Now Eudora, the Get Up Kids' late-2001 release of their demos, covers, and rarities collection, makes sense. They were simply following rock rule 7(g), which states, "When your band is about to embark on a major stylistic shift that will leave most old-time fans feeling let down, clear out the vaults and release a compilation album." In doing so, however, they violated rock rule 9(j) you know, the one about how bands that are part of a "movement" should stick to the formula in case the mainstream media pick up on it.
In the Kids' case, that movement is emo, which no band admits to being part of but every indie record store clerk is quick to mention. "Hard-driving but heartfelt" or "energetic but emotional" might be the best way to describe emo, though the genre encompasses bands as varied as Fugazi, Sunny Day Real Estate, Samiam, and the Promise Ring. Think sensitive yet scorching, boyish yet blistering...stop me before I throw any more bad PR-speak around.
So, on to On a Wire, the third full-length album from Kansas City, Mo.'s Get Up Kids: Singer/guitarist Matt Pryor, guitartist/singer Jim Suptic, keyboardist/singer James Dewees, bassist Robert Pope and his brother, drummer Ryan Pope. It's a fairly diverse release that strays significantly from their previous work and, under the tutelage of former R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, it sounds like the band's grab for the gold ring of popular success, emo tag be damned. Building on the mellower sound of singer Matt Pryor's New Amsterdams side project, On a Wire's 12 songs mostly rely on acoustic guitar, quiet vocals, and a fairly subdued rhythm section stuff that wouldn't sound too out of place on the radio next to Sheryl Crow and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Lead track "Overdue" serves as a sort of bridge between the Kids' emo past and their mainstream-oriented present brisk strumming and Pryor's quiet, confessional voice draw the listener in, then give way to brushed drumming and a chiming, almost country-ish lead guitar reminiscent of, say, a Chris Isaak song. Stranger still is "Let the Reigns [sic] Go Loose," which continues the quietude but adds in a '50s-ish bridge with layered vocals and a concluding piano lifted from the Go-Go's "Head Over Heels." Elsewhere, "All That I Know" gently sways like a Sugar Ray (ick!) song, the icy keyboards and tremolo-heavy lead guitar of "Walking on a Wire" conjure up memories of the music from "Miami Vice," and "The Worst Idea" shows that Inspiral Carpets and their Hammond organ legacy lives on.
Growing up on record doesn't have to result in derivative, uninteresting music that turns off your fan base. Contrast, say, Hüsker Dü's compelling mellowing on Candy Apple Grey with the just-plain-boring final two albums by The Replacements. Unfortunately, the Get Up Kids' move is much closer to the latter than the former. While its rampant eclecticism shows that the Kids clearly want to move beyond the emo tag, their new pop direction finds them drifting about, directionless as opposed to eclectic. I'm not ready to write the Get Up Kids off, but On a Wire is a big letdown.