The 21st century global online community is staggeringly complex and boundlessly absurd, and the sheer speed of the movement of ideas online has created a fundamentally shaky grounds for artistic apprehension of culture. “We live in a society,” an increasingly common meme / phrase on the Internet, is one of the most entertaining, precise, and universally applicable criticisms of the most frequent shortcomings of contemporary culture-focused, or at least culture-aware, art. Take this recent Justin Timberlake music video, for example. Strange, “disturbing” images flash across an array of screens, reflecting the cold glow of mass media back onto Timberlake’s face; dozens of contemporary cultural touchstones are shown and literally named, but all that is truly said is that we do, in fact, live in a society. This is the common issue among art deemed to be in the “we live in a society” category: that modern cultural matters are shown and named, but little about them is said, and nothing productive or insightful happened.
At first, it seems like Tiger Oil’s album “too” may be guilty of this; beyond the witty album cover and references to memes in names like “arthur’s fist” and lyrics like “teleports behind you / nothing personal, kid,” there is not much that obviously characterizes this album as “folk music for the age of the internet,” at least not on the surface. The listless chorus of “advanced darkness” mourns the first-world problem of bad wifi and the detrimental effect of screen brightness at night. “ghost footbag,” after a quick Google search, is apparently a reference to the comic that birthed Pepe the Frog. Each of these cheeky Internet references don’t seem to do much other than reference the Internet. However, listening between the blatant meme shoutouts reveals a project rife with awareness of the subtle ways digital culture creeps into our perception and our engagement with music. In the same sense that the most important effects of the information age are difficult to put a finger on, the greatest successes of “too” occur in the margins of the listening experience, though this doesn’t make them any less of a triumph.
Most of the songs on “too” share a consistent backbone of acoustic guitar. Being the eternal companion of “folk” musicians, there is an ironic self-awareness in the use of a guitar on this album; a reliable sonic vehicle that never fails to be there for us, even through the rapidly changing contemporary world. But there’s an undeniable newness to the sound of Tiger Oil’s guitar, from the opening moments of the album; a silver edge, a synthetic chrome aftertaste. This subtle alteration to the otherwise familiar timbre almost displaces it from its subconscious familiarity, pulling the sound away from its usual home on a nostalgic mental back porch and into an automatic digital soundscape, but the songwriting, honest in its indie-folk leanings, leaves one foot in the door of the dusty wooden imaginary that most folk music takes place in, reminding us that there’s a human strumming this instrument. The album’s aesthetic is furthered by scintillating synths that, while rarely taking the foreground, more boldly define that silver edge, fluttering in and out at the right times. Underscoring the body of the sound on most tracks is an incredible, deep bass, which, when it punches in under the guitar, feels like a blow in the guts. The bass, guitar and synths give great definition to the lows, mids and highs, a delicate balance that Tiger Oil pulls off throughout the album.
The vocals take up most of the remaining share of the sound, to the occasional detriment of the songs. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with how the vocalist sings, with his emo folk tenderness. It’s the excessive multi-track harmonizing that doesn’t tend to work. The first exposure to this vocal style, in the opening track, gives the impression that it’s being used for the effect of a chamber-folk-style rousing fanfare, a chorus calling the muses. “advanced darkness” features a lead vocal line free of this production style, to beautiful effect; the slight autotune and wavering harmony compliments the metallic instrumental while shining brightly above it. But the chorus effect reappears on “just know,” “arthur’s fist,” “ice types” and “jokerman font,” and in each case, doused in reverb, it mostly serves to turn the vocals into a dense cloud that obscures the melody. It’s difficult to focus on; less in the psychedelic sense of there being different angles from which to understand the harmonic structure, and more in the mildly unpleasant sense of standing too close to a speaker, or using headphones while wearing a wool hat pulled down over your ears. These songs are, as a result, too vague to really accomplish anything. The drums also frequently wear down on the aesthetic wholeness of “too,” although this is due to the opposite problem; their nakedness. Using an acoustic drum kit, especially played in a technical, borderline prog-rock style, is an odd choice, as it pulls the listener a bit further out of the “Internet folk” sonic playground. Indie-rock-style acoustic drumming is a bit of a disappointing obligation to stick to on an album otherwise quite sure of its aesthetic goals.
Nevertheless, so much about “too” outshines these problems that it is silly to feel anything other than excitement for what Tiger Oil is doing. “wow, bet” is excellent: it lures you in with whispered vocals and intense, dreamlike guitars that seem to bend and stretch like pliable metal, then shifts into a refreshing electronic jam. Genuinely lovely muted synth arpeggios ride out the rest of the track over clattery hip-hop drums, before detuning in melancholy lethargy. “mingy jongo” is the other clear standout, truly a gorgeous little song that embodies what Tiger Oil does best. It’s a gentle folk tune picked evocatively on guitar and banjo, both floating in vivid golden clarity, punctuated by occasional stabs of deep bass that goes straight to the stomach. Just as the bass hits, the guitar whips with a licking edge, hinting at a percussive urgency. Nowhere else on “too” is Tiger Oil’s melody creation more in the spotlight, and nowhere else on the album do they achieve such soul-tugging beauty. “mingy jongo” taps into a feeling, a sense of longing, that transcends the modern indie folk aesthetic that the rest of the album finds its home in, and reaches far further back into the consciousness of folk music, evoking an ageless sense of humanness. Juxtaposed against the digital, Internet-aware sonic and lyric environment, “mingy jongo” is the clearest realization of Tiger Oil’s vision. It’s such a shame that it lasts only two minutes.
Although there are standout tracks, and there are forgettable tracks, trying to judge “too” based solely on the quality of the tracks as songs would be missing the most important aspect of why this album works. It’s the moments in-between that matter the most; transitions within songs, subtle additions or subtractions to the sound, and the beginnings and ends, playful footnotes that much more accurately embody the ineffable self-awareness and liminality of Internet-era expression more than any meme-referencing lyrics could. The guitar dissolves into ghostly synths before crumbling apart in the final moments of “progress saved;” head-buzzing little sounds are sprinkled across “ghost footbag;” the slight rhythmic delay on the tail end of “advanced darkness” replaces the instinctual mental image of someone strumming a guitar a final time with the impression that an automatic loop has been interrupted. Working within the formula of indie folk-rock, coloring it in with contemporary aesthetics, feels akin to creating a meme using a template, with the hopes of sharing it with your friends to elicit even a passing smile, a temporary pushing aside of your problems, or a moment of self-reflection. Tiger Oil have made something worth sharing with your friends- something worth noticing, something worth wondering about, and a reason to watch out for their future projects.
- Original, subtle aesthetic
- Great guitar, electronics and bass production
- Occasionally beautiful songwriting
- Vocal production tends to be a bit much
- A little too busy sometimes- both in sound and songwriting