To christen my “best of right now” and most played list for 2013 to-date are two albums similar on the surface but disparate between the layers or more appropriately between the sheets. The first is Ra Ra Riot’s Beta Love and the second is Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob. In terms of instrumentation, both have an upbeat approach overall with some mellow moments interspersed, but in terms of execution, consistency and underlying sentiment they diverge. Perhaps as a result, they have been given correspondingly distinct critical reception.
Beta Love , Ra Ra Riot (released on January 25, 2013)
While this album has received lukewarm reviews from critics as an album, it seems to be a warranted exploration for the band. As Pitchfork elaborates,
“the brasher tracks on Beta Love come across as cathartic, as though the band is doing a silly dance or yelling obscenities as a necessary release from a stagnant situation. If that is the case, then the album’s understated moments are a reassuring reminder that Ra Ra Riot still have some of The Rhumb Line in them.”
I would agree with many of the reviews that previous albums were far more cohesive and instrumentally rich with the signature strings missing in action on most songs here. However, we hear some of the raw emotion and energy that was screaming to be let out, as if this is the culmination of the build up coming out all at once.
Perhaps it was too much too soon but even if the exposition is not a musical masterpiece in and of itself there are moments of genius. And from the perspective of a fan, it is a well-deserved treat for both the band and its listeners to let loose and rock out. The song that got me hooked in the first place, Is it Too Much, has the most musical depth and restraint with those often missed strings highlighted throughout and a calculated intensity that builds to leave you hanging or wondering what’s next… a perfect climax that leaves the listener to decide. In its height of playfulness, one can’t help but bop along to some of the more dance heavy synthesizer driven ditties such as Binary Mind, Angel, Please and I Shut Off.
Despite the slow drag and repetition of some tracks (Wilderness and What I Do for U), the album’s sentiment accurately reflects this as a part of Ra Ra Riot, not the whole…an essential piece longing to be acknowledged. As the lyrics succinctly capture, this is an expression of loneliness and a yearning for something more, for a completeness, whether that be in the form of poetic question or in a heightened declaration amongst dense electronics and elevated vocals. Miles sums it up well when he sings, “I wanna reach you with this binary mind, cause if I do I’m sure that we’ll be complete. That’s why I need this binary mind, so I can forget how lonely feels…” And don’t we all want to forget, even if only for 40 minutes of a hyped-up and at times prolific musical exploration.
Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara (released Janauary 29, 2013)
That brings us to Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara’s seventh (!?!) studio album. From the perspective of overall musical influence, this album also utilizes a familiar 80s pop and electronic driven sound. But in contrast to Ra Ra Riot’s more erratic exposition characterized by heightened moments of mania to depressive lulls of club-like slow jams, there is a sweetly yet solidly constructed musical consistency to the tracks on this album. From the loud and firm Goodbye, Goodbye that begins with a synthesizer intro leading into the strong declaration, “Goodbye, goodbye, I don’t want to feel the need to hear your voice…see your face” later deepening with a quieter electronic harp chord interlude to the souped-up ballad feel on Now I’m All Messed Up. The haunting stripped down piano intro on the latter gives way to the increasingly electronic musical build up and cleverly distinct but translatable lyrics, “Now I’m all messed up sick inside, wondering where, where you’re leaving your makeup…”
All in all, the beauty of the record lies with its ability to utilize that 80s influence without losing the signature Tegan and Sara introspection and unique inquiry into the well-traveled territory of love and heartbreak. They manage to pull off a veil of innocence while the wisdom of their 30 something years still manages to subtly break through. My favorites on the album are prime examples of this “years beyond youth” phenomenon bringing depth and unexpected heightened awareness to the catchy sometimes glitzy sounding pop music. The first is the lead single, Closer (released as a single in the summer) that begins honest and direct without the expected coyness or insincerity, “All I want to get is, a little bit closer” and later elaborating atop the oh so danceable beats, “It’s not just all physical, I’m the type that will get oh so critical. So, let’s make things physical, I won’t treat you like you’re oh so typical.” The second, I’m Not Your Hero, is a pensive admission of lessons learned and the passage of time starting with an upbeat but subdued guitar intro that leads up to the empowered chorus stating, “I’m not their hero, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t brave. I never walked the party line, doesn’t mean that I was never afraid. I’m not your hero, but that doesn’t mean we’re not one and the same.”
And perhaps the latter most accurately sums up the likeness and contrast between the two albums. While Beta Love struggles with a crisis of confidence or search for identity both as a theme and as an album, Heartthrob capitalizes on Tegan and Sara’s lyrical and vocal strengths to explore a more playful musical accompaniment that is careful not to lose their unique style.