FAULTY WIRING?

The Get Up Kids take it down a thousand.

Johnny Loftus

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 clichĂ© 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.

JTL

14 thoughts on “FAULTY WIRING?”

  1. I find the premise that a band slowing things down, putting more effort into songcraft and opening up the musical vistas via different intrumentation, moronic. It’s a broad generalization barely supported by fact. Rock doesn’t have one tempo and three chords all banged out on a shitty Fender copy. American Music Club never “rocked” in that fashion, but there was more rock attitude in the quiet anguish and repressed fury of their albums than you could find in any dozen calculated, rap-metal moshers or fey emo bands who haven’t learned to tune an acoustic yet. Further, the Replacements’ last album wasn’t a letdown because it was slow, – their song “Here Comes A Regular” off of Tim, a hushed, heart-breaking ballad by any measure, had more rock and roll spirit than many of their subsequent “rockers” – but because it wasn’t very good. Just a thought.

  2. The article does not make the generalization that every band in the world follows the cycle described. But the fact remains that many do, including the examples cited in the piece. Re: The Replacements, I’m not suggesting that they sucked when they got slow. I only made the point that they did, in fact, go through a mellow transformation, that found them (Westerberg, mostly) focusing more on songcraft than they had their Young Turk days.No band inside or out of the article should be scolded, kicked to the curb for changing its sound, or for giving up feedback in favor of “quiet anguish and repressed fury.” The article simply attempts to define what exactly it is that makes bands transform as such, and point out that The Get Up Kids have definitely made that transition, for better or worse.JTL

  3. There’s usually a division among Replacements fans (like me) between the ‘old’ Mats and the ‘slow’ Mats, most of them agreeing that the whole thing hinged on the late, great Bob Stinson’s expulsion from the group. While he was with the band, there was generally a lot more thrash.But really, the Replacements were destined for slowness. When you have a really gifted songwriter in your band, you sort of have to go in his direction. ‘Let It Be’ had only a few all-out rockers, and ‘Tim’, ‘Pleased To Meet Me’ and ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ only furthered the trend. By “All Shook Down’ I think Westerberg had just plain burned out, and would have been happy playing a flute and bongos. There were still some brilliant songs, but very little of the old hardcore noise of the early days.

  4. The fact is, pounding out three chord rockers gets to be really boring to play after a while, unless you’re always drunk like the Ramones. Anybody playing music will inevitably get bored of this and start playimg things that are more interesting to themselves after a while. It is inherently true that an great angry rocking record is going to be by a band of kids who are just figuring it out.

  5. Yeah, I have this great three-chord angry rocking record by a bunch of kids who are just figuring it out. It’s a live record called “Weld”. The fact of the matter is, three chord rock can be and continues to be very interesting. Because a three chord rock number is not encapsulated by the chords or even the notes they’re playing. It’s the style with which the music is played. It’s the fire and brimstone of the performance. It’s the degenerate guitar tones that can be explored. Christ, it’s the tics and expression in the vocals. Listen to a band like the Detroit Cobras. The way they perform some of those soul oldies resurrects your very human faith. If that’s the sound of people who haven’t yet “figured it out” musically, I would hate to figure it out.

  6. I agree that it’s not bad to play three chord rock at any point in your career, or even for your whole career if you’re good at it, but Neil Young isn’t a great example of someone who stayed true to good old three chord mayhem. The guy has played just about every conceivable style that can be called rock.I also agree that it’s not the difference between “figuring it out” and barely knowing how to play your intstruments. It can be just the direction that your muse leads you, or, sadly, a calculated effort to sound “tough” or “young” or whatever. My only requirement from music, slow or fast, is that you sound like you mean it… that you’re not lying to me. I don’t even care if you actually are lying to me, just don’t sound like it. “Weld” ain’t no lie, and neither is the new Get Up Kids, judging by the tracks I’ve heard.And Johnny, you may not feel that slowing down and expanding your vision is necessarily a bad thing, but I think that’s definitely the tone you end with in your essay, from the online assurances by GUK that they still “rock” live, as if they need to justify the new sound, (their problem, not yours) to the invitation to take potshots at Westerberg’s solo career, however deserving of potshots it may be. There’s this wistful longing for the amphetamine rush of first efforts in the tone of the piece, even when you’re saying it’s understandable and even admirable to shake things up. Or maybe I’m giving more weight to some of your statements over others. I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

  7. I take back what I said about “the truth.” It’s a pretty nebulous thing in rock and roll, and being full of shit doesn’t mean you’re no good. I’m full of shit, and I’m really not a bad guy. Passion is more important.

  8. I couldn’t resist the Westerberg bit. It just seems to me that he’s a guy that everyone wishes would “just play the old stuff,” You know?

  9. Three chords? Shit, I prefer just one, played over and over and over and over. Throw a little screaming over it as well as some fire eating and a few gallons of milk and goats blood…..What was this about?

  10. have you heard the new westerberg double album?, if that doesnt prove the old 42 year old still can blow the other imposters off the stge, you’re deaf dumb and blind…it’s fuckin brilliant!@#$^&*

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