Chin Up Chin Up
This Harness Can’t Ride Anything
hether it’s the brand of guitar, the effects, or the person playing it, there’s a certain rendition of the electric guitar that hoarsely screams emo. Examining just-released Let’s Build A Fire from the underappreciated band +/-, it’s clear that some artists can escort Taking Back Sunday twitters and jerky drum work to higher ground; some, like Chin Up Chin Up, cannot. On their second full-length and first with Seattles’s Suicide Squeeze, empty, unresolved, arpeggiated riffs murder beautiful, sped-up, whispering reinterpretations of hip-hop beats. Pianos and banjos are dumbed down and slapped around. On “We’ve Got to Keep Running,” whiny synthesizers rip off Wolf Parade’s “Shine a Light” in what can only be an unintentional attack of Spencer Krug’s bloodless vocal work (seeing as Jeremy Bolen, CUCU’s singer and chief scribe, has kept on with this style for most of his tenure). What’s more the album’s tempo rarely changes, often feeling just a tad attention deficient or, alternately, transfixed. Is there any reason to come to this party?
It’s certainly not a wake, unlike 2004’s We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers, which rendered the hit-and-run death of bassist Chris Saathoff as twelve tracks arranged faithfully around his foundational work. That’s not to say the resulting album was a downer: it was a semi-satisfactory, er, indi/emo/tric collection that yielded some critical acclaim and Cure references. Though it’s reasonable to not buy the validity of either of those yields.
As with Skyscrapers, Bolen’s delivery on Harness feels diffident and underproduced—qualities that need not go hand in hand. If the instrumentals were built around Bolen’s vocals, the resulting album makes considerable sense: he is slightly more convincing and consistent, but this means he has a more controlled delivery and makes a frustratingly unadventurous tour around the melodic scale. The instruments only follow him with staid, zombie-like energy. On tracks like “Blankets Like Beavers,” the structure is rigid, the vocals hinged too strictly on predictable rhythmic syncopations and shallow melodies. The drums pound, the guitars react obediently, but it’s as if the guitars are trying to be the drums, employing a percussive force that doesn’t really say anything. And don’t count on Bolen to send the message. When you can decipher his lyrics, they’re at a magnetic poetry level of sophistication, delivered with the magnets’ same choppy rejection of grammar rules.
The quiet, circular melodies of tracks like “Landlocked Lifeguards” and the sunnier “Stolen Mountains” will remind listeners of Brooklyn’s Dirty On Purpose, whose occasional borderline emo pieces soar, swelter, and sparkle without necessarily traveling far. There’s a quick, simple, handclappy beat at the back of “Lifeguards” that adds rare color to the guitar’s practically computer generated bit-parts-turned-lead-roles. “Stolen Mountains” is an adequate closer perfect for an Adam Brody-Rachel Bilson love scene on “The O.C.” But then comes “Trophies for Hire,” an unnavigable jingle with a harmonica thrown in just for the hell of it. When a cutesy nerdo title turns into the entire gist of a song, their musical accomplishments summed up in the ridiculous squawking delivery of, “Oh oh, oh oh, this trophy is for hire,” it’s a soothing reminder that this is the album’s last track.
It’s not that this album had to be catchy. But when an uninventive melody is rehashed ten times to the point that you wonder whether literal keys and strings are missing from the band’s instruments, what you get is a diffusion line of a product that wasn’t even selling well in the first place. At least not here. Harness is an adequate piece of art that appears to have been chiseled beyond recognition, leaving the listener with dusty remnants of a structured, discernible, and inspired genre that is elsewhere alive and well.