In 2003, after nearly a decade of touring and five full-length albums under the moniker of Bright Eyes, indie darling Conor Oberst, alongside his long-time manager, Nate Krenkel, formed Team Love Records. As a founding member and ongoing contributor to Omaha, Nebraska’s Saddle Creek Records, Oberst started Team Love after becoming frustrated with the bureaucracy of the former and his longing to release boutique projects with artists not associated with the Saddle Creek brand. Of those artists, the playfully earnest and always energetic Tilly And The Wall were the first to sign, releasing the label’s inaugural album, Wild Like Children – a hyperactive yet sparse pool of songs, expertly blending elements of folk and pop, and an album most notable for their lack of conventional percussion, replaced instead by percussionist Jaime Presnall’s dexterous and nimble tap-dancing.
In the four years following their inception, Tilly And The Wall spent most of their time on the road perfecting their extremely niche and unique take on indie folk while releasing three albums — their aforementioned debut, a more realized and developed effort in Bottoms Of Barrels, and the universally adored and rocking, O. Now, another four years removed from said albums, the guys and girls of Tilly have finally come together for another record. In the interim, the band took time off for family, new careers and other musical endeavors.
During those years of what seemed like inactivity, their music appeared in primetime television shows (90210, Skins), films (Observe & Report, Whip It), a Vicks Nyquil commercial, and Sesame Street — the band recorded their own version of the “ABC Song” and even appeared on the show to perform it. Surprisingly enough, those four years were arguably more effective in expanding the band’s fan base than half a decade of touring; A formula surely welcomed by the group.
This brings us to Heavy Mood, the band’s latest offering, and one that is equal parts energetic as it is infectious; it stands as a truly well crafted collection of indie pop numbers that shows an evolution in timbre, without completely abandoning the bombastic and niche stomps and tap-dancing that have so gracefully defined their sound thus far. Giving preference to thick synthesizer chords, electronic beats and significantly more complex arrangements over the traditional acoustic guitar work and walking bass folk structure, Tilly And The Wall reintroduce themselves as a much more matured collective of artists. No song embodies this growth better than album opener, “Love Riot,” as it bursts out of the gate with a guitar riff that is relatively aggressive considering the group’s prior output. As the riff takes shape, it’s joined by the drums and bass in a flurry of syncopated hits while maintaining a steady 4/4 rhythm. It’s a frantic and relentless track that sets the mood for what’s to come.
Bellowing into the album’s title track, “Heavy Mood” takes the velocity of “Love Riot” and sprinkles in an eastern keyboard line that works as the song’s hook, while a pulsating bass pattern gives it a dance feel reflective of tactics hinted at on O. This is also the first notice of tapping, although only subtle in it’s accenting of the drum kit’s basic backbeat – a trend that will continue throughout the course of this recording as both a plague and a revelation as to how much the band has developed their skills as musicians and songwriters.
Although there’s no hiding the fact that Tilly And The Wall are at their best when using taps and stomps as the primary percussive instrument, the same is also true when embracing their folk roots. Take “Static Expressions” for example, a shoe-in for the top track on the album. It’s an upbeat song channeling the jovial sensibilities of their debut album, with dashes of modern pop, most noticeable in its romping and free-flowing chorus. Conversely, as this is an album in which the band experiments with sounds beyond their usual palette, they’re bound to fall flat at times. Songs like “All Kins Of Guns” and “Hey Rainbow” are good, but not great. Both start strong, but tend to meander around the mid-section due to repetitive choruses, and would have greatly benefited from their historically dilettante eccentricity.
All in all, Heavy Mood makes for a fantastic album of compellingly catchy (“Thicker Than Thieves”), at times hauntingly textured (“Echo My Love”) and consistently uplifting (“Defenders”) songs. It stands as an exceptional indie pop album whilst lacking much of what made this band distinct in the first place. And while this comes as a detriment at times, one can’t fault the band for evolving their craft, as this is something that naturally happens with groups of a very particular niche. As the members grow individually and collectively, it becomes apparent that the niche once used as a crutch is no longer necessary and newly acquired levels of skill and confidence serve as a better guide.
Sound Quality: Weighing 180 grams, the sonic aspect of the physical album is a significant departure from that of the digital version. Wider sounds and fuller vocals give the vinyl a leg up, while providing a more immersive listening experience. The album’s closing track, “Defenders,” particularly gives listeners the ability to experience every layer, no matter how subtle.
Packaging: Although the packaging is simple, the first thing you will notice about the vinyl pressing of Heavy Mood is its quality. Finished in a matte texture, the single pocket jacket feels heavier than most and more importantly, firm; there’s no flimsiness in any of this packaging. Also included is a double-sided glossy insert, which continues where Ari Fish’s beautiful cover art left off, while at the same time incorporating the album’s lyrics, putting a great finishing touch on a release Team Love has obviously labored over.
Extras: Besides the standard black vinyl, Team Love also offered the album on yellow vinyl. In the pre-order stage, both a 7″ single for “Defenders” and a 12″ remix single for “Love Riot” were available in bundle packages. A CD was included in all full-length packages.
Summary: Although most of the quirk of Wild Like Children is exempt from Heavy Mood, it’s not difficult to hear the youthful approach they’ve based their brand on. It’s a progression seen since the group’s last album and one that has succeeded in producing an album’s worth of magnificent pop songs.
Make Sure To Spin: “Static Expressions,” “Love Riot” and “Heavy Mood.”
You can still pick up the record on yellow vinyl, along with the additional 7″ and remix 12″, over at Team Love.