Sister act

The unconventional rise of Tegan and Sara
By MIKAEL WOOD  |  July 30, 2007

VIDEO: Tegan and Sara, "Back in Your Head"

Conventional record-biz wisdom dictates that a band should follow up a buzz-building album like Tegan and Sara’s So Jealous (Sanctuary) with a readily accessible effort designed to transform the groundswell of interest into a big mainstream breakthrough. After all, that 2004 album — a peppy folk-pop disc that earned the band great reviews — got them an opening slot on an American tour by the Killers, as well as the admiration of the White Stripes, who covered “Walking with a Ghost.”

Of course, there’s nothing conventional about Tegan and Sara, 26-year-old identical twins, both lesbians, from Canada. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that their excellent new album, The Con (Vapor/Sire), offers up some of their darkest, weirdest music yet. Like the serpentine synth-folk “Relief Next to Me,” in which Sara Quin promises that “I won’t go my whole life telling you I don’t need” over a spooky acoustic-guitar riff. And “Like O, Like H,” which opens with a line that quickly proceeds from plain to mysterious: “When I was eight, I was sure I was growing nerves like steel in my palm.”

Most of The Con deals with matters of emotional or romantic upheaval, and there’s a sense of tumult to the material that reflects that lyrical fixation. It’s not chaotic music; streaked with closely braided guitar lines and the sisters’ tightly harmonized (sometimes eerily unison) vocals, these tunes fairly breathe organization and design. But they all sound upside-down in a way, with guitars and keyboards doing the work of a rhythm section and bass and drums providing more textural and melodic detailing than they usually do. The result is far thornier and more sophisticated than the wistful girls-on-stools folk pop of their first few records, and much brainier than the feel-good rave-ups on So Jealous. Imagine Nick Drake fronting Rites of Spring, perhaps, or the Dismemberment Plan on MTV Unplugged.

When I reach her on the phone in Victoria, British Columbia, the day before the band kick off a tour that will bring them to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Boston for a sold-out show this Saturday (they come to Berklee Performance Center in November), Sara says that “different” was the idea for The Con pretty much from the get-go. “In the past, we’ve always recorded demos ourselves, then we’ve gone into the studio and worked with a drummer and a bass player.” She adds that for their last two albums, they hired Dave Carswell and John Collins of the New Pornographers to produce. “We’d always end up taking these dark acoustic demos and turning them into upbeat kind of band songs. With this album, we knew we weren’t gonna work with any of the same people — we wanted a completely different thing.”

To find it, she continues, “we burrowed ourselves away and took time off to write. We spent months and months and months working on guitar parts and keyboard parts and bass parts. On lots of Tegan’s songs, she even did drums. We wanted to do a lot more than we had in the past; we didn’t wanna just take the songs and let them become influenced by other musicians.”

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