A Should-be Classic: Tegan and Sara’s The Con

About four years ago I was renovating a house myself—doing tile-work, demolition, painting, you name it—and commuting a lot. In my car, I listened to the radio; in the house, headphones. When I was actually in my office to talk to students I was, for better or worse, usually exhausted, a bit over-caffeinated and still vibrating with whatever music I found compelling that week. During one of the meetings, a quiet girl told me she was going to a major music festival in our region. I said I was going too. She asked which band I was most excited to see. I turned into a teenaged girl from New Jersey.

I don’t know how I first found out about Tegan & Sara. Maybe it was an iTunes suggestion or, better, probably Pandora. I know it wasn’t the magical musical treasure trove and I certainly know that no one I know suggested the band to me because I have only ever known one other person who even knew the band’s name. Yes, a female college student.

teganOne of the strange things about being around college students is the by now trite observation that they are always the same age and I keep getting older. This is awkward, especially, when, as has happened, they find out I like the same music that they do or, on more than one occasion, they have spotted me at a music venue. When students come to my office, sometimes music comes up. They are usually surprised by (a) how much I care about it and (b) what bands I actually like.

When I reflect on the fact that I don’t know anybody who listens to this band (except for college-aged women), I don’t really feel bad about it because I feel like the music is my personal possession and I can live with that. I can live with seeming strange to have been obsessed with twin Canadian sisters who put out music that really sounds like nothing I have heard before.Tegan_and_Sara_-_The_Con_cover

What makes me think about Tegan and Sara now? They have a new album out (Hearthrob, 2013) that I downloaded the night it came out and probably will review; I have failed to get anyone to listen to the band, even my wife. My children, who will listen to almost anything, look at me quizzically when I play their music. I feel I must defend them, must marshal an explanation. But, really, the music should stand for itself.

And it is the set-up of the band that makes the initial difference. These sisters are really in-sync as musicians; they have the type of cohesion and harmony that only those who are related, lovers, or music partners of years can possibly achieve. In addition, the interchangeability of their guitar playing and vocals (coupled with a production team that often doubles up the effect) makes for a unity of sound that is quite surprising and engaging. The harmonies are close and surprising; the instrumentation is tight and taut.

Yet, none of this does a good job of explaining what makes the band different and special. (Don’t we all want to be different and special?). Tegan & Sara’s best album, the one I think I would certainly take to my Desert Island, is 2007’s The Con. (So Jealous is nearly as good; there are some great tracks on If it Was You). What makes the band great and different bursts through on the first song and persists throughout the entire album.

The song starts with close harmony put through an effect to add a slight choral fugue over a limited but varied innstrumentation (roving bass, single piano notes and picked guitar). The vocals don’t have a true lead—the sisters sing in unison here and then echo each other until they resolve and the earlier “I look into the mirror for evil that does not exist” is answered by the final ”try to control the pull of one magnet / to another magnet”. The rise and fall of emotions is swift: the song comes in at under two minutes. The ambiguity yet sharpness of the words combines with the adventurous yet never dissonant music to make you (or at least me) starve for more.

My favorite song from the album is the final “Call it Off”—I know that the brilliance and the brevity of this song has led me to listen to it over and over again. The song starts with a bright guitar plucking, rhythmic and made-up of major scales. One sister sings along until the bridge when the other jumps in with an echo, a mirror of the first voice yet spectral or ephemeral in the background. Once the song moves faster, the guitar pattern is doubled too and it becomes a moving wall of music. For the second verse, a synthesizer adds an extra layer of sound. For the crescendo alone the song is exceptional.

