Music » Beat Grinder

Tilly the Hun

This Omaha quintet is on a conquest of congeniality.


The late, lamented pre-Stepfordization Sassy magazine sounded its "Cute Band Alert" whenever it encountered talented musicians who were also adorable. More than any other active group, Omaha's Tilly and the Wall would have deserved Sassy's virtual unicorn-shaped rubber stamp of approval. Everything about this quintet is aww-inspiring, from its name's origin (swiped from a children's story about an ambitious mouse) to its Web site ("click the hearts to view photos") to its label (Team Love). Oh, and most of the percussion on the group's debut disc, Wild Like Children, comes from hand claps or member Jamie Williams' amplified tap-dancing. Being peppy has its perks, but candy can be cloying, something Tilly's sweet-and-sour career illustrates like no other band.

For instance, Bright Eyes fans come to see the heartthrob headliner and aren't usually interested in opening acts. However, with its casting-call-caliber, three-woman-two-man lineup, Tilly left starry-eyed spectators asking "Conor who?" when the bands shared bills last year. By cheering up the crowd, Tilly ensured that the atmosphere would have farther to fall when Bright Eyes darkened the mood, making for a memorably manic-depressive evening.

But one exemplary challenge such a cheery act faces is that despite its smart, cynical lyrics, which seems wildly subversive among such blissful instrumentation, Wild Like Children will always be judged by its honeyed harmonies and upbeat jangle. It must be frustrating to write lines such as love, just like blood, will always stain, only to have reviewers remark, "It's second-grade, in a good way." This is the kind of condescending treatment that nuclear technicians who look like Denise Richards might endure -- if they existed outside of Bond films.

On the other hand, a line like We will sing pretty songs about love/And we will fight if that's what it takes, from "Ice Storm, Big Gust and You," proves that Tilly's members might look dainty as doilies, but they're ready to pound anyone who tries to oppress their stylish outfits and gorgeous melodies. (Precedents include Monty Python's deadly bunny and the friendly looking killer kitties in the horror film Strays.)

After all, many Midwesteners prefer Ted Nugent and Bob Seger to a Billy Joel-Shirley Temple hybrid, which suggests that Tilly and the Wall absorbed plenty of punishment before becoming million-dollar baby faces. It's similar to Johnny Cash's boy named Sue, or it would be if Sue had actually named himself and willingly donned frilly dresses.

But perhaps that's precisely the secret to Tilly and the Wall's survival. In a business that makes sulk and snark the music modes du jour, it takes much bigger balls to get onstage and be, well, cute.

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