Album Review: Tegan & Sara – Sainthood
(Posted at OneThirtyBpm.com)
For most indie fans, Tegan & Sara are a hard sell – branded by pitchfork with the infamous ‘tampon rock’ iron, their blend of melodramatic emo-pop (supplied by Tegan) and warped, squawked folk (supplied by Sara) has managed to make them the unconventional heroines of disillusioned, alienated teenagers everywhere – however, on ‘Sainthood’, Tegan & Sara have far more in common with the skyscraping, indie-pop majesty of fellow Canadians Stars, or the new-wave bluster of The Ravonettes, than the eye-liner caked emo-popsters usually the subjects of adolescent idolisation.
The album gets off to an odd start with the sparse ‘Arrow’ – as jagged as it’s namesake, Sara’s feverish, anaemic yelps over jagged, pulsating synths seem, promisingly, a little more experimental than normal T&S fodder – however, that flickering mutiny is quickly distinguished as the discordant synths slowly melt into the backdrop as a breathless, more orthodox Tegan & Sara chorus surges to the forefront – it seems that Sara’s brief foray into experimentalism has proved ephemeral.
As with any double act, Tegan and Sara both have their respective strengths – Tegan is indisputably the loudest of the two, her punchy, boisterous yelp is perfectly buoyed along by the nerve-shredding currents of guitars that indicate her compositions, while Sara’s voice is far more delicate – high and wan, it has more in common with the incongruous warbles of freak folkie Joanna Newsom than any of their indie rock peers. Tegan’s songs tend to veer on the offensive – they forcibly wrench an emotion from the listener’s gullet, rather than Sara’s gentle, heartbroken probing and coercing. Despite being twins, Tegan and Sara’s individual styles are almost entirely contradictory, and at times, their work can feel conflicted – a furious mesh of divergences and eventual conciliations.
These contradictions obviously have had an effect on the twin’s hardcore fan base – each fan is firmly in either Camp Tegan or Camp Sara, whether they identify more with Tegan’s adrenaline-fuelled power pop, or with Sara’s more contemplative, introspective folk.
However, even if you do prefer Sara’s sporadic moments of subtlety, the crowning moment of ‘Sainthood’ is undeniably the pulse-pounding head-rush of single ‘Hell’ – throbbing guitars and wobbly synths swirl around Tegan’s rushed, snarling delivery. ‘Hell’ provides a rare instance in which Tegan’s garbled verbosity works to her advantage – her furious tumble through the tongue-knotting syllables of ‘No, we’re not ready for fair distribution/ Just a terminal solution for hell, hell/ No, no’ keeps the pulse of ‘Hell’ sufficiently bracing.
At times ‘Sainthood’ feels like a patchwork quilt of an album–they may be sewn under the same band name, the same surname and the same asymmetrical fashion mullets, but as performers, their styles are continually evolving away from each others – almost to the point that ‘Sainthood’ feels like a double album by two solo artists, rather than a cohesive band album. Even their harmonies represent this growing distance – they seem to have ditched the fluid, closed harmonies of their past, and now prefer to sing entirely incongruously to each other – Tegan often yelping distractingly over Sara’s low, soothing murmur.
It’s no surprise then that the one track that the Quin sisters have joined forces and written together is distinctly unaffecting – ‘Paperback Head’ is an aimless dawdle through some of the most gauche lyrics produced by the twosome – ‘A paperback girl, you get carried away/ Stitch up your spine, keep the suitors away’. Yes, quite.
However, despite ‘Sainthood’ imperfections – which will be undoubtedly be lavishly overlooked and forgiven by legions of fans – Tegan & Sara have still retained their impeccable pop sensibilities – such as on the yearning, siren-like ‘The Ocean’, and on the incendiary ‘Northshore!’, where Sara’s tightly-wound, interwoven melodies gracefully trip over each other, and raise the twins to dizzyingly, giddy heights.