My description does little to honor the beauty of the song—another that is so short that you must listen over and over again.  The song is about the dissolution of a relationship, and its arrangement seems to echo that sense. The single vocalist isn’t echoed until the lines “Call, break it off  / Call, break my own heart”, the repetition of which (the words “call”, “break” “my”, and “heart”) is ghostly and dislocated. The next line, heartbreaking and simple, reaffirms this dissociation

Maybe I would have been

Something you’d be good at

Maybe you would have been

Something I’d be good at

But now we’ll never know

I won’t be sad

But in case

I’ll go there

Everyday,

To make myself feel bad

There’s a chance

I’ll start to wonder

If this was the thing to do

The simplicity of the words becomes is sharpened by the rawness of the singer’s vocal (especially in comparison with the slickness of the ghost-effect on the backing vocal). The words become impossible not to hear as earnest dosed with a hard-won and begrudged wisdom. The yearning to “be good” at someone seems awkward and strange, yet upon repetition and contemplation it sits as a simple truth and a simple need. To be good at someone? To love successfully—to not have to stop, to not have to call it off.

I know, my brother. I know. This probably sounds like some ‘emo’ shit to you. But I dare you to listen to this song, to feel the harmonies and to think about the care and precision put into the composition. I dare you to do this and then give two shits about whether or not it is too sentimental. This music is not merely pretty. It is honest, well-made, and sounds unlike anything I have ever heard.

(Even if it sometimes makes me want to off myself.)

In fact, I dare you, my brother, and anyone else, to listen to the whole album and insist that it possesses nothing of wonder or daring. The second track (“Relief Next to Me”—a song where the vocalist admits that she is can provide no ‘relief’ in the dark now, but may not be that way her entire life) is more rhythmic than the first or last song, the guitar rocks a little more, and they apply distortion here and there. There is far more than sadness to these twins. Again, the vocals are bright, sharp and knit into major and minor interval harmonies and alternations that are surprising, almost proggy (reminding me often of some of the sounds mastered by Mates of State).

Similarly fast-paced—withmore growl in the vocals and spitfire in the spirit—is the third and title song “The Con” (a reflection on friendship or a relationship where the singer has eavesdropped on an addressee and her world is coming apart as a result). Yet, the songs I think of most when I think of this band are those like the fourth track “Knife Going in” which starts with dissonant jumping guitar notes and the following lyrics “If I don’t recover / sell this house and find / something lost outside your window.”

Of course, the song is about an unidentified pain, about the anxiety of it expressed in the chorus and title of the song. It isn’t the sentiment (which is depressive and obsessive) that I find compelling as much as the combination of the words and music. Where the lyrics seem defeatist and emotive, the music is more defiant and adventurous as if the pain is not a reason to give up, but instead something to exhilarate (the listener) and make a declaration of life all the more insistent.

The musical contrasts in a single song map out as well onto the album as a whole. The fifth track bursts with a synthetic drum/bass beat underneath several vocal layers that flirt with disharmony but always resolve into precise intervals. The sisters sing together on “Are You Ten Years Ago” all while  using the close unison to stand in contrast to the wilder vocals spread around and below. The song ends with an “I collapse”, yet it is in the middle when the music simplifies and they sing together “I lose track of where I’m going and lose track of how to get going again/ I feel myself slowing down / Feel myself turning around”. The expression of one thing (being lost) is not in fact undone by the opposite claim (identifying rotation and slowing). But rather, the doubt expressed by the word ‘feel’, which is not the same as knowing, points to the complexity of the situation.

(Have I lost you yet?)

The sisters are not always somber. Tracks like the sixth “Back in your Head” are more playful musically (centered by the desire of the title “I just want back into your head”) and lyrically, buoyed by the opening line “Build a wall of books / between us in our bed,” which could introduce a comedy or a tragedy. The following song, “Hop a Plane” drives in with a punk guitar strum and similar drum beat. The song is another failed relationship song (“All I need to hear is that you’re not mine”) with the ire focused at the lover who has “hopped a plane” assuming that the singer would be waiting. The energetic spite of a neglected lover who has overcome the rejection and is just waiting for the opportunity to vent her spleen drives the song and matches the tone well.

