Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon to hear people make fun of Tilly and the Wall. Usually it’s people beyond their teens and early 20s, or guys who like tougher, angrier rock music, or high-brow musician types that value technical expertise over anything else. The funnin’ can become downright abusive, almost hateful. Part of it is jealousy and envy — here is this troupe of attractive young men and women on the verge of becoming something huge, something that most of those folks will never have. But part of it is the adoration for what can be rather mundane music, music that has been foisted on the slumped, well-coifed shoulders of a next generation who “should know better.”
I’ve liked Tilly since back when they were Magic Kiss, and Park Ave. before that. I admit to liking them no matter how big of a puss that makes me. Part of my affection is due to my perception that there’s something rather dark under that ultra-cute façade, something that speaks to a hidden, unspoken reality about the millennial generation. It’s a generation that’s not supposed to have any underdogs, yet Tilly songs are all about the underdog trapped in a world of constant competition. Look, all you had to do is listen to the words.
Their new single, “Beat Control,” however, flies in the face of all that. It’s a dance song with no other interest or design other than to get you to shake your rump; a song, as one local sound engineer said “every 15-year-old girl is gonna love.” I played it for someone else who swore Debbie Gibson must have wrote it. It is very Debbie/Paula-esque circa 1983, unapologetically so. I’ve seen others compare it to Dee-lite, which is off the mark (except for maybe the video). It is undeniably infectious, almost impossible to get out of your head after you’ve heard it just once. It’s also a new direction for Tilly. Forget the tap dancing, forget the coy acoustic guitar and the girlie harmonies. This is a straight-up preprogrammed dance-floor raver. And yeah, it could be a big hit if it were embraced by New York DJ’s and radio programmers.
I bring it up because the dance vibe that permeates “Beat Control” enshrouded the first 1/3 of Tilly’s sold-out set Saturday night at The Waiting Room. The pre-show glowed with a playful Goo-like dance vibe as big-beat club music blared over the sound system while the crowd poked balloons anxiously awaiting The Tilly to arrive.
The line-up Saturday was the five core members, plus two new ones — a bass player and Craig D on drums. I can’t over-emphasize the difference they made to their sound. Night and day. But part of it was the new songs, which stress big, thick beats over handclaps. Even the old stuff seemed rearranged in a way that sounded more realized (and better) than anything on their old records.
Tilly, it seems, has moved away from their hand-made music experience to become this generation’s B-52s, or at least that’s what they appeared to be going for. Big party, big fun, gets your hands in the air, bang-bang on the drum baby. And the kids loved it. Tilly has gone from having a thrown-together amateur appeal to something much more refined, professional, commercial. I certainly hope that was their intent, because if “Beat Control” does become a hit, there’s no turning back. The new crowd — the crowd beyond the indie stalwarts who loved them for their down-home talent-show appeal — will not stand for anything less than the hit, and more songs that sound like the hit. “The tap dancing is cute, but we want ‘Beat Control.’” And so on.
Speaking of tap dancing, it’s still very much part of the act. In fact, it’s been elevated to new heights — literally. A new “tap dance box” has been constructed (at a cost that I’m told that ran in the thousands of dollars). The box, placed at the back center of the stage, elevates Jamie Williams well above the band, so that she looks either like a ballerina on a music box (complete with tutu) or a stripper. The elevation almost makes her too exposed, and though she’s providing a rhythm track, I can’t help but think that she’s become relegated to the role of “dancer,” with no microphone in site. Instead, the vocals are handled by Kianna Alarid and Neely Jenkins, singing harmonies that don’t quite hold together as harmonies. No one seems to mind.
The bottom line: Tilly fans will love the new Tilly even more, while those who hate Tilly will keep right on hating them, and maybe even moreso as they become more popular…
Tilly wasn’t the only Saddle Creek-related band to play a warm-up set this weekend. I caught Ladyfinger Friday night at O’Leaver’s and they sounded ready for anything. I talked to a guy who was at their Waiting Room show a few days ago who said they sounded even better at O’Leaver’s. There could be a few reasons for this:
1. O’Leaver’s small room and low-rent sound system helps pull everything together and hides any flaws that are clearly exposed by The Waiting Room’s far superior sound system.
2. The band was more relaxed playing at O’Leaver’s, which essentially is their home court.
3. The guy who told me this was loaded.
I tend to think that the truth is a combination of all three. Ladyfinger’s new music is more brutal and also more tuneful than their debut. One of the evening’s highlights was an impromptu cover of Heart’s “Barracuda” where frontman Chris Machmuller managed to hit all the high notes. The band, however, wisely stopped before the second verse — no reason to shred Mach’s voice before heading to Austin.
A combination of late nights Friday and Saturday night, the move to daylight savings time and my advancing years prevented me from going to Holy Fuck last night. If someone was there, please let me know how it went on the webboard.
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Tonight is yet another SXSW warm-up show, this time with Son, Ambulance who is slated to play an early set (8 p.m.) at O’Leaver’s tonight. Also on the bill is Fromanhole, Private Dancer, Vampire Hands and Cheap Hookers. $5, all night.
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