“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” sings Eric Emm over an industrial beat fit for a Kanye West freestyle. It’s a muscular statement from electronic band Tanlines, who made a name for themselves three years ago with an album called Mixed Emotions. Now comes Highlights (May 19 on True Panther), a release that builds upon Emm’s dark, surrealistic yin and Jesse Cohen’s fun-loving yang.
The twosome concocted the record between the basement of Emm’s childhood home in Pittsburgh and a church in Brooklyn, where producer Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear) captured the vocals on a balcony. (Emm recalls via email: “There were definitely times when it was a challenge. I had to keep very still to prevent the old wood floor from creaking, which when it did would echo through the church and bleed on to the tracks. But Chris did a wonderful job. Not just at getting the best out of me, but sonically as well.”
The airiness of the house of worship exhales beautifully on the first song, “Pieces,” a buoyant bridge between Mixed Emotions and Highlights. There’s a confident bass and a sparkle to Emm’s voice. Taylor and the church certainly had a hand in that, but Cohen praises his creative partner for his growth over the years.
“The biggest difference between the last album and this album was for Mixed Emotions we had played shows but not really to a huge amount of people,” Cohen explains over the phone. “So after touring the last album for a long time, you know, we played eventually festivals and bigger crowds, and I think the main thing you can hear is Eric’s voice. His stage voice is really developed. He’s singing as someone who can really project to the back of the crowd, instead of a guy who’s just working alone in a studio thinking about it.”
Cohen also notes that Mixed Emotions was true to its title in that “The last album, I think, would be characterized by more of like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ A lot of things are question marks, you know? And I think this album is a lot more statements and it’s more about the people around us and relationships.”
Neither artist would fully divulge the stories behind the songs, but Tanlines’ Netflix doppelganger website hints at the topics (complete with promo shots made to look like movie posters). In the jangly “If You Stay,” we meet Seth and his much-younger party-girl wife. The dungeon drudge of “Running Still” revolves around Dawn, a protagonist lost in nostalgia. Emm haunts with the warning “I’m old enough to know better than that.” He says he’d love to turn these urban tales, “generally a mix of fiction and non-fiction,” into music video narratives. But these tropes play out nightly in Brooklyn in the souls of those refusing to age gracefully.
Tanlines’ adherence to their truth - playing the kind of music they want and writing about situations familiar to those in their 30s - is what makes Highlights so solid. Both musicians say that when they began this project (which has remixed the esoteric Glasser and the fey Au Revoir Simone), they struggled with the decision to be a production duo or a proper band. The band scenario won, and it shows in concert, with Cohen and Emm taking turns bashing away at organic and synthetic machinery, winning curious audiences over. And in the process of making Highlights, they eyed tactile drums and guitars in the early stages of writing. (Possibly out of necessity, since the computer they were using in Pittsburgh went out in a fiery blaze of glory.)
So what’s been one of the highlights of Tanlines’ evolution? Emm sweetly writes: “Nothing major, just getting to live my childhood dreams ;)” complete with emoticon. Cohen’s response is a little more sordid, albeit funny considering it’s the one thing he and Justin Bieber have in common, as he reflected on Twitter: nearly getting kicked out of Coachella.
At the music festival, where Tanlines performed in 2013, “I was palling around with some people-- I won’t mention who by name. We ended up in some ultra VIP area that I guess we weren’t supposed to be in, and the bouncer was giving us a hard time about it. And then he was really mean to this girl who we were with, and I was like, ‘Hey, man, like, you don’t have to be rude! We’re gonna go. You don’t have to talk to us that way.’ He says, ‘That’s it. You’re outta here.’ … He walked me outside of the gates and they took out a pair of scissors and cut off my wristband. He did it in a way like he was clipping my balls off. It’s the only way I can describe it, like a spay and neuter situation.”
All’s well that ends well: Cohen managed to get back in.
Catch Tanlines on the road at venues that hopefully won’t kick out Jesse Cohen:
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