by Chad Jewett
“Cool,” the opening track from Tigers Jaw’s latest LP, Charmer, is, like most of the band’s work, a product of simple components arrayed to transcend. Tigers Jaw are a band that leave quite a lot to chance for a (now) pair of musicians whose craft is resolutely workman-like. Their songs are frequently as austere as a log cabin, which means they can be both startlingly well-constructed at their best or lost in the landscape when the melodies don’t surface. For all the band’s light touches that do defamiliarize melodic punk – the way the opening run of “Cool” casually switches from 6/4 to 4/4, the gauzy keys that corona the piled-up guitars through the album – Tigers Jaw are much more interested in what poignancy can be gleaned from recognizable shapes and gestures, for better and worse. As has been the case with most of their discography, the band asks us to see a certain beauty in rough-hewn earnestness. Charmer’s cover is graced with a minimalist needle-point kerchief, a simple color scheme and a spartan border around a single floral icon. The album echoes that sense of lightly-decorated utility. “Cool” works its way through in under three minutes; its melody is austere and striking, Ben Walsh croons the song’s hook (“It’s a cruuuuueeeel wooooorld, but it’s cooooooooool”) with amiable languor. The surface of “Cool” is as unassuming as that stitched cloth, with only the texture of organ and richness of the verse’s harmonies to lift the song above sea level. Like the best of the album, “Cool” works because Tigers Jaw have found the right foundation for its restricted collection of tools – a workable melody and an interesting narrative.
“Frame You,” the album’s second track, offers an object lesson in the fault lines that appear when Tigers Jaw’s art of reduction over-subtracts. Carved out of angular breaks and muted verses, the song’s melody is frequently out of Walsh’s reach; spans built for choruses are too frequently filled with wiry guitars that can’t help but sound like periods of ellipses. A hook emerges, haloed with harmonies, but it arrives like a concession instead of a destination, over too soon. The outro of “Frame You” (“And I started this fire and I watched it burn to the ground”) offers a better swath of melody, the kind of narrative economy you’d find on a mid-career Millencolin LP, but its brief spotlight lands like an afterthought.
Much of modern emo and melodic punk comes from a collective memory that too often excises hooks, tunefulness, direction. Which is to say that Tigers Jaw’s new album charms — as its title would suggest — but it also frequently shrugs, shirks, fills pockets shaped for hooks with middle gears and neutral palettes. It ‘s why the Morrisey/Skiba play-acting of “Slow Come On” and “Charmer” constitutes some of the album’s finest moments — because these are the points where the Scranton duo seem the most sure of the image they want to leave us with. And if those songs’ gloom-Romanticist melodies offers a steep challenge for Walsh’s constrained range (which can strain in loveliness, as it does on the soaring climax of “Charmer”, or get lost in a melody that doesn’t find purchase as is the case with the inert, grungy “I Envy Your Apathy” and the unwieldy “What Would You Do”), it’s nevertheless so much more engaging to see Tigers Jaw try for something bigger than settle for something a bit too manageable, and thus at risk of being taken for granted.
At times the unmarked spaciousness of the band’s aesthetic truly works. “Teen Rocket” slowly unfurls like two decades of reedy, suburban emo; Briana Collins, whose keyboard parts are the album’s chief revelation, sews a simple organ melody through trickling indie-folk guitars like garland around pine boughs. Walsh’s melody is keening and lovely, a match for the song’s level grace. “Teen Rocket” eventually lifts to crescendo, a skyward arc that I suppose matches its title, certainly reveling in the commonplace drama that Tigers Jaw, at its best, can capture with ease. At times you consider aesthetic tags like “bedroom pop” for the duo, not only because they’re built from humble pieces of keyboard and pared-down guitar (the toolkit for early Saddle Creek, Elephant 6, The Microphones, etc… etc…), but because their songs and records seem to exist in ten-square-foot worlds. Which means that Tigers Jaw excel and frustrate based on how they evoke that sort of space.
Yet there is welcome expansion in “Hum,” a mid-tempo three-and-a-half minutes built from a compact, curling rhythm. Brianna Collins, whose voice is warm and poignant, an amber-toned alto that deserves more space on Charmer, finds a neat counterpoise in a melody that descends in effortless airiness amongst the song’s major key tangles. It’s a sort of free-range radiance that underlines the track’s narrative wistfulness: “From the basement where we first talked / To the ride home with the kids we barely knew / You left a permanent scar.” Indeed, a title like “Hum” is apt for a song so casually tuneful, almost naturalistically affecting, like a snapshot of a suburban park. The foremost value of much of the emo renaissance has been this narrative investment in memory, nostalgia, and its complications (see The Hotelier, Annabel). Tigers Jaw, at their best, are utterly adept at this sort of landscape art.
There’s a similar homespun likability in “Divide,” built from near-instinctual strumming and a vocal pairing of Collins and Walsh that works well enough for you to question its relative absence – or more specifically, all the times that Collins’ bell-clear voice serves to highlight Walsh’s, rather than the other way around. Like much of the album there are long spells where “Divide” feels too content to roll along in its placid middle-speed, leaving spaces either agreeably open or frustratingly undercooked, depending on your perspective. When the song does get to a hook (“We’re too young, we’re too young / To let this get in the way”), it’s a dispatch of quiet prettiness that is nevertheless over in a few seconds. Which is both the distant beauty and the odd frustration of Charmer – Tigers Jaw have a knack for the insouciantly revelatory, yet don’t seem to quite have the sense of direction that could lead to those moments more often. You find yourself hearing a version of Charmer where each of the album’s dozen songs resemble that cover image a little more closely – a simple bit of geometry leading to some kind of bloom – and can’t help but wish for that rendition. At times Tigers Jaw seem a little too content to settle on a threaded square. But at its best, Charmer leads to a blossom, to a gift for all-of-a-sudden color like a red rose amongst modest cloth.