Dull. Uninspired. Directionless. Not terms commonly reserved for the Get Up Kids. Partly because their extensive discography, while not on the forefront of the critically praised, appeals to a great number of listeners with a soft spot for music’s emotional refuge. Since their early 7”s, they have celebrated the bittersweet, often cathartic energy that revolved around healing the broken heart. One that lay threadbare and in direct aim of their lyrical montage, painted to great depth by self-effacing lines (“your place is at the heart of what I do everything’s for you / every time I run away / it’s easier to stay”) and observations of what is lost in distance (“I’ve got pictures to prove I was there / but you don’t care”). They were perhaps the words of one, but felt by many.
The Red Letter Day EP, still their most complete and affecting work, echoed with the caustic fangs of sorrow that, in their perfect tuneful reverberation, left an impressive mark of sincerity (although at times described as a little mawkish). Is there a better reflection of resentful lost felt than “Anne Arbour”? The agony was beautiful, and the empathy not lost through the frayed romance. The triumph that followed was simply majestic; Something to Write Home About was the personification of what we all are at times – “out of sight, out of mind, out of reach” – left but the wilting memories with nothing more than frail goodbyes and a postcard. It was a record that spoke to those who spent the waiting by the phone. Built on endless aphorisms of love and lost, songs like “Valentine” and “Out of Reach” were rich in emotional appeal. While the Get Up Kids were not the architects of this tender-laden genre, they were one of the select few who propelled it into the many heart-shaped boxes of music’s thin-skinned aftertaste. As the lush harmony of “I’ll Catch You” faded away, there was certain assurance that their unkempt adoration would never follow.
Such a collection would have needed either a greater successor, or a shift in direction to lessen the temptation of resting on laurels and accomplishment. And how often it is that one finds the difficulty in writing with heightened poignancy rests not in the initial plunge, but the falling thereafter; searching for similar ground and radiance. So they did – fall that is. The new musical horizons On A Wire featured proved that maybe the Get Up Kids weren’t ready for such a change in direction; the listeners certainly weren’t. The grainy scope and emphasis on more unrefined textures was possibly the only way to demonstrate growth in such curbed ambiance. Gone amidst their new found bearing was the graceful sentimentality that had become the cornerstone of their sound; and as the music fought for recognition the allure grew dispassionate.
How do you again achieve that emotive past? For the Get Up Kids perhaps, it is fairly obvious. Parallels to Something to Write Home About need to be retraced, and as frustrating as it must be for a musician to have to once again trundle down a beaten path, these are but the few options for those seeking adoration amongst a disappointed audience. The landscape itself has changed however, and in the years since their fateful album much of the surrounding vistas have blossomed (or overpopulated) into a patchy, often hazy scene of never-should-haves and really-never-should-haves. As Guilt Showseems to so eagerly display; they have all but forgotten the dusty backlots of On A Wireand have rediscovered the use of more stable rock-entangled-pop characteristics. Yet as they bungle through these thirteen songs, it is clear they are not so keen on giving up their desire to earn musical respect. And for the first time, a Get Up Kids album can be summed up simply as dull, uninspired and directionless.
From the laid back Brit-pop apostrophes of “Holy Roman” (sounding plenty like they’ve been listening to The Coral or Porcupine-era Echo & the Bunnymen) to the garish chirpiness of “In Your Sea” (kitschy summertime AM radio castoff), there seems to be great affliction in focusing on a distinct approach. Instead, most of Guilt Show feels like a band trying their best to sound as relevant as possible. The incredibly theatrical “Is There A Way Out” is a lesson of torment, carved in gloomy progressive dreadfulness while “Never Be Alone” is very much equal in drag to the On A Wire track “Walking On A Wire.”
The instances where they do tread on familiar sounds seem at times overly effusive. “How Long Is Too Long?” and “Man Of Conviction” would have fit nicely with their earlier work, but the latter is clumsy; replete with hand-claps and a trailing piano line that screams confusion. “Martyr Me” (and maybe to some extent “Sympathy”) is the album’s lone moment of engaging complexity. Most similar in its composition to “Red Letter Day” and “Mass Pike”, it is a song phosphorescent with the gleam of earnest melancholy; finally resuming the sense of moving. It is however, a wonder how the rest of the songs are so lacking in any real tension, richness or profundity. The lyrics, once rife with searing piquancy, are now devoid of any lasting characteristics. Witness the choral aloofness of “Never Be Alone”; “Ohhhhhhhhhh / That’s just the way we go / No matter how the dice didn’t roll / You’ll never be alone” – not exactly “I still wear your heart around my throat.”
This is a scary place to be, for both listener and band – the visible path traced post-Something To Write Home About is a distinct nosedive into forgettable. It says plenty that the New Amsterdams’ Worse for the Wear is endlessly better than Guilt Show. In essence, the Get Up Kids have become dilettantes of their own art; seemingly lost in an overwhelming wave of misdirection and desire to appease wanton listeners. The underlining sentiment that resides here is an unmistakable lack of sincerity; everything the title purports it to be. And perhaps they could search through their own words to find the hollow cries of “start over, start over”, but it is very much clear, they wouldn’t know where to begin.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.