In 2012, I asked Kurt Feldman of Ice Choir if he could recommend any interesting new vocalists in NYC, and he showed me the video to Twin Sister’s space-echo jam “All Around and Away We Go.” I bought the track, and despite it always sounding a bit dull on the speakers, it became a dear staple in car playlists and DJ sets. Out of love for that song alone, I invited Twin Sister to open for Chairlift at our Hurricane Sandy fundraiser, and their fog-drenched set, almost two years ago now, was the first time I heard the songs which later became the debut record for the newly christened band Mr Twin Sister. They were fantastic.
In the months following that show, I bought everything of theirs I could find. But the music they played that night felt and sounded nothing like any of their albums — I was frustrated that none of it resembled the oozy, angelic, alien funk that I’d heard and wanted to hear again. I wondered if I’d imagined it, or if it was a zeitgeist flatteringly projected upon them by lead singer Andrea Estella’s holographic wardrobe. The next thing I heard about was a horrifying van crash, an MS diagnosis and the band getting dropped by their label, Domino, after which I started following them on Instagram out of fear that this fascinating band might not get back on their feet. I rooted for them as they posted pictures of their casts, colored hair, wheelchairs, stickers, surgery, anime, tired faces, happy faces. Long breaks in between.
I wouldn’t have agreed to write a Talkhouse piece for any other album, but when I was approached to write, I badly needed to know whether or not I had imagined everything that night two years ago. I received their album under the new name of Mr Twin Sister (due to what I’m assuming was a cease-and-desist order from some ’70s band with the same name). To my delight, it was all there, just as I remembered, but better, laid out in hi-fi, audiophile splendor.
The clarity of the production is the most important and surprising thing about this record. Lo-fi pop works its (now infamous) magic by removal: the loss of information can feel mysterious or evocatively detached, swaddling the artist in a Vaseline-smeared lens of diffusion. But in a defining step away from their lo-fi beginnings on 2008’s Vampires with Dreaming Kids and 2011’s Color Your Life, the band renders the new Mr Twin Sister in full-bodied hyper-detail, as if with dilated pupils. The soundscapes are lovingly tended, with long-form swells of pads glowing up from under the beats. The arrangements are inviting and lush, the section changes made generously easy to anticipate, but never without a surprise dash of synth or percussion. While the rest of our generation’s producers were cashing in on the now-ubiquitous formula of minimal R&B with trappy taps and halftime drops, Mr Twin Sister staked out for three years and taught themselves how to make heart-on-sleeve disco with obsessive sonic precision and liquid freakiness, the way it was made at its peak. Normally I’d have suspected that an ample label budget or big-name producer would have played some part in this ambitious step up, but that wasn’t the case: Mr Twin Sister was made with only their manager’s homegrown label for support, while the band members were all working day-jobs. It could only be the result of tireless dedication, mutual support and a collective vision.
The album art is simply a photo of the LP. Although they could have easily pushed the image of their iconic Andrea Estella as the face of the music, or continued their collaborations with pulp illustrator Jonny Negron, the plain cover confidently says that the music speaks for itself. The LP is for DJ-ing, for collecting, for listening to on a proper grown-up sound system in a carpeted living room, deep in a chair, or just lying on the floor.
Lying down is how I picture the band members when I hear the album. I don’t imagine them playing, even though they’re killer live and will undoubtedly be the summer festival band of 2015. I imagine them recovering, traumatized post-crash, asleep. Perhaps I’m projecting again, but it sounds as if they needed something from the music itself as part of their recovery. I imagine these tracks, mid-process, suddenly became more than just a project and actually soothed their makers, having become a collective world to escape into until real life could be as pretty. The opening track, “Sensitive,” begins with a gorgeous two-minute-and-30-second synth intro, a bold move on a song that could have easily been a promo-ready 3:30. Not only is the song the perfect concert opener, but the long intro is a sort of video game-like “spawn point” entry into that collective world — like a morphine drip coming on in real time… slowly… until the Sade-caliber bass line comes in and you realize how far you’ve drifted from shore. Hands in the air, petals falling out, into the water… eyes close and open again.
Story-wise, however, I have difficulty finding one. The lyrics are fragments of pop introspection in drag bars, city streets and bedrooms, like flipping through a graphic novel with the pages out of order. Adding to the elusiveness, Andrea Estella sings in an accent entirely her own, adding umlauted ö’s and æ’s so that, for example, “illusion” comes out as “eeloosheun.” But at eight songs the album is too short. The two ballads (like “Blush,” the most textbook-perfect composition on the album), don’t balance out the top-heavy triple-punch of “Sensitive,” “Rude Boy,” and “In the House of Yes” that begins the album. And then there’s the harrowing, vocoder throb of “12 Angels.” The product of a deep dive into acid house, it functions like Björk’s “Pluto” at the near-end of Homogenic, as a storm to be weathered. But where Björk concluded with “All Is Full of Love,” Mr Twin Sister leaves you with the non-confrontational balm of “Medford” and the mermaid-folk tragedy of the closer, “Crime Scene,” as if the drug is wearing off and you’re waking up from surgery before you want to. “All I want to do is be tied to you,” Andrea coos as the guitar cuts out abruptly and a long silence reveals itself as distant washes of sonar. Perhaps it’s a simple love ballad, but since the rest of the lyrics are hard to follow, it plays out like pangs of mourning.
There are exciting rumors of a second new album to follow soon, which might mean that “Crime Scene” is a cliffhanger and not a sad ending. But until that album surfaces, Mr Twin Sister can fortunately be set to loop. “Sensitive” bubbles right back in where the distant pads of “Crime Scene” wear off: all around and away we go.