Like any good, self-respecting team, Tanlines has a mascot. It may be little more than a disembodied emoticon—a circle inscribing some confused punctuation, affectionately dubbed “winky sad”—but it pretty much sums up the band’s collective vibe. “I bring the light,” says drummer Jesse Cohen, motioning across the table to his bandmate, Eric Emm, “and he generally brings the dark. I joke that our original name for the band was The Ying Yang Twins.” This feels like a fair assessment; Cohen sputters off quick quips, while Emm smiles tersely in response to unambiguous questions. But in keeping with that old kernel that you can’t have the light without the dark, when it comes to Tanlines’ music, Emm’s propensity for social inwardness might be what allows him to be the band’s dominant voice—not only literally as its singer, but also as its lyricist.
For their first full length, appropriately titled Mixed Emotions, Emm and Cohen are largely expanding on the sounds sketched out on their 2010 EP, Settings, but they seem better committed to the idea of being a band. “There wasn’t really a plan for a long time. When we got back from [touring in] Europe we just started to write material for a record, and I think we knew we wanted to approach things in a more deliberate way. And that’s what we did; it was a lot of writing over a long period of time,” says Cohen. Emm’s vocals have come to the forefront, deftly lacing familiar territory—sounds that range from dancey afrobeat, to spare synth ballads, to hook-centric pop songs with ecstatic choruses—with unflinching self-awareness. “I think the definition of a good pop song is one that you can sing along to the first time that you hear it,” says Emm. “I listen to our music and I think it sounds crazy. I don’t remember writing it, I don’t know what I was thinking, I don’t know where it came from and I think it doesn’t sound like anything else to me, but that’s just because I made it. I often say that I want our music to sound like a combination of everything that exists and also sound like nothing else, and I think that would be great.”
Tanlines has a way of spinning moodiness into the most upbeat, full-bodied dance song. It’s an odd combination that, like a plot line out of a John Hughes film, feels steeped in first loves and heartbreak, popularity and obscurity. “I think we hear our music in a very different way than other people do. It’s very moody and emotional—I can’t imagine wanting to dance to it,” says Cohen. But you can easily overlook this moroseness if you want to. For instance, in “Rain Delay,” Emm tells a bitter tale scored by a spare beat and an optimistic, far-away melody that’s as sad as it is sweet. You stood so tall and close to me/ You were talking out of character/ What happened to the old you?/ Who is this person next to me? But these hard-looking, existential questions are just as quickly swept up in the song’s all-out sunny refrain, repeating, It’s just a dream, hard to believe, it’s just a dream, that, depending where your mind is, totally effects your read. This, like most of Tanlines’ songs, is a sad song guised in an optimistic sound, a bittersweet reminder that life could never be good if it weren’t sometimes bad.
Stream: Tanlines, Mixed Emotions