There’s something un-matchable about a great pop-rock song. Not just “pop” (i.e. catchy melody, harmony vocals) or “rock” (loud electric guitars, energetic tempo, attitude) both pop-rock, the sublime wedding of the two. Songs that you can hum till everyone around you wants you dead, but that also make you want to jump around the room and drive really fast. In my mind, Wolfie were one of the great American pop-rock groups of recent years: sweet and raucous at the same time. They had that noisy edge, but also pulled your heartstrings. Some sort of blessed mix of Weezer, The Who, Of Montreal, and more delicate, gentle pop, their three albums breeze past and beg you to play them again . . . and again . . . and again . . .
By the time of the group’s final album, Tall Dark Hill, they were both pushing further into rock (keyboards down, guitars way up) and amplifying the emotional impact by using a even more harmonic male/female vocal mix. That vocal approach was built off one taken by the same two musicians, Joe Ziemba and Amanda Ziemba (nee Lyons, the two married in 2002), when they created music under the name Busytoby. Busytoby’s one album, It’s Good to Be Alive, used a more pop-based sound to seriously move those listeners that cared to tears. By Wolfie’s end, they had adopted a winning vocal sound and learned how to surround their catchy little ditties with a thicker layer of rock.
Taking off from that point is The Like Young, a duo consisting of Joe and Amanda Ziemba. Its the same cast that Busytoby had, but the music is at the opposite side of the pop-rock continuum. The group has the same basic songwriting style of Wolfie and Busytoby, but pushes the rock ‘n’ roll factor even further. Still as melodic and fetching as any of the songs of their previous bands, the songs on The Like Young’s debut EP are more streamlined in a very rock way. The keyboards are almost gone, leaving the essentials: guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.
With one song from The Like Young’s first full-length, Art Contest (recently released on Parasol Records) and four b-sides, “Looked Up” Plus Four is a quick ride but a fantastic one. The songs are all right around the two-minute mark but stick around your head long after they’ve ended. The CD kicks off with “Looked Up”, a song that blasts with force while retaining a bittersweet aura of the possibility of love. Joe sings in a slightly rougher, more punk-ish tone than usual, offering a portrait of nervousness and infatuation (“Oh mme, why don’t you talk to me? I’ll speak loudly and ruin everything”), while Amanda’s voice brings in the same sentiments in a lighter, dreamier style. The song is a perfect summary of what The Like Young has in common with the Ziembas’ other bands — gorgeous melodies and a mix of optimism and insecurity that’s simultaneously heartwrenching and uplifting — while also offering a rougher edge that stems from an obvious affection for the history of rock.
The four b-sides are as good as the single. “Bad Excuse” has a denser, slightly GBV-ish sound and lyrics that deftly look at the difficulties of getting over past mistakes. “Freddy”, with Amanda on lead vocals, is a beautiful minute-and-23-seond trip through a crowded room that ends on a positive note (“Just the thought of seeing you in that room makes my insecurities fade and that’s nice”). “Threshold Person” adds a slightly bluesy, Stones-ish touch to their sound. The EP-ending “You Can’t Get It Back”, probably my favorite song on the EP, has a more complex mix of pop melody and rock guitar, and takes a decidedly non-“rock” approach to drugs, with a sentiment summarized in the line “I don’t understand why you can’t live in the world on your own/and face it on your own.”
As The Like Young’s first CD release (in August they released a split 7″ with ST Monroe on Forge Again Records), “Looked Up” Plus Four is mostly an introduction to the duo’s music, a teaser before the Art Contest full-length. While Wolfie/Busytoby fans will find in The Like Young familiar sounds in somewhat different musical clothes, listeners who’ve never heard of The Ziembas’ other bands will find a stellar mix of raw rock power and attractive melodies, plus lyrics that come straight from their hearts and hit you in yours.