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.