something Back” reduce the intensity, but the instrumental cohesion and subtle borrowing (“Say Something Back” cribs a riff from the Strokes’ “Last Nite,” which itself was a copy of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,”) remain distinctly enjoyable.
The last third of the album sags a little, with the meandering, overcooked “Demon Apple” and the Stooges retread “Blunt.” But “George Michael” takes the first notes of “Faith” and builds a noise- and horn-inflected construction atop a dance-punk foundation; not the best song on the album but its most original. “The Dirty Dirty” may be directed at the crooked Wall Street magicians who put our economy in the tank: “Where did all the money go?” Grier howls on the six-minute floor-stomper, an angry, ecstatic closer to an uneven album that just barely avoids the sophomore slump. Tapes ‘n Tapes may have not quit wearing their influences on their sleeves, but at least they’re starting to fill out their fanboy T-shirts with muscular, big-hearted playing.