The Get Up Kids are not cool. That’s for sure. The Get Up Kids are about as far from cool as you can get and still play in a rock ‘n’ roll band. In fact, the Get Up Kids are the opposite of cool. The Get Up Kids are a noisy, confused, insecure, swooning, howling, defiant freakin’ mess.
Yet being uncool is not necessarily a bad thing, and on their second album, Something to Write Home About, the Get Up Kids show how being an emotional wreck can sometimes make for powerful and empowering music.
The 12 songs on Something to Write Home About work, for the most part, because they have nothing to do with “cool”. Instead, the album explodes with a potent combination of whistle-down-the-street melodies and “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” manifestos for the young, dissed, dumped and dismissed. Something evokes the energy and confusion of being 17 years old as well as anything since the glory days of Paul Westerberg. Nobody is cool when you’re 17 and the Get Up Kids remind you of that time when music was a matter of life and death. When you turned to music to make sense of your world. When music called out to you, held up a mirror, and promised you weren’t alone.
Working with producers Chad Blinman and Alex Brahl, Something to Write Home About adds a harmony filled sheen to the basic formula set out on the Get Ups’ rougher debut album, Four Minute Mile. Where the debut’s mix often betrayed its lo-fi origins, Something‘s sound is consistently big and bright, drawing inspiration from classic mid-’60s pop and early ’80s New Wave as much as anything resembling DIY style hardcore.
The most notable addition this time out is James Dewee’s loopy Duran Duran keyboards, which provide a melodic counterpoint to guitarist Jim Suptic’s thrashing and give the whole album a party-like-its-1983 feel. No doubt the Get Ups have some Cars albums hidden in their collection somewhere and their obvious love for early ’80s synth-cheese gives the entire album a bubbly, day-glo feel.
As always though, singer/songwriter Matthew Pryor’s earnest tenor remains the focus and rides high in the mix. Pryor’s voice is a distinctive wail, always teetering on the verge of trembling excess. Wounded one minute, rebellious the next. To his credit, Pryor is a songwriter first and his singing generally remains faithful to the melody at the expense of any vocal star moments.
Something to Write Home About pins your ears back from the start with a furious one-two punch. The opening cut, “Holiday”, blasts out of the speakers with a classic guitar pick slide that would have made Pete Townshend blush in 1973. Pryor then berates a distant flame, “I know you thought my life would stop with you away”, before pleading, “Maybe I can see you on the holidays” in the scream to a whisper chorus. “Action to Action” follows with a fanfare of guitars and keyboards introducing another done-me-wrong, finger-pointing tale. It is an unyielding sonic sludge that only escapes its dense arrangement for a moment when Pryor sighs, “I’m down for whatever / What’s there left to wait for”, before a scream and a final crashing run through the chorus blows the doors off again.
The band exhales a bit during “Valentine”, a waiting-by-the-phone ballad with a radiant multi-harmony coda that would tug at Brian Wilson’s heartstrings. Then “Red Letter Day” brings back the noise as Pryor snarls like a cornered animal, “You’re just a phase I’ve gotten over anyhow” and Suptic batters his guitar senseless.
The pretty “Out of Reach” flirts dangerously close with power ballad mush, building from a subdued acoustic intro to a drum crashing finale. However, once again, Pryor’s vocal restraint and frank delivery save the proceedings and things mercifully pull back just shy of Journey territory. The album’s first half ends with the power pop gem, “10 Minutes”, in which Pryor sums up his romantic frustration in one of the album’s best lines, “It’s like you’re falling in love while I just fall apart”.
From there, harmony filled rockers and ballads alternate as Something builds towards its climax. A great call-and-response chorus makes “Company Dime” a standout, while “My Apology” bounces along in a mid-tempo groove with another head bobbing chorus. The single, “I’m a Loner Dottie, A Rebel,” is Pryor’s stride of pride tale after a one-night-stand set against the band’s jagged, engine throttle rhythms.
Throughout the album, the Get Up Kids tweak their basic sonic assault just enough to avoid the sense of sameness that can often plague bands with such a distinctive sound, injecting a quiet acoustic interlude here, a hooky keyboard line there. The Get Ups give each song enough individual care to let them stand on their own while still bowing to the album’s coherent feel and rush.
It is on the sleepless night lament of “Long Goodnight”, however, that Something to Write Home About reaches its zenith. The song begins as a farewell lullaby and slowly builds to a screaming crescendo before ending nearly five minutes later in a whisper and the parting shot, “If it all ended tonight / You know that I wouldn’t mind”. Here the Get Ups’ cry-a-long melodies and torn-from-the-journal lyrics combine to hit with an unnerving voyeuristic power similar to hearing your best friend read love letters to his ex-girlfriend aloud. Sometimes it makes you want to squirm but usually you just kind of feel for the guy.
The final two songs, “Close to Home”, with its odd country twinge, and the quiet “I’ll Catch You”, close the album on a resigned note with Pryor finally admitting, in the end, “You’re still all that matters to me”.
Yes, the Get Up Kids’ subject matter is obsessively confined to variations on the defiant scorned lover theme. Something to Write Home About is an album that finds its pitch immediately and then works to sustain it for 12 songs. Expecting Pryor to step back from his heartache and offer a more reasoned perspective, though, misses the mark. Finding answers, understanding, and resolution are not the point. The point is catharsis. The Get Ups scream their confusion and pain to the world and they are not concerned with waiting for the echoes to bounce back.
Pryor’s single-minded approach works because he speaks to his audience in a way that only a 17-year-old sitting in his bedroom with headphones on can understand. The Get Up Kids are of their audience and reflect their fans’ feelings like only the best bands can. Nothing hurts like a crush and the songs on Something to Write Home About, while sometimes relentlessly focused in their subject matter, offer a battle cry for anyone who’s ever felt the sting of rejection or deceit. If you’ve been to a Get Up Kids show, where the crowd often drowns out the band by singing every word back at them, it is hard to deny that Pryor’s tales hit their target.
Something to Write Home About may not sit on the Mount Rushmore of indie albums with the Replacements’ Let It Be, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, or whatever your personal fave may be. It’s not in that league. However, Something is a powerful and empowering album because it connects with its audience in the same way those great albums did. It is an old friend that soothes and comforts you while still finding time to rock the fillings out of your teeth.
Call them “emo” or whatever you like, The Get Up Kids make great rock music because somewhere on your block there is a 17-year-old kid who just lives and dies for these songs. Crank up Something to Write Home About and remember how that feels.