It was 2004 when I was first introduced to Canadian pop duo Tegan & Sara. I’m sure I’ve written about it many times before, but in a nutshell: “Little” Steven Van Zandt turned me onto them via his radio show. Somehow, Little Steven was finally able to penetrate the thick cloud of testosterone swirling around my brain and he convinced me that women could rock and there was nothing wrong with a dude listening to “girl music.” Sure, it’s funny to look back on this now as some sort of revelation, but I was young and dumb smack dab in the middle of the country.
Since that time, I’ve followed Tegan & Sara’s careers with great interest. [Sidebar: I can’t believe SO JEALOUS, my favorite album of theirs, is 12 years old. Where the hell has the time gone? ] Over the years the duo have morphed from indie darlings to a much more mainstream act. Besides appearing on TV and the radio, the concert venues have been getting larger and larger. It’s all very exciting and I’m honestly very happy for them that they’ve found success. However, I’ve noticed that as their popularity increases Tegan & Sara seem to move further and further from the indie rock/folk sound that I loved so much when I first discovered them. This first became noticeable on their 2009 album SAINTHOOD. When it first came out I enjoyed SAINTHOOD, even though I noted that the sound skewed a bit more synth-pop than their previous albums. Then in 2013 they released HEARTTHROB, the album the launched them into the popular consciousness with the single “Closer.” When I heard this song in a JC Penny, I knew that Tegan & Sara were officially entering Kings of Leon territory.
Let me pause in order to make two things perfectly clear. First, I’d like to say that there is nothing wrong with a band evolving and changing over a period of time. I have a lot of trouble with this because on an emotional level, I just want things to stay the same forever. Like most humans, I profess that I love change and that chang is good all the while fearing change. Intellectually, I know The Beatles are a better band than say AC/DC because none of The Beatles records sound the same. The Fab Four changed and grew over the course of their albums and the world was all the better for it. When a band doesn’t grow and change over time they turn into a factory, endlessly producing the same product over and over. To the point where I honestly can’t tell the difference between the last 4 AC/DC albums. I love AC/DC and bands like them (The Ramones also come to mind) but let’s face it: doing the same thing over and over isn’t the same as jumping from “Love Me Do” to SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.
So while I poke fun of sell out bands like Kings of Leon that started out making cool garage rock with dirty lyrics who went on to become Mom Rockers, I can’t begrudge them from trying something new. Even if that new thing isn’t what I want. With Tegan & Sara, I wouldn’t want them to pump out endless clones of THIS BUSINESS OF ART or IF IT WAS YOU for the next fifteen years. I dearly love those records, but I don’t think that would make Tegan & Sara happy nor would it make me happy ultimately. Maybe I don’t like this new dance-pop direction they’ve taken, but who’s to say that this won’t lead them towards something new that I will love.
Tegan & Sara but out a new album recently, an album called LOVE YOU TO DEATH. Guess what? I didn’t really love it to death. I listened to it exactly once, because I’m a fan, and then I promptly forgot about it. The only thing I can exactly recall about it is that it’s painfully short. Like barely clocking in at 30 minutes short. Ten tracks short. The sort of release that feels like a band running out of steam. As I write this, I just pushed play on the album and right from the first song (“That Girl”) I find that I don’t hate this music. It just isn’t as good as “Time Running” or “Walking With A Ghost.” It’s not that Tegan & Sara are wrong and making less-inspired music, it must be that I just don’t like this sort of electro-pop music, right? Wrong.
One of my favorite albums to come out this year is III by Middle Class Fashion*. This album shares many of the same musical genetic components of the new wave of Tegan & Sara albums. The difference? Middle Class Fashion don’t do a serviceable job, they’re borderline brilliant. I actually think they’re brilliant, but I’m afraid to jinx them by throwing that sort of label around. The songwriting is tighter and more inspired, the arrangements are lusher and more interesting on III than they are on LOVE YOU TO DEATH. I’ve wanted to write about III and Middle Class Fashion since the album came out earlier this year, but I’ve been completely gobsmacked by it. The songs are all catchy and the lyrics are really interesting, but I have no idea what the songs are really about. Literate and mysterious, Middle Class Fashion remind me of REM’s Michael Stipe singing about how he’s gay without anyone in middle America picking up on that. My favorite song on III is a song called “86” which I think is both a reference to “86-ing something” and the year the lead singer was born, but honestly, that’s probably not even close. And I kind of love that about “86.” Compare that with the single off of LOVE YOU TO DEATH, “Boyfriend.” There’s nothing subtle or mysterious about “Boyfriend,” the song is pretty much what you think it’s about. I’m a fucking dunce and I know what that song is about.
What’s the difference between a band like Middle Class Fashion and Tegan & Sara? Besides the fact that Tegan & Sara are super-well-known. Middle Class Fashion are in the early stages of their careers, I suppose (III is the band’s third album, kinda like LED ZEPELLIN III, which makes me love them all that much more). But I think the difference between the two bands is more than just the chronology of the life of these bands. Middle Class Fashion exude a level of artistic confidence that Tegan & Sara had but somehow lost. I’m not privy to all the behind-the-scene goings on with either band, but I’ll wager someone in a very slick looking suit is influencing the artistic choices Tegan & Sara are making. Middle Class Fashion are probably doing exactly what they want to do and that comes through in the music. Also, the songwriter/singer in Middle Class Fashion is a fucking genius operating on a different level than the usual rock/pop singer-songwriter**.
Though on the surface Tegan & Sara and Middle Class Fashion have a lot in common, really this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Tegan & Sara have somehow wandered into the same sonic playground of Middle Class Fashion and suffer greatly through the comparison. I hope that this phase of Tegan & Sara’s career ultimately results in more interesting music and I hope Middle Class Fashion keep making great records. And if Middle Class Fashion want to genre-hop they’ve more than earned that right, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got an open mind and will follow artists I like down any rabbit hole, even if it’s just for one listen.
*Okay, so don’t kill me, but III is 11 tracks and 28 minutes long. But ya know, this is a good kind of brevity…
**Fun fact, I once stood behind the dude in Middle Class Fashion in line for beer after a show. I worked up the nerve to tell him how much I enjoyed their then-current album JUNGLE. No way in hell would I have done what with the singer.