(photo: Autumn DeWilde)
Scan the discographies of the many promising bands that failed to meet their potentials and you’ll see a landscape littered with disappointing sophomore albums.
Debuts are easy. They’re filled with urgent and authentic tracks that capture a lifetime of ideas feverishly distilled and realized. Bands tend to follow up those offerings with bloated, indulgent creations bankrolled by new record deals, or with scattershot, inconsistent efforts that reflect an unease or uncertainty in their original vision.
The best groups—those rare breeds that craft a stronger collection of songs on their second release—are ones that maintain the essence of their initial sound while expanding upon that core with progressive, daring and unique sonic explorations. From Neutral Milk Hotel to Miguel, the best examples of second helpings are ones that build upon the finely-crafted worlds formed by their predecessors.
In 2012, Brooklyn-based duo Tanlines—the headliners of the 2015 Phono del Sol Music & Food Festival presented by The Bay Bridged—released their debut LP, Mixed Emotions, an ebullient and infectious collage of synth-based pop songs that completely captured the zeitgeist of indie music at the time. On May 19, for their highly-anticipated follow-up, the group issued Highlights, an album that maintains the DNA of Mixed Emotions while infusing new layers and nuances that add depth of meaning to their debut. It’s clear that any worries about the dreaded sophomore slump for Tanlines have been quashed.
While maintaining the tropicalia, breezy groundwork that marked their earlier releases, Tanlines fleshed out their sound, filtering in additional live instrumentation in the form of extra guitars and percussion for Highlights. The more-mature sounding tracks—album centerpiece “Invisible Ways” has a nomadic, world-weary feel to it and is anchored by crystalline guitar play—mark a stark evolution from the group’s early singles, which relied nearly solely on electronic programming. (It’s also worth noting that Tanlines’ songs are nearly-universally described in ocean-specific geography terms like Caribbean and Balearic. It’s impossible to listen to their music without thinking of the beach.)
“It just seemed like the natural progression for us,” said drummer and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Cohen, who makes up one-half of the group alongside guitarist and vocalist Eric Emm. “But there were definitely some fears to this process as well. When we first started adding in these guitar-based elements to the songs, I started thinking to myself, ‘is this still a Tanlines’ song?’ Ultimately, we knew we had to move forward. To go from making these goofy remixes on the internet to creating songs on a computer to having a richer, more live sound, was the direction we needed to head in.”
Working with a producer for the first time—Chris Taylor, of Grizzly Bear—the duo recorded the songs with a full band, another departure from their usual routine.
“We actually made a lot of the music in this church that Chris uses as his recording studio,” said Cohen. “You can practically feel the air from that place on this record.”
Tanlines, led by Emm’s invocative, almost-haunted lyrics, have always played with the concept of a pop song, marrying airy musical arrangements with profound wordplay. But in tracks like “Running Still” and album-closed “Darling Dreamer,” the heaviness of the music matches the narrative.
“One thing that’s very important to us is for Tanlines to be me and Eric, regardless of what we sound like,” said Cohen. “We’d like to expand and do different things, but still be identified clearly as Tanlines. We don’t view Highlights as a total departure from our early stuff, but we know it’s a change of pace.”
Despite the weightier feel, Highlights is far from some sort of existential downer—there are plenty of trademark Tanlines’ creations, notably album-opener, “Pieces,” a perky combination of warm synth sounds and propulsive percussion. “Palace” is another example of the effortless, sun-kissed pop that Tanlines have perfected.
The duo’s cheeky sense of humor is also clearly intact. On Cohen’s suggestion, the group designed its website in a faux-Netflix format, replete with stereotypical movie synopses to describe the songs on Highlights (which were streamed on the site before the album’s release.) They also released a whimsical video for “Pieces,” where Cohen and Emm inhabit the roles of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in a White Men Can’t Jump parody that showcased their amateur basketball skills (sadly in the end, they lose handily in a game of two-on-two against some formidable opponents.)
Despite the potential copyright infringement, Cohen said the response from Netflix was actually very positive—the media streaming giant posted a Tweet in support of the band after being notified of the website design. Cohen said the video and website were an integral part of the overall package for the release of Highlights.
“It was all part of our aesthetic process,” said Cohen. “We had a great time doing it, and I actually think the video comes off as pretty endearing. It’s clear we’re not any good at basketball, but we’re trying.”
After touring for a year-and-a-half in support of Mixed Emotions, Cohen said he’s eager to get back on the road again. For the first time, they’ll be supported by an extra guitarist and percussionist. They’ve played a handful of gigs with the new live lineup and Cohen said the reaction from fans so far has been extremely positive.
“I’ve had a blast doing it,” said Cohen. “When we played live before, so much of our sound was coming from computers and through the PA system. It was actually very quiet on stage. It’s nice to have some of that noise back.”
One spot the band always looks forward to playing is San Francisco, said Cohen. He cited past performances at the Rickshaw Stop as highlights of the band’s touring schedule. When offered a chance to headline Phono del Sol, Cohen said the group jumped on the opportunity.
“I could tell immediately that Phono del Sol is put on by a group of people who love music and care a lot about musicians,” said Cohen. “Surprisingly, that isn’t always the case for festivals.”
Cohen said he’s particularly excited to play Potrero del Sol Park.
“There are some cities where you just have to drag yourself to these crappy venues,” said Cohen. “This place looks really cool. I think it’s going to be a great time.”