Review: Tancred – ‘Tancred’

[Image Courtesy of Topshelf Records]

Topshelf Records, 2013.

by Chad Jewett

In a review of “The Ring,” the opening track from Tancred’s eponymous album, I compared Jess Tancred’s falsetto to Jenny Lewis, while also stressing just how lazy the “female indie voice = Jenny Lewis” equation so often is. I stand by that point, not because I think there is anything wrong in linking female artists to one another – indeed, there needs to be more work in the indie/emo scene to recognize a tradition beyond the conventional boys club that still persists – but because I don’t think these comparisons, by and large, are deployed thoughtfully or fairly. When it comes to male artists and male-fronted bands, it seems like the critical standard is a very committed game of “most obscure reference.” For girl-fronted bands, it seems more like a dismissive, automatic reduction to the female voice closest to hand, then a quick moving on. With that said, Tancred reminds me of Rilo Kiley.

But while “The Ring,” and a similar moment in late-album track, “Hard to Leave” do offer a mix of conversational alto (prevalent for most of this record), punctured by falsetto illumination that has me wondering where exactly I left my copy of Takeoffs and Landings, it’s the stuff around Jess Tancred’s voice that reminds me of Rilo Kiley’s mid-career peak. Namely, this means a commitment to a reedy, Telecaster sepia-tone that I always pictured whenever a band was described as being from “the Midwest” (Jess Tancred’s full-time band, Now Now, hails from Minneapolis, although second track “Allston” betrays some New England roots). Mid-album highlight “In The Night” is especially evocative of this sound at its best; sometimes it’s enough to get a mood just right, and spend some time on it. Call it defamiliarizing the rhythm guitar: hearing these considerable interludes of tenor crunch reveal the tiny grace notes that so often go unnoticed in this sound. The song closes with Tancred repeating a cooed “in the night,” beautifully rendering the song’s late-evening restiveness. The album mainly settles into this steady indie-emo churn, pleasant and crisp, that chooses its dynamics carefully and, like the best moments of The Execution of All Things, rides a very specific, finely-grained mid-range expressive of a kind of late-twenties poignancy.

The album’s amber tint and disciplined balance sounds like the kind of music one writes when Green Day begins to speak to you less and Yo La Tengo starts to speak to you more, or when you first put down No Pocky For Kitty in favor of Here’s Where The Strings Come In. Tancred’s second track, “Allston,” sneaks in an assuming lead that barely departs from the song’s progression, reminiscent of the guitar-work of Blake Sennett (or a less caffeinated Mac McCaughan), who, at his best, found ways to punctuate Rilo Kiley’s emotional pop with unassuming grace and wit. It’s the charm of small moments. So while Jess Tancred ably raises several songs’ stakes with a vocal range that is affective in the same way that Jenny Lewis’ better work is, I find Tancred appealing for the ways in which its low-key brightness and lived-in quality evoke the parts of Rilo Kiley’s discography that go under-noticed, but are likely the reason that band’s work still resonates.

Maybe it’s because basketball season is almost upon us, but I find “Indiana” especially salient here, perhaps only because the Pacers’ dark blue and gold are exactly the dominant pallet at work on this record (as is the Hoosier’s foliage-drive crimson). These are nighttime, Indian summer songs that retain their heat post-sunset, especially since tunes like “Indiana” so often depend far more on slight movements rather than visible changes. At first listen, some of these tunes might disappoint by overcommitting to a single good idea, but instead, they charm with their ability to change so subtly. “Indiana” is realistically one progression and one melody, but it’s also one organic whole that feels specific in roughly the same way as the few days in early Fall when it’s both warm and cold. There are a couple moments where this doesn’t work out as well; “Creases,” for example, has all the autumnal halo of the rest of the album, but the song’s relative energy calls for a more committed hook, making it a bit disappointing, rather than pleasantly reassuring, when long spaces are filled with that same lurching, crunchy gait. Sometimes there just needs to be an honest-to-god chorus. Far better are the guitar-as-hook spaces in “When You’re Weak” when these moment’s feel like they compliment Jess Tancred’s voice rather than leave you asking where it went – a symbiosis largely accomplished by the subtle drumming here that lets the progression punch in its instrumental form, rather than sag.

Less easy to place is album closer “The Worst Kind.” The song offers a lovely melody and a poignant piano accompaniment, all the better to ask yourself what the album’s very determined sense of aural and spatial values means in light of lyrics like “I am the evil pushing through your eyes, I am the darkest shades of red rushing to your thighs.” While a less sympathetic reading might see some of emo’s less helpful guilt-miserablism in lyrics like “I am the worst kind of person,” I think the difference lies in the way the song plays with notions of misleading narration, as well as concepts of “beauty” and “ugliness,” mainly emotional and interpersonal. Ultimately, it is by no means settled whether or not Jess Tancred’s closing words are her own solipsistic self-assessment, or her ironic engagement with whatever the mysterious “you” lazily thinks of her.

The album doesn’t break the thirty-minute mark, which for a record that, besides its slightly out-of-character closing track, is committed to a very specific sound and dynamic, feels about right. You’ll hear all of it on an errand, or a trip to the mall, or any drive that is slightly longer than the one you’re used to, from school or work. I live in rural New England and I can already tell you it’ll be just about perfect. It’s color scale will last through December, so keep it in your car for your drive to your aunt’s for Thanksgiving, and hopefully that drive will be through some halfway decent countryside, someplace that can fill in all the clever spaces that Tancred wisely leaves open, the spaces for you to make this record your own. 

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