Tegan and Sara just want to be loved. It is embedded in the core of all of their songs: “Why don’t you love me?” “When will I forget you loved me?” “When will I find someone to love me again?” But not just lyrically, structurally as well. “I suppose it’s almost as catchy as the latest McDonalds jingle, but it’s also utterly boring,” said Pitchfork reviewer Marc Hogan of their single “Walking With a Ghost” in January 2005. And in some ways Hogan is right: Tegan and Sara are built to sing jingles.
Structurally, this means that when they find something that sounds good, they grind it into oblivion. And that worked early for them last Friday at Upstate Concert Hall as they cut right into some of their best folk-pop, like “Back in Your Head” and the aforementioned “Ghost.” The twins worked best in tandem: Sara hitting rock notes with a touch of Cobain and Tegan teasing a bit more, her pout indebted to her pop sensibilities.
But the band made it clear that the show was not about their body of work; it was about their latest album Hearthrob. The disc has proven controversial among long-time devotees, since the group signed to major label Warner Bros. and the disc is the kind pop-drenched ’80s worship we’ve gotten from Lady Gaga, the Killers and every other band who think Bruce Springstein and Madonna work together because they were from the same decade. Perhaps the best comparison would be the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!, but a little less dancey and not at all as catchy. The jump makes sense in a lot of ways because the band want to be appreciated as pop songwriters, not genre-defiers or raucous art-makers. They want you to chill out at a cafe and like them.
Live, the tunes were just as endearing as Tegan and Sara themselves. Nearly everything had a big beat and a sly hook, like “Alligator” and my personal fave, “Shock to Your System.” The occasional dialogue the pair had with the audience was at times more revelatory than the music they were playing. (Their three backing men were basically mute.) Tegan took the time to playfully chide Sara after she botched a planned ironic dance-off during “Alligator.”
More than once a tossed bra sparked a reaction from the pair along the lines of: Sorry, we don’t really want that, but thanks anyway. And, actually, most of the banter seemed a bit apologetic: Sorry, we are happy in good relationships now. Sorry, we aren’t really sad anymore. Sorry, we are gonna play a sad song now but we aren’t really sad. But other times the pair described their early years, listening to Nirvana records, explaining their cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “When You Were Mine.”
The girls had the crowd in a rave for closer “Closer.” It would have been the best place to stop, as the thrill of the band’s new sound was inescapable. But they had already warned they would be back for an encore. And the first song of the encore was the dreaded medley, full of all the songs on the back catalogue the diehards wanted to hear just a piece of. It was tedious.
The night ended with their techno collaboration with Tiesto, “Feel It in My Bones,” played in stripped-down style. While the crowd was in ecstasy, and I was more than entertained, it still felt like the duo were struggling to find their musical voice, existing in two different worlds. But I suppose that feeling really didn’t matter because everyone in the club definitely liked Tegan and Sara, and being likable seems to be of paramount importance to them at this stage of their career.