With the eighth song, “Soil, Soil”, we are back to a beautiful combination of vocals and agile enunciation of almost too many words for a short time (under a minute and half). Yet, like the final song, the beauty of the alternating words, the harmonies and the backing vocals is just overwhelming. Again, the song is about a lonely or isolated singer, who asks for one thing:

Oh and I’m feeling

Directionless yes

But that’s to be expected

And I know that best

And in creeps the morning

And another day’s lost

You’ve just written wondering

And I reply fast

All you need to save me

All you need to save me

Call (call)

Again, the lyrics are maudlin but meaningful and well-measured, and the saccharine composition wraps itself around that simple need and request (“call”) that is at once too little and too much to do. The desperation of the plea is almost undone by the fact that this song is about the memory of the death of a rodent (ok, one wrapped around unrequited love for a girl). Yet, the fierceness of the feelings and the rawness of the loss attests to the power of the performance.

If the band seems too ‘emo’, listen to the live shows and witness the humor with which the girls approach their despair and the evenness of their expression of sorrow. The complexity of this use of emotion is on display is clear from the later songs “Nineteen” and “Floorplan” where the emotions are never as simple as they seem at first witness. They combine anger, vulnerability and play in a way that far older muicians never achieve. Yet, after such harrowing songs, they laugh and smile. (Are Canadians just superior human beings?)

The penultimate song “Dark Come Soon” brings us to the question of this type of music—both its creation and reception—which is why do we (or I) want to stew in what seems like misery? It starts out somber and perhaps self-pitying, but the drums bang it back into something more reflective and aggressive when the band declares “So what I lied / I lied to me too”. This ambivalence about deception (or recognition of its palindromic nature) is revisited in the following line where they invoke us to “Hold out for the ones you know will love you / hide out from the ones you know will love you”.

To wait for the ones who love us but also to hide from them? This may seem paradoxical and absurd, but it is an apt representation of what people do, of how we sabotage ourselves, and how the only thing more human than self-sabotage is denial about that self-sabotage.

I will concede that this band may not be for everyone. The sounds are sweet yet at times chaotic. The voices are pure in tone but not diva-quality. The arrangements sometimes sound similar, but each one harbors some moment of delight (amid the depression). If you feel better from feeling bad, if you feel lightened from feeling pain with someone rather than because of them, if you love interesting music that unpacks, dissects and catalogs pain (even without naming it), listen to The Con. I did.

Did I persuade you my brother, or is this band just too much for you?

13 comments on “A Should-be Classic: Tegan and Sara’s The Con

  1. theyoungerj says:

    I actually kind of enjoyed this man. I particularly liked call it off and the banter about Cyndi Lauper and the blender. Lastly, I will not lie, I find these girls very attractive.

    • theelderj says:

      Their album “So Jealous” is really good. You might like ” I Know, I know I know” or “Walking with a Ghost”.

      I didn’t watch any videos of the sisters until years after becoming a fan. I find the humility and understatedness of their live comments very refreshing (and very Canadian).

  2. brook says:

    Love this post…check out my number…love u man

  3. […] mostly the latter. I have been immersed in this scene/music for a long time, yet the Elder J in his indie rock tower introduces me to this band. I’m […]

  4. […] Mates of State use the piano and harmonies (over adventurous drumming) to create a differen sound. Tegan and Sara (in their earlier albums) combine tight song structure, with almost mechanical repeated […]

  5. […] will not lie about my disappointment in this album. As I have confessed openly, I love this band. But this album goes somewhere in the direction of 80’s synth-pop that I cannot really follow. […]

  6. […] someone give me another choice…) I started a Mates of State radio station, added some Tegan and Sara and, on a lark, threw in some Jose Gonzalez (because, come on, who doesn’t want the spare […]

  7. […] picked this cut for you brother, I know of your love for Tegan and Sara. The woman who actually does it in the song is a lot more soulful, but this is fun and even more […]

  8. […] also love Tegan and Sara, a duo you will not be hearing on Jack FM. College Radio has love for these Canadian […]

  9. […] Sung Tongs; Bad Religion’s The Empire Strikes First; Rilo KIley’s More Adventurous; Tegan and Sara’s So Jealous; Arcade Fire’s Funeral; Stars’, Set Yourself on Fire; Ray LaMontagne’s […]

  10. […] albums. I will not lie about my disappointment in this album. I know I keep announcing how much I love this band. The overlapping harmonies are still there, but the sisters’ voices just seem too small for the […]

  11. www.tss.nu says:

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