Say this for Tanlines: They're committed to the bit. To premiere their forthcoming second album, Highlights, for fans and press, the Brooklyn dance-pop duo chose a highly unusual medium: a dial-in conference call, that bane of all corporate drones and a medium that boasts the general audio fidelity of two cans and a string.
But although their labors sounded tinny at best while blaring from iPhone speakers the world over, the band was pleased with the result. "I thought the record sounded really good," singer-guitarist Eric Emm tells Rolling Stone a few days later, over coffee near his Brooklyn apartment. "It was like hearing it on an AM radio."
"On our last album, a comment that I saw on Twitter a lot was some version of 'Tanlines is making the workday go by faster' or whatever," adds his equally droll bandmate, multi-instrumentalist Jesse Cohen. "So the idea spoke to me in a very deliberate and funny way."
When Highlights drops on May 19th, fans of the duo will be relieved to hear that it boasts a warm, resonant production not sufficiently conveyed by smartphone acoustics. (The conference call was very entertaining, though: Janessa Slater, a.k.a. the media-coach character played by SNL's Vanessa Bayer, rang in to tell the band that since their record title was "already taken by a children's magazine," they should distribute CDs in pediatricians' offices.) Produced by the band and Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, the album is a thoughtful expansion of Tanlines' many influences: perky tropicália-pop melodies, post-punk and hip-hop-leaning percussion and snappy New Wave synths. Highlights' borders are more porous and its sonics deeper than those of the band's debut, Mixed Emotions, which earned them inclusion in Rolling Stone's 50 Best Songs of 2012 and live gigs alongside Julian Casablancas and Yeasayer.
"We toured for like a year and a half after the release of that record," says Cohen. "So we decided two main things about this album before we started it: We wanted to try to work outside of our studio in Brooklyn, outside of just looking at a computer, and we wanted to try to incorporate more of our live setup."
This proved a prescient decision, as computers would betray Tanlines soon into the recording process. In early 2013, Cohen and Emm decamped to Emm's parents' house in Pittsburgh, where they constructed a sizable basement studio that resembled their stage setup. Pleased with their ingenuity, the two flipped the switch to begin recording and accidentally created a scene straight from Spinal Tap. "The computer blew up – like, sparks shooting out the back and smoke and the smell of electrical fire," recalls Cohen, laughing. "The power supply had blown out. But instead of packing up and driving back, we dropped the computer off at the Apple store in Pittsburgh and we recorded on a laptop, just with the instruments that we had."
The first song recorded as such, "Invisible Ways," proved a catalyst for the rest of the album: Its early kicks of jangling, vaguely Western guitar mingle with Emm's resonant, wistful vocals (reminiscent of Roy Orbison and Jens Lekman), all with a more leisurely spirit than anything on Mixed Emotions.
"You know what people say about songs, right?" Emm asks. "They're like your children, and you can't have a favorite child – but, secretly, every parent does. If I had to admit to my secret favorite child, it would probably be 'Invisible Ways' because it informed a lot about how we went forward. That song just has kind of a sweet quality to me that is not papered over."
The rest of Highlights moves with similar vivacity. Emm's cooed chorus on "Slipping Away" pairs effortlessly with brisk, chirping Afropop-inspired guitar (which should further those continual comparisons to Vampire Weekend, Tanlines' former tourmates). In one of the album's more pensive moments, "Running Still," he groans the refrain "I'm old enough to know better" atop Cohen's broad synths and pointillist jabs of brass. The echoing mix derives from Taylor's studio inside a grand, 100-year-old Lutheran church not far from this coffee shop. "You hear actual air and space from that room. You hear more of a human element than before," says Cohen. "The church was like Chris' instrument on this album. He knows how to use that space."
Tanlines will soon hit the road on a national tour (the dates are available on the band's ingenious new website. We won't spoil the surprise; suffice to say, the layout rings a bell). On the road, the men are committed to creating an atypical dance party in every way.
"The thing about our music is it's a balance between light and dark, happy and sad. The music will be happy, but there'll be a sort of melancholic aspect to the vocal," says Emm, over the last dregs of his coffee. "I don't really know where it comes from. I'm not a sad person, necessarily."
He grins, a full-on beam that removes all possible doubt. "I'm not tortured in any way."