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Sister Gurls

Photo by Dustin RabinTegan and Sara, the guitar-playing twin sisters from Calgary, have done something unbelievably rare: They’ve made a good album. I don’t just mean a decent effort with two standout tracks. I don’t mean a stylish, sonically adventurous record with no songs that’ll actually get stuck in your head. And I don’t mean a record secretly created by a team of brilliant songwriters, producers and geneticists. (Which isn’t a bad thing per se, but kind of a letdown in rock & roll.) Their fourth album, So Jealous — written, arranged and largely produced by Tegan and Sara — offers what you hope for every time you slice open a new CD. Their dark new-wave bubblegum brings hook after hook, harmony upon harmony, and enigmatic lyrics dripping with totally crushed-out, superobsessive romance and hope-against-hope for something like sanity. It’s miserable, idealistic, with instances when the clouds break, sunshine pours down, and the joy curled inside confusion unfurls in great ribbons. This is pure pop music. In fact, it’s so poppy, the song “Walking With a Ghost” was recently chosen for the “Out of the Box” feature on American Top 40, which spotlights a song that’s not yet on the charts but should be. Apparently, someone at corporate radio still knows a hit when he hears one. (And so do the hip kids: The duo have toured with the Killers, Hot Hot Heat, Ryan Adams and the Pretenders, to name a few.) All that is reason enough to get happy. But what makes Tegan and Sara satisfying heroes is the life behind the record. As radio-ready as the music may be, most of it was written in bedrooms in Canada, demoed on cheap equipment and recorded organically by a team of five kindred souls. And unlike all the new Gang of Four wannabes, when Tegan and Sara cop a new-wave vibe they don’t do it to be cool: Born in 1980, they’ve got new wave in their blood, and their use of it feels effortless and honest. As Tegan explains over the phone from a hotel room in Idaho, “We grew up on early-’80s power pop, but it’s not deliberate. If I could emulate something on purpose I would, but I’m not that good.” That reminds me of something hitmaster Rivers Cuomo of Weezer once said about his own band’s metal influence — essentially, I just wanted to be Rob Halford, but I couldn’t be Rob Halford. (Ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp plays a fine keyboard on So Jealous, by the way.) Same for Jack White’s attempts to mimic Blind Willie McTell — White always sounds original, like himself. Unlike White, or Tegan and Sara, many fashionable bands today — including some playing Coachella with Weezer and Tegan and Sara — are simply too good at mimicry. Their re-creation of the past is too faithful. They’re so technically proficient, they have no hope for originality. Interestingly, Tegan and Sara’s earlier stuff embraced a totally different aesthetic — the folk-rocky “women’s music” sound so popular in the ’90s at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. On 2000’s This Business of Art, they had they the wordy lyric sheets and clipped vocal delivery of Ani DiFranco, and were often compared to the Indigo Girls. On that first album they really do sound like two talented but very young lesbian folksingers raised in Canada, trying to fit in. (They also played Lilith Fair back in the day.) On 2002’s If It Was You, with new producers (John Collins and David Carswell, who also collaborated on So Jealous), Tegan and Sara made a quantum leap toward the simpler structures and more sing-along-friendly hooks they’ve mastered on So Jealous. Despite Canada’s unique tradition of female artists — and despite the girls’ lesbian following — Tegan admits she’s not much for chicks. “There are only a few female acts that have ever really impacted me the way that certain male acts have,” she says. (Probably no coincidence that they are signed to Neil Young’s label, Vapor Records.) “It feels like women are writing for women, or gay [female] artists are, and I don’t connect the same way. Then there’s this whole other scene of women’s music like Sarah McLachlan. Again, I don’t know what it was — there’s just been so much more male-written music that I’ve connected to.” Like their ’80s influence, Tegan and Sara’s connection to male songwriting feels natural: They gather up all their emotional complexities and channel them into clear, bold, simple constructions. The result is music that is universal. (“A lot of the guys in our audience are like, I usually listen to Slipknot, but there’s something about your lyrics . . .”) “That was definitely a goal of Sara’s and mine, to write music that is sexless,” says Tegan, “and we also want people to be able to interpret our music beyond just love and relationships.” (They even have a lyric, “There’s more to life than love” — which is a pretty original sentiment for a love song.) Androgyny in rock & roll is nothing new, but Tegan and Sara’s version does feel new — it’s much less a statement than the posturings of the great androgynous pioneers like Prince, Madonna or Bowie. It just is. And where Joan Jett made rock-androgyny history, she didn’t actually write the words “I love rock & roll.” When Tegan and Sara sing the line, “I love the rock & roll! I love the rock & roll!” on “I Bet It Stung” — a song they did write, like all their stuff — it feels like an unconscious, beautiful passing of the baton. Says Tegan, “We get so much feedback from girls and guys who are like — they don’t forget we’re girls, but they’re not aware of it constantly, and it doesn’t hold them back from connecting to us. It’s the same feeling people have about being friends with us. When I’m around a certain type of girl, I feel a lot more comfortable than when I’m with pretty much all other females.” I’m not sure people forget they’re girls — I mean, Tegan and Sara are super hot; there’s no getting around it. But perhaps, like any good androgynous artists, they expand people’s perceptions of what a “girl” is, and, by extension, what a “boy” is, what really stands between the two, and what doesn’t. It’s not all groovy hippie shit, as Tegan admits: “We feel like we get objectified by women way more than men at our shows. It’s less and less men yelling inappropriate things. Maybe it’s ’cause women don’t know what the line is. Society hasn’t given us a line for women objectifying women. Maybe I’ll do a science project.” As a fan, all I really care is that people — men or women — take Tegan and Sara seriously as artists, even if they’re crushing on them. “We had this really hilarious moment after a show. This couple came up — they were probably in their mid-20s. The guy was smitten, and the girl was like, I just feel really connected to you guys and I don’t know, I think I have a crush on you guys! Me and Sara laughed so hard afterward — we were like, we’re totally fucking up straight girls everywhere! “I think it’s that we’re really not competitive. We’re not up there posturing, like, look how strong and hot I am. We’re up there saying, ‘Look at me, I’m vulnerable. And that makes me strong. Look at me, I’m articulate or honest, and that makes me strong.’ It makes them feel like they want to pick us up and carry us around in a backpack or something . . . They’re going to take us for later, but they’re not sure exactly what they’re going to do with us.” Tegan and Sara play at Coachella on Sunday, May 1.

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