Friday, March 24, 2006

New Song And Dance

Tilly And The Wall Taps Into The Untried And True Approach

"People really seem to enjoy watching Jamie's tap dancing during our shows," explains Tilly and the Wall guitarist-vocalist Derek Pressnall. It's a remarkable observation made by the former Atlanta native, and one that's wholly opposite from what anyone else in the group would have said less than six months ago: most notably Tilly's resident tap dancer, Jamie Williams. Since 2001, the Omaha, NE-based folk-fluff five-piece has fashioned a vibrant and stripped-down sound that has placed the group amongst the Midwestern city's most determined acts.

Following the traditions of The Mamas & The Papas, The B-52's and the Carpenters, Tilly and the Wall's boy-girl vocal interplay revels in a wide-eyed '60s folk-pop sparkle. In only a few notes, love, sex, teen angst and death are all covered with feel-good revelry. Williams has stated that the brunt of any negative criticism the group faces falls on her shoulders, simply because it's easy to take aim at a tap dancer in such a buoyant pop group. In the wake of its first U.S. tour and the somewhat unorthodox release of its first full-length Wild Like Children, things are moving rapidly for Tilly and the Wall. "Since we put out the record, a lot of people have been listening to the music and not just focusing on the tap dancing," says Williams. "A lot of the things I'm hearing more of now are about the band, the music and the lyrical content of the songs - not just snap judgments about a dancer in the band."

It's no surprise that in finding new listeners across the country, Tilly and the Wall has acquired a more accepting audience. Live, the group's presence is like watching a high school talent show. Pressnall and Williams, along with keyboard player Nick White (Bright Eyes) and vocalists Kianna Alarid and Neely Jenkins stand stiff-legged and shoulder-to-shoulder. As each member sways to the music, Williams' metallic snap and rattle takes shape as the percussive part of each song. Upon initial viewing, her dancing seems like a bit of a gimmick, but after closer inspection, the functional and experimental qualities of her role in the group reveal themselves.

Youth Gone Wild

Prior to Wild Like Children, Tilly and the Wall self-released a CD-R EP titled Woo!. The EP was recorded by Bright Eyes songwriter Conor Oberst and mixed by AJ Mogis at Presto Studios in Lincoln, NE, the same production set-up that's responsible for the majority of Saddle Creek Records' output. The six songs that make up the recording portray the group as a sunny and fey pop ensemble. While the songwriting and wavering production qualities culminate in breezy and decisive melodies, Woo! offered only a glimpse at the shape of things to come.

From the thunderous claps and stomps of the album's opener "Fell Down the Stairs" to the wilted strumming of "Let It Rain," Wild Like Children, builds around a smattering of vocal harmonies, vague keyboards lines and brisk acoustic rhythms. Through it all, loose narratives are driven by stories and characters enduring lovelorn and melancholy circumstances.

"Nights of the Living Dead," tells a poignant tale of late nights fueled by underage debauchery and adventures in Atlanta's squalid sectors. The song was written as a tribute to Pressnall's fallen high school friend Ben Eberbaugh, the former Black Lips guitarist who died in a car accident in December of 2002. Shortly after his death, several of Eberbaugh's acquaintances from local groups - including members of Jet By Day, the Lids and the Carbonas - gathered songs to be released on Ben Eberbaugh: A Rockin' Tribute compilation CD in 2003. "Nights of the Living Dead" was originally recorded and released on the tribute and reappears on Wild Like Children with unaltered reverence. "That song is all about being alive and death and if you are alive now some day you're going to die," Pressnall adds with a stoic and straightforward tone.

Over the course of a month during the winter of 2003, Tilly and the Wall set up in several rooms of a friend's house and recorded with Steve Pederson (Criteria, ex-Cursive) and Oberst. Alternating between embracing the din of a four-track recording and the sheen of ProTools software, Wild Like Children staggers between lo-fi, basement tape qualities and hi-fi clarity. "We recorded and re-recorded some things and left other things really raw," says Williams. "Some songs are much more produced than others and we really tried to balance that on the album. It's a fine line and it's something we were very conscious of when we were recording. We wanted it to be more produced than our first EP but we still wanted to keep the lo-fi quality because that's who we are and we wanted to stay true to that."

Tear Down The Wall

Released by Team Love Records, a new imprint founded by Oberst and co-owner Nate Krenkel, the experimental qualities of Wild Like Children run much deeper than the songwriting. When Team Love made the record available for sale in June, Wild Like Children was simultaneously posted in its entirety on the label's website for free download. The logic at work doubles as utter defiance of the recording industry's vilification of downloading music, and as a stirring promotional tool. Making the record downloadable from Team Love's website seems counter-productive to bolstering record sales; in reality, it's had quite the opposite effect. At presstime, Williams reported that in the neighborhood of 250,000 single songs from the record had been downloaded, and in turn this has translated to selling more than 3,000 copies of Wild Like Children, so far. These numbers far exceed anything the group ever imagined, considering the record is its first real offering for both the brand and a new record label. "I couldn't have ever asked for anything more," laughs Pressnall. "My goal was to sell at least 1,000 copies, and I never would have expected it to exceed that."

Williams concurs, adding that none of it would have been possible without the Internet.

"A lot of people have come up to us at shows and told us that they heard our record on-line and they wouldn't have ever heard it otherwise, and probably would have never even given us a chance. Or that they listened to it on-line and decided to go out and buy it," says Williams. "So for us it's been really good as far as word of mouth goes. It's a lot of money to buy a CD and you want to know that you're going to like what you're buying. Also, even if you can't afford to buy our CD you can still hear the music and people who listen to it come to the shows and buy a t-shirt or support us in some other way."

She continues: "The Internet is so important for us and independent bands in general. It makes such a huge difference in getting your voice heard and getting your band out there. At the level we're at it can only help us."

And that level at which Tilly and the Wall has found itself is the result of meshing untried and true approaches to the music and its dissemination.

That, and tap dancing.

--Chad Radford

(Published by Flagpole Magazine, October 2004).