With 2006’s Until There’s Nothing Left Of Us, Chicago’s Kill Hannah created something to behold. Here was an album that recycled, incorporated, and homogenized a truly impressive range of rock subgenres, folding them up into one big grab at accessibility. The ‘emo’ label that they had been formerly saddled with now only scratching the surface, it sounded like a brilliantly calculated, post-modern pop album that drew from and amped up the unified sound of at least several decades of mascara-clad bands, only one of which was fellow hometown heroes the Smashing Pumpkins. Landing on a common point between dream-pop, glam and electro-pop, it sounded big and expensive, but its polish ended up belying its lack of commercial success—there was just barely a single to speak of (“Lips Like Morphine”), and in general very little attention paid on a national scale. It barely and briefly made it onto the Billboard 200, despite the fact that it sounded tailor-made for the charts, and sported at least two potential hit singles that were light-years better than anything that like-minded but comparatively pedantic bands like Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance could ever muster. It presents one with no small amount of cognitive dissonance to listen and consider how such a commercially-minded album was virtually ignored, garnering the kind of sales usually reserved for bands with way more indie cred.
It should come as no surprise that Atlantic, who must have had high hopes when they signed Kill Hannah for their preceding album, 2003’s similar For Never & Ever, parted ways with the band shortly thereafter. Suffice it to say that, although there was no big spectacle and ultimate success story on the level of another Chicago band famously dropped from their label several years earlier, Kill Hannah has since signed to Original Signal Recordings and continued on with Wake Up the Sleepers, the album the band claims they were “born to make”. It’s not totally clear why, though: despite the fact they were apparently given a lot more leeway to do what they wanted in the studio, the album feels a lot like a retread. More than that, in fact, it even skews quite a bit towards their proclivity for pairing samey dancehall beats with processed guitars and wounded, crooning vocals that they tempered with a lot more variation the last couple times around.
That it sounds like a similar production minus the standout tracks no doubt matters little to Kill Hannah’s ever-rabid cult of fans, but it’s still a shame to hear the material not only retreat from being the fascinatingly neutered hybrid that it was before, but also become so glitzy that it even fails to deliver cheap thrills. Not that it was ever terribly ambitious, but in its standout moments like “Black Poison Blood”, Until There’s Nothing Left at least managed to be surprising even within its confines.
Now more than ever these songs seem tailor-made for disaffected, ecstasy popping teenagers to invest with all sorts of meaning, but it’s hard to look past the fact that most of it is just about superficial nightlife and the inevitable “breaking down” and “living in misery” that happen during the off hours. Album opener “Radio” stands out a bit, perhaps because it plays something like a distant cousin of Pavement’s Brighten the Corners opener “Stereo”—only with a lot more bravado and a whole lot less whimsy concerning the idea of hearing oneself coming through speakers. In their version, Kill Hannah revels in the redemptive “look at me now” qualities of making it to a point where your band is being played on the radio, which comes across like an odd bit of wishful thinking considering their failure to garner any major radio play.
About halfway through Wake Up the Sleepers comes a propulsive, sparsely synth-laden piece with an alluring sentiment centered around its title, “Why I Have My Grandma’s Sad Eyes”, which doesn’t seem to have much to with anything around it but is still a pretty compelling thing to say leading into a chorus. The song has just the right amount of moody character to make it memorable, casting an evocative shadow over a heartbreaking incident with real emotion resonance—and yet the overly-busy percussion this album as a whole suffers from doesn’t fail to enter, regrettably stealing the show.
In the end, there’s precious little left to keep one awake for the whole duration of this set. It’s hard to fault the band for catering to their base instincts and their fans desires, but they take themselves way too seriously for sounding like they belong ten years ago. For a couple albums they managed to downplay less admirable tendencies to craft emotional pop that defied classification to a point worthy of academic study—or at least navel-gazing consideration—but now they’ve reverted to a less interesting place, one firmly rooted within the limitations that at one point they had seemed on the verge of outgrowing.