The Get Up Kids take it down a thousand.
Rock bands often start their journey with meth-amphetamine gusto, romping out of the gate with screeching amps, squealing tires, and enough energy to run around the block 12 times. They come to your town. They party it down. And they snap decadent photos of the act. Adrenaline and feedback get them through a flurry of singles, EPs, and at least one long-player. But changes creep in. And soon enough, the rock band that once had groupies’ underwear on its head suddenly has serious songs on its mind. Keys and acoustic guitar have tempered the fury. Blood has been wiped from the pick guard. This transition is probably inevitable; the physical demands of rocking 24/7 are challenge enough. And sometimes it’s just plain wrong, like that old cliché about the synthesizer on a sophomore album. But can it just happen too goddamn quick?
Maybe it’s the flushed, hurried excitement that comes from creating something; maybe it’s a lack of knowledge beyond three chords and the truth. But there’s a tradition in music of ragged-assed rockers growing into more somber songwriting shoes. Dateline: 1980. Subsisting on hair grease and Mad Dog 20/20, the Replacements tore holes in your Jordache with Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. But over a series of albums for Twin/Tone and Sire, the ‘Mats morphed into a Paul Westerberg solo project with more to offer than just snot and crushed-out cigarettes. A few years later, The Goo Goo Dolls threw some punches around in Buffalo, New York, recording double-time scream-fests for Metal Blade records. That same consonant-heavy trio is now known more for their jangly romantic comedy soundtrack music and unfortunate hairstyles. And when Superchunk shot out of Chapel Hill in 1990, they seemingly wanted nothing more than to fire off punk-pop anthems in three-minute bursts. But in the last few years, the Superchunk sound has evolved. They can still rattle the speakers in the van. But it’s no longer a question of how fast. It’s how much they’ve learned along the way.
It’s appropriate then that Superchunk will accompany one of their proteges on tour this summer. Because just as Mac McCaughan and company have stopped trying to consistently bash skulls, The Get Up Kids’ new material is less rock, more song. But given the results, some remedial rock work just might be in order.
In the zeal of their youth (five years ago), The Get Up Kids released singles and records that pitted plaintive tales of romance and longing against the fuzzy anthemics of late 90s indie rock. Dumped into the ‘Emo’ bin by a nation of record store clerks, GUK was considered by some to be the Kansas City version of Milwaukee’s equally pleading Promise Ring. But here it is 2002, and both groups have released albums of handcrafted songs – not simply riffs for the sake of riffs, or cracked vocal chords over crackling power chords. That’s what’s interesting about On A Wire, GUK’s newest. Upon first listen, it’s odd not to hear the breath-catching dynamics that defined the more rocking moments of 1999’s Something To Write Home About, like “Ten Minutes” or “Holiday.” (Indeed, Something launches with a power slide and heavy metal drum fill; conversely, On A Wire begins with the brightly strummed acoustics of the lead single “Overdue.”) But like their mentors before them, The Get Up Kids have transitioned, and have replaced volume with a desire for experimentation, beyond playing a different electric guitar here and there. Throughout Wire, Producer Scott Litt amplifies touches of organ and backing vocals that at times recall bright-eyed early 60’s pop. Unfortunately, Litt’s production is occasionally a negative, busying up already confused songs (“High As The Moon,” “All That I Know”). And the album wouldn’t suffer at all from a few blasts of heartland guitar heroics. But for the most part, On A Wire is saved by pristine moments, like the layered guitars that support “Fall From Grace,” the homey feel of “Campfire Kansas,” or the balladic, New Amsterdams outtake “Hannah Hold On.” It’s definitely strange to hear the band retract where they used to lash out. But the direction that The Get Up Kids have taken with their new material isn’t surprising, given the path traveled by their principal forebears.
It’s true that it took a few more records for groups like The Replacements, Goo Goo Dolls, or Superchunk to fully exorcise the rock from their systems. And they did so with varying degrees of success. (In the latter’s case, the rock is still clinging to a toe-hold.) But everything happens faster these days, doesn’t it? Besides, The Get Up Kids assure the constituency on their website that rock and roll hasn’t fully fallen off of the truck, and swears that their sometimes quite pretty – but decidedly un-rocking – new material rocks more live. The words of a group of songwriters beginning to feel confident in a new medium? Or famous last words?
Insert wisecrack about Paul Westerberg’s solo career here.