By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Neely Jenkins is crying on the other end of the phone.
"I'm having a really hard time with leaving," Jenkins confesses. "It's so hard. I've been thinking about it so much. We've been gone a long time, and it's just really hard, because we're all very, very close to our families and friends."
It's just after noon on June 2. In a few hours, the songstress and sometime bass player will join the rest of her band, Tilly and the Wall, on stage at Omaha's Sokol Underground, where the act will officially release its remarkable sophomore album, Bottoms of Barrels, in front of a hometown crowd. And tomorrow morning, Jenkins and her bandmates -- singer Kianna Alarid, who trades bass duties with Jenkins, guitarist Derek Pressnall, keyboardist Nick White and tap dancer Jamie Williams -- will embark on another cross-country tour that will span nearly two months, with 36 shows in 48 days. Having spent the better part of the past two years on the road with bands like Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley, the thought of being gone again is understandably a bit overwhelming for Jenkins. Every clap and stomp and note of tonight's performance will be tainted by the looming departure and the impending goodbyes.
"I've just been talking to two of my best friends," she says, after pausing to collect herself and politely apologizing for losing her composure. "I mean, I know once I get on the road it will be fine, but you try to squeeze in all your responsibilities and your friends, and it's a challenge, you know?"
Jenkins's earnest outpouring is befitting, especially considering how genuinely personal the songs on Barrels are -- and how close they make you feel to her and the band as a result. "Rainbows in the Dark," a coming-of-age tale about Jenkins's childhood, ends with a tear-inducing crescendo that finds Jenkins lullabying, "Sometimes you just can't hold back the river." And there are plenty of other pensive moments on Barrels, such as "Lost Girls," in which Alarid wails, "No one will ever save you/If no one can ever find you," and "Coughing Colors," on which Pressnall moans with a quivering vocal style that recalls Conor Oberst, "They'll have you coughing up your colors."
Tilly balances these contemplative moments with the kind of exuberant music that would prompt you to risk eviction by jumping up and down on paper-thin wood floors. This is a band, after all, centered around the use of tap dancing in lieu of traditional drum sounds. Though standard drums and electronic beats do occasionally appear, Nick White's organ and keyboards are mostly bolstered by a gaggle of organic percussive sounds such as hand claps and stomps, all anchored by rolling, heart-pumping bass lines. But what truly stands out about Tilly and the Wall are the band's vocals. The cherubic three-part, male/female harmonies -- a vociferous-here, boisterous-there vocal style, which often draws comparisons to a precocious Belle and Sebastian hopped up on Pixy Stix -- are stacked and layered so seamlessly that even the most meticulous of Jenga players would be given pause.
"I have read reviews, and I do see that recurring theme of us being children and whatever," Jenkins allows. "I mean, if I were to describe us, I'd say we're people who like to make music and hang out and have a really good time. We just love what we do."
That's evident just from taking a look at the act's press photos. One image in particular captures all five members crammed inside a closet-sized bathroom: Alarid and Williams in the bathtub, fully clothed; Pressnall shaving with a disposable razor; Jenkins spraying her wrist with perfume; and White seen only in the reflection of a circular vanity mirror. Add the blood running down Williams's partially shaved leg, and the whole thing looks like what happens when five friends screw around after sharing a bottle of cheap whiskey.
"We're really lucky to have such a good friendship as a group," Jenkins enthuses. "Plus, most of our photos have been taken by friends, so it's always really laid-back and chill, and we get to do whatever we want."
When Jenkins and company are not being photographed acting wry, they are pictured hugging, cuddling and generally holding on to one another. This sense of camaraderie, Jenkins says, is what keeps the band positive when things don't always go their way, on stage or otherwise.
"We've been trying to work on transitions between songs," she says, "but they usually don't go so well. But we're all pretty dorky. We don't try to get up there and be cool. We get up there, and we fuck up a ton. And we're not hard on ourselves about it. Sure, we say 'Okay, we should work on that,' but we do this to have a good time and enjoy each other and have fun."
The band encourages its fans to embody the same type of capricious spirit. On Tilly and the Walls' myspace page, the group invites its followers to bring balloons to shows to pass around the crowd and blow up on stage (water balloons and glitter are also strongly encouraged). And the levity doesn't end when the house lights go up. While zigzagging across the country, the musicians amuse themselves in the van with everything from travel games like Connect Four and Mad Libs to iPods and gossip magazines.