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It's tempting, once in a while, to take pop music seriously. To do so would be folly, of course--the first step toward getting trapped in conversation with the Radiohead/Noam Chomsky enthusiast at your next dinner party. And sitting here at the Triple Rock, watching Tapes n Tapes play to a sparse Sunday night crowd, I'm reminded that a little goofiness can go a long way toward turning pop into something meaningful. The Minneapolis trio moves through fresh takes on indie rock, jerky punk, and galactic balladry, and then, in the middle of their set, they rib the Strokes for being rip-offs by ripping off the Strokes. When scruffy frontman Josh Grier, wearing a three-day ginger beard and a black hoodie over a Man or Astroman T-shirt, drones and yips his way through an anthem about the alienation implicit in a loaf of moldy bread, you can almost feel the crowd's hearts beating as one, swooning--they're probably thinking, I have a loaf of moldy bread in my lonely apartment too!
Maybe because their music appeals to carb-devouring hipsters in vintage T-shirts, Tapes n Tapes chose to make their new record in Webster, Wisconsin, home of the bread-eating Everyman. The band--who take their name from Grier's revelation that a four-track and cheap effects software can produce "tapes 'n' tapes of stupid-ass shit"--recently retreated into the middle of the wilderness to record seven tracks for their self-titled debut EP (Ibid Records).
"We could have given $3,000 to some dude," Grier points out backstage after the Triple Rock show, "or we could go up there, just the three of us, and do it ourselves. How difficult could it be?"
Apparently, more difficult than they thought: The album was committed to tape at bassist Matt Kretzmann's parents' cabin--which didn't have functional indoor plumbing during winter. "It was like four days out in this cabin shitting in the snow," Grier remembers. "I don't know if you've ever shat in the snow, but it's pretty rough. You're afraid you're going to fall over the entire time."
The rough, do-it-yourself recording process gives the album an experimental, early-stages-of-hypothermic-shock feel. The second track, "My Name Is Not Heratio," could be three people howling on the tundra, accompanied by a wheezing rhythm section that sounds like it was recorded in, well, a claustrophobic cabin in the middle of the woods. The album's closer, "8 or Ate," features Grier demanding, "Paddle as you row!" while his voice dissipates amidst a cacophony of tuneless guitars, stilted percussion, and cheap keyboards. It's hard to tell what metaphors he's alluding to in those four words, though Grier does say that the song was recorded after a beer jag at a Webster roadhouse where the band narrowly avoided confrontation with local ruffians.
"We were the only ones in there that didn't arrive by snowmobile," says Kretzmann.
"My hair was still pretty long," adds Grier. "They were going to beat the shit out of us."
Tapes n Tapes' unwillingness to take much of anything seriously pervades even their simplest love songs. Their EP's centerpiece, "50s Parking," is about finding a comfortable make-out spot to park your car. Opening with a funky, punk-ass bass intro, it finds Grier leering, "I think I'm making my move.../Hold/My hand/As I hold your eyes/Reach for those inner thighs." The lyric is a come-on, not a confession, but it's easy to be tricked into thinking otherwise by the earnest vocals and the dreamy keyboard melody. Though the band's off-kilter instrumentation ensures that it comes across as something wryer and weirder than a typical make-out song--something like a good joke.
At their Triple Rock show, the rock 'n' roll ruse continues, with Tapes n Tapes trying to hold a straight face throughout the beat box disaster "Sweet N Low." In a rather dismaying turn of events, Grier unstraps his electric guitar and orders the guy at the mix board to "turn up the CD player." Grier and Kretzmann then try to flow along to the PA's tinny beats as drummer Karl Schweitz pounds along to the rhythm. Grier sloppily raps his way through couplets like "Sweet n Low/Not a Ho," later extending the line to "Sweet n Low/F-U-C-K-T-H-A-T-H-O." (When I ask him about the song after the show, Grier demurs, "Sometimes, it's 'F-U-C-K-T-H-A-T-B-R-O.'")
"The rhyme was easy," Grier says, recalling how he first recorded the track with Tapes n Tapes founding member Steve Nelson in their Carleton dorm room. "Steve wrote most of it right away, but it took forever to record it on my four-track, because we couldn't stop laughing." Nelson has since gone on to a Ph.D. program in New York, leaving his former bandmate with the lyrics.
"A lot of people encourage us not to do the song," acknowledges Grier. "But it's just a parody of bad hip hop--you know, when you're at a show and the guys are going Yeah! Uh-huh! to pre-recorded music?"
It's hard to say how a future political scientist would make sense of "Sweet n Low." Are these young men trying to deconstruct the nature of rap as a recorded medium for performance? Are they trying to point out the absurdity of the urban preference for artificial sweetener? These wonkish questions make me sound like a jerk for analyzing pop music at all. And maybe that's what Tapes n Tapes are trying to do with their sloppy rap parody: They're saving me--well, they're saving all of us--from making that serious of a mistake. As Grier himself admits, laughing, "None of the songs are about fucking anything."
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