When is it appropriate to refer to the “roots” of a genre? If contemporary “roots rock” refers to rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, then I suppose one would have to wait at least 30 odd years before announcing a “roots” revival genre. This would make it just about time to keep an eye out for roots-punk with roots-grunge a mere twinkle in the eye of some young middle-American child on the verge of discovering the nirvana of flannel shirts. Regardless, it is definitely too soon for “roots-emo.” Or, is it? As emo rock has strayed long and far from its seminal waters of mid-‘90s Weezer (ca. Pinkerton) and gotten lost in the dark and acrid tsunami of teary-eyed teeny-boppers just out of braces and Britney Spears records, is it possible that a new wave of emo has arrived to save it from these vainglorious days of mediocrity and restore it to its former maturity level? Perhaps the latest album from Illinois duo the Like Young has the answer. On