One Wednesday night last March, the basement of the First Unitarian Church — Philadelphia's decidedly no-frills "venue" — was packed to the hilt with a couple hundred fans of Omaha quintet Tilly and the Wall. Gear had been set up, mikes checked, set lists taped to the floor, towels and bottled water placed next to each microphone and dozens of balloons released into the chattering crowd. The band was about to arrive. And there, quite conspicuous toward the back of the stage, sat a drum kit. Next to me, two sweaty punk-rock girls dressed like Minnie Pearl discussed this oddity.
"Tilly doesn't have a drummer," one said, batting a balloon.
Tilly and the Wall could be described in a number of ways: That band with the two chicks from Park Avenue, one of Conor Oberst's pre–Bright Eyes outfits; that band named after the children's book about a curious mouse; that band that makes precious, danceable indie-pop about crushes and misbehaving and never, ever wanting to grow up. But virtually everybody who talks about the band immediately brings up Tilly's prime idiosyncrasy: that band with a tap dancer instead of a drummer.
Tilly and the Wall
8 p.m. Friday, July 18, at the Engine Room, 1515Pease, 713-654-8746.
Yet, as said tap dancer Jamie Pressnall bounded onstage with the rest of the band — spandex-and-lamé-clad singers Neely Jenkins and Kianna Alarid, keyboardist Nick White, singer-guitarist Derek Pressnall (Jamie's husband) and touring bassist/guitarist Mason Brown — a seventh member, Craig DeMayo, plopped down behind the kit. He generated a forceful propulsion that had previously been absent from Tilly's approach.
Like everyone else in the room, the two girls next to me sang along and jumped around as confetti rained down on their heads. They didn't seem to mind the drummer's presence one bit.
"This is the most full-sounding we've ever been," says White of Tilly's new beat approach. "More than anything, the drums complement the taps and the stomps."
It's a new era for Tilly and the Wall, which first came together in 2001 with modest instrumentation — a cheap keyboard, acoustic guitar, tap shoes and lots of lively, passionate vocal harmonies. The band had a similarly creative, if ramshackle, performance vision hell-bent on bringing the best-ever backyard theater production to the stage. That spirit carried across Tilly's first two albums, 2004's Wild Like Children and 2006's Bottoms of Barrels. But new album O thickens the plot from the start.
Two minutes into folky opener "Tall Tall Grass," a noisy guitar squall chomps into the pastoral strum. That soon gives way to the garage-rocky lead single "Pot Kettle Black," replete with distorted vocals, a grimy electric guitar line and stomps that mimic Meg White's primal drumming.
Further in, Tilly's previously displayed love for girl group harmonies, late-'60s mod-pop grooves, new-wave-y electronic gloss and flamenco textures is amplified, toughened up and packed with attitude.
What before rang sweet now hits sassily. In the case of "Pot Kettle Black," things get downright vicious: "The shit gets thicker, it's toxic, get it outta my face... did you hear about that bitch and what she did? What a ho, what a tramp, what a slut."
That song and other new tracks clearly enlivened the Philly crowd, but not everyone appreciates the evolution. The venerable All Music Guide said of "Pot Kettle Black" and album closer "Too Excited" that "the lyrics and voices are hateful, spiteful, and not much fun to listen to." It's way wrong about that last point.
"I can see what they're getting at," White cheerfully notes. "Those are more aggressive songs, and it's totally fine if they didn't vibe out on those sounds. As a band, we have to be open to new things and expanding what we've done in the past."
Indeed, as they drum up some new ideas, Tilly is proving that growing up can still be exhilarating.
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