Rarities compilations are almost always tricky business. On the one hand, they offer a band the opportunity to show a more adventurous side to themselves that may be lacking on their more polished final efforts. However, they can also contrarily be a mass of middle-of-the-road outtakes that are decent enough but don’t really merit shouting about. There is, after all, a reason these songs have remained unreleased. With all that in mind, Tape Club, a collection of b-sides, non-album tracks and studio demos from ridiculously-named Illinois indie-poppers Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, poses a serious question: does a band as relatively nascent as SSLYBY really warrant a release such as this so early in their lifespan?
The answer is inconclusive. SSLYBY are a band that have always been at their most beguiling when crafting gentle, homespun pop songs with more than a passing nod to Elliott Smith. Their 2005 debut Broom charmed many with its lo-fi simplicity and homely qualities while subsequent efforts have seen them circling the critical drain, never quite reaching the lofty heights Broom set for them. As such, a collection of tracks culled largely from home demos and pre-Broom EPs should surely re-establish some of that quaint charm that made the band so likeable in the first place. And it does, to a certain extent anyway.
As Tape Club springs to life on a wave of early gems that cite precedent for the promise that would be realised on Broom, you’re immediately drawn in by the band’s unadulterated naïveté. While ‘Song L’ could fit perfectly on any independent film soundtrack this side of Juno with its mumbled out-of-sync vocal refrains, ‘Go Upstairs’ introduces the sort of warm harmonies that would make the aforementioned Mr. Smith proud. It’s clear to see that the band benefit from the lo-fi style in which they initially chose to portray themselves: their simple songs need no huge arrangements or studio trickery in order to glisten.
However, as with their larger recorded output in general, when the tracks here move towards the environs of the studio, the quality of the material on offer seems to waiver. The double a-side of ‘Half Awake (Deb)’ and ‘Not Worth Fighting’ is enjoyable as the tracks maintain a relative simplicity in spite of their hi-fi sound but things as a whole begin to slide downhill from there. ‘Cardinal Rules’ (originally written by the band for their local baseball team, the Springfield Cardinals no less) suffers from being cluttered and overly enthusiastic, its blaring keys and pompously shouted vocals quickly descending into tedium.
It’s not all bad with the more recent outtakes on display here though. The demo versions of ‘Phantomwise’ and ‘Back in the Saddle,’ both of which would later appear on 2010’s Let It Sway, offer an interesting insight into how the band’s music may have turned out if they’d kept recording at home and hadn’t become bogged down in studio gimmickry. They’re unique enough versions to warrant listening on their own merits, and are of high enough quality to make it an enjoyable experience as well. They are the exceptional moments on a largely lacklustre closing few songs however.
It’s always disappointing to see a band with promise stutter on difficult second and third records, but that is what makes Tape Club, and particularly its first half, relevant. While it is largely for the die-hard fans, the early tracks from the band’s lo-fi heyday demonstrate a joyful exuberance and innocence that they’ve sadly failed to replicate of late. Perhaps with Tape Club though someone will remember why they still love them, even if the Boris Yeltsin reference continues to be baffling.