A Heartthrob and E·MO·TION Round-Table
So today I have Blake and Matthew with me to discuss the Canadian 80s pop-synth rebirth (as Blake called it on Facebook). My familiarity with Tegan and Sara goes back quite a ways. I’ve been a fan of their hip and not-hip indie styles throughout the years and naturally thought Heartthrob was great. Carly Rae Jepsen has been on my radar since her first single landed but I only recently heard her newest album. Both have a lot of things going for them in my opinion.
So Matthew and Blake, can both of you quickly introduce yourselves and how you were introduced to Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob and Carly Rae Jepsen’s E·MO·TION?
Blake: My name is Blake Collier. I am a fairly regular contributor for Mockingbird and write consistently on horror films over at my website, www.blakeicollier.com, as well as co-hosting three podcasts (The Smell of Music, Impossible to Say & The Body | The Blood). I am an unapologetic lover of 80s music and deeply skeptical of most modern pop music. But, man, if Carly Rae and, more recently, Tegan & Sara haven’t found their way into my 80s pop loving soul. Neither artists were really on my radar nor anyone I cared to explore. These albums changed that. I feel it is only fair to say that I still don’t like Jepsen’s last album nor “Call Me Maybe.” I actually came across E·MO·TION because my Impossible to Say co-host, Carl Laamanen, chose it as his featured album last year for one of our episodes and of course I had to listen in to it so I could deride him for picking a pop album. Unfortunately for me, I began to like the album and then I began to love it and now it has officially become the 2015 album I listen to the most in 2016 even though it was only #9 on my Impossible to Say top ten albums accounting.
Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob literally came into my presence just the other day when you, Joshua, approached me about this roundtable. Within a day of listening to it on Spotify, I ended up buying the deluxe version on iTunes. High praise indeed.
Matthew: My name is Matt Linder. I am regular blogger at 5ive but have written for Mockingbird, Christ and Pop Culture, and The Curator in the past. I also have a podcast I run called Musicale Imperatives where we pair a song with a beer and discuss the theological underpinnings of the song. I've been a regular guest on Impossible to Say and also appeared on The Smell of Music as well as Sunday Oldskool. Lastly, I am an academic and have a forthcoming article on Kendrick Lamar which will be published in the Journal of Hip Hop Studies.
I became aware of E·MO·TION through Richard Clark, one of the managing editors at Christianity Today, who was huge fan of the album. But since I don't always trust his musical choices, I never took the album for a spin. But when Blake said it was one of his top 10 albums of 2015, I was intrigued (Blake has solid opinions on music) but I also lol’d. Carly Rae? Really, Blake? Not one to shy away from a challenge, I wanted to hear what Blake was gushing over.
I have always been aware of Tegan & Sara but never delved into the discography even though my daughter and I loved “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. I only listened to Heartthrob because Blake tagged me in a tweet regarding this discussion and I am thankful he did. I am saddened that I wasn't aware of this album sooner.
What were your favorite and least favorite tracks on each album? Did you feel like the disparity between track quality was an issue?
B: I actually have great difficulty with picking my favorite and least favorite tracks on E·MO·TION. All the tracks oscillate between being my favorites and being the ones that don’t strike me as strongly as they did in the days prior. I think my favorite track is a tie between “All That,” “Making the Most of the Night,” and “When I Needed You.” I think these are the tracks that really exemplify the 80s influences of this album and were the songs that kept me coming back until I began to like the album as a whole. I seriously would feel bad about picking a least favorite because as each song plays, my mind repeats the refrain, “Oh yeah, I love this one.”
Having not listened to Heartthrob as much, my choices may be a little too from the hip, but I’m gonna go with “Goodbye, Goodbye” as my favorite and least favorite, right now, is “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend.”
I actually find both of these albums to not really struggle with disparity between the quality from track to track. The albums, as a whole, feel very tightly composed, never straying far from one track to the next but, also, not feeling stale at all either. That is something that could have been said for some of the great 80s pop albums as well like Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair or Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. I am very pleased with the albums as whole, thought through, pop compositions. Though, I like E·MO·TION more, largely because I have spent a lot more time with it.
M: For me, there are only two tracks that really matter on E·MO·TION, which come in the middle of the album, “All That” and “Boy Problems”. As a die hard fan of Prince, I enjoyed how the drum machine on “All That” mimicked Prince’s 80s sound and specifically, how it echoed the shaky white noise hi-hat of “Little Red Corvette”. The glossy bell-tone synthesizer had the grit that I felt most of the rest of the album lacked and it was a nice balance to Carly’s saccharine vocal quality. On “Boy Problems” the funk bass and syncopated rhythms are a nice change up on an album that feels mostly like four on the floor dance grooves typical of EDM. I am surprised that Blake didn’t disparage the 90s house sound of “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” as I know that is one of his least favorite types of genres, especially when used in hip hop. That track for me is the low point as there is nothing particularly evocative about it and I couldn’t recall back any aspect of the song even right after listening to it. Overall, on E·MO·TION there is a tapering off after “Boy Problems” where the songs are much weaker than the strong first half which climaxes in that song. I think this would work better as a six-song EP rather than a full-length album.
In regards to Heartthrob, I have been a little obsessed since finding out about it and I am regularly listening to the album at least three times a day. The highlights for me are the flighty piano of “I Was a Fool”, The Cars-inspired clean guitar power chords of “I’m Not Your Hero” and the flirty fun of “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend.” If there is a weak link on Heartthrob I have not yet found it and maybe in a few months after I’ve let the album breathe a bit, I will find one. But for now, while those three songs stand out, it is only slightly above the rest of the tracks on the album.
I am a rather big fan of house music, and yet I still did not like "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance Either." I would agree with Matthew that much of E·MO·TION do not strike me as unique. "LA Hallucination" sounds like a poor pop version of Justin Timberlake. I will say that "Your Type" and "Let's Get Lost" (neither mentioned by Blake or Matthew) remain favorites on the album. I don't see it as a consistent album with many tracks feeling long in the tooth.
Blake: I have some questions for Joshua and Matthew. In what ways, specifically, do you feel these albums recall 80s pop and where do they update or modernize that sound?
J: Well, I am not really an 80s baby so I’m less capable of thinking how these recall 80s pop. I know that the synth action is really where it is all at in my opinion. Both artists have taken hold of the standard synthesizer sound and matured it musically. I believe this especially true of Tegan & Sara who have longer careers as songwriters. They really stepped into this album with some finely tuned chops and I think the songs reflect that.
M: Both albums utilize synthesized sounds that is reminiscent of the 80s synth sound, whether that is keyboard, drum sequencing, bloops or bleeps. However, E·MO·TION sanitizes the rougher edges of the 80s synth sounds making them perhaps a bit too clean. Carly also mostly uses drum patterns and tones that sound at home in modern EDM-inflected pop. While Teagan & Sara approach their percussive sounds similarly they do not limit themselves to that modern take but infuse it with slight elements of the programmed drums of Wang Chung or the bellowing snare of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Where Heartthrob succeeds in capturing the sound of the 80s is by keeping enough of cheesy synths without washing all of the grime off of them.
Blake: Do these albums drive you to want more of this 80s rebirth sound? Perhaps hoping for a general shift in pop music towards this style of composition and sound?
J: Yes and no. I would not want a saturation of artists heading this direction. I’m not convinced it could be done particularly well by individuals either. If the resurgence was in new artists building on this sounds I would be ecstatic. But I don't see that for the future of popular music. However, I wouldn’t be against some remix cover albums like The Bird and the Bee’s Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates.
M: Not too long ago we had 80s rock revival with bands like The Killers and The Bravery so for 80s pop to have a resurgence I would not mind one bit. What a lot of modern pop is missing is the ability to have a bit of edge to the musical textures. And when the majority of radio pop records are produced by a few guys (Max Martin, Dr. Luke, etc.), they have established formulaic sounds that don’t venture too far outside the disinfected and polished drum/synth combo. For artists (and their producers) to add a bit of 80s pop into their sound would make them unique in the current pop landscape and would feed into the millennial desire for resurrecting and reworking the cultural artifacts of our childhood. That is to say I am all for it!
The final tough question. Gun to your head. Not sure if there are bullets it in. Which album is better?
J: It is a pretty easy question for me. Tegan & Sara know what they are doing artistically at a level few other indie/pop/whatever artists have achieved. Their music skills, hooks, and harmonies were built for these infectious and short albums. Jepsen’s album is good. But I do think there are some dragging songs. Her pop is on par with Tegan & Sara but she needs a couple more albums under her belt.
B: Tegan & Sara definitely have the depth and range of songwriting to match the infectious pop melodies they created on Heartthrob. However, considering I have listened to them about as long as I have Carly Rae Jepsen (Jepsen by a mark longer) and I have heard that this album was a transition in sound for them, I think it puts the albums on a fairly equal ground. I am gonna go against the tide--and, trust me, if someone had told me I would be in love with a Jepsen album a few years ago, I would have flipped them off and laughed--and say that E·MO·TION still takes my heart. It never slows down in my opinion. I can sing along with every song with no problem. And, I think the inexperience may have made for riskier and more interesting artistic choices overall. Tegan & Sara know what they are doing, but, if this is the trajectory of Jepsen, then I am on board wholeheartedly.
M: I was surprised I liked songs from Carly Rae when I hadn’t expected that I would like any and if she continues in this direction with another album but with maybe a little less gloss, I might become a fan. However, Heartthrob is the much better album as there is more depth and creativity in the production, vocals and lyrics.