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The Big 'O'

Tilly and the Wall's latest album taps through boundaries

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Omaha band Tilly and the Wall have long been known for their tap-dancing percussion. It's hard to overlook that little detail--allmusic.com even describes the band as an "anomaly" because of it.

Since their first album, they've used Jamie Pressnall's expert feet instead of, and alongside, a traditional drum kit, and now, even though they've just released their third album on Conor Oberst's Team Love label, called O (more about that title later), they're not only making sure the tap-dancing thing doesn't fall by the wayside; they're pushing their creativity even further.

O, produced by Saddle Creek institution Mike Mogis in Omaha, is a half-hour of foot-stomping, hand-clapping energy--and not just metaphorically. "Pot Kettle Black" and "Poor Man's Ice Cream," two of the loudest and wildest songs, both have a stomp team providing the rhythm.

"We recorded in a gymnasium with 10 people recording stomp tracks," explained Pressnall. "A few of us choreographed the parts for the songs, and then we had rehearsals and taught everybody. We got together a few times a week for a couple of weeks, and then we got together and recorded it really early one morning, because we had to use the gym when it wasn't being used."

The stomp team is just one example of how Tilly and the Wall expanded their options on O: Instead of just tap, there's 10 people stomping. Instead of just one or two voices singing, there are many. Everyone in the band contributed songs, and instead of just dance-rock, the songs turn into all sorts of things.

"We were trying to challenge ourselves with (songwriting)," said Pressnall. "We would start with the skeleton of the song, and build and build and just keep building until it felt like it had everything we wanted it to have. And sometimes, we'd be like, 'Oh, yeah, this is good, but let's add a saxophone; let's try something else.'"

O begins with a sweetly harmonized acoustic love song to rock ("Tall Tall Grass"), and then toward the end of "Cacophony," things go gypsy jazz. All of the buzzing and twinkling on "Chandelier Lake" make it sound like a hootenanny choral song, and "Falling Without Knowing" could have easily been a Siouxsie and the Banshees song.

And there are plenty of Tilly and the Wall's signature tap anthems. "Poor Man's Ice Cream" is deliciously angry and biting. "Dust Me Off" bubbles, even though the lyrics sing of "the darkness that creeps in sometimes," and on "Alligator Skin," vocalists Neely Jenkins, Kianna Alarid and Derek Pressnall (Jamie's husband) trade lines back and forth. For these, Pressnall's tap sound got the creative studio treatment: Pressnall said that Mogis did all kinds of amazing things to make her tap shoes take on different sounds.

"He put a microphone in different rooms; he put a mic in the wall; and he put a mic in a drum, in the kick drum, so that when I started tapping, that would pick up a different kind of sound than anything else," she said. "We were lucky that we were working with such a great producer that we could be like, 'We want it to sound like this; we want it to sound like we're in a big room; we want it to sound like classic tap dancing; we want it to sound like punk rock,' and he could just interpret that."

As if expanding the band's sound wasn't enough, there's the issue of the album's name. Instead of just having one album cover, Tilly and the Wall decided to have many. They've commissioned different artists to design different covers, and the artwork will be placed within a black oval-shaped border on the cover--hence the title O.

"We really like the way handmade records look, like if you go to the local record store, and you find something that's spray-painted, or silk-screened, and you can tell it was done by hand," said Pressnall. "So we came up with the idea of each individual artist doing a run of 500 or a run of 1,000."

Each box of discs sent to record stores will have a variety of covers, and the band will bring a selection with them on tour--so fans won't have their options limited, either.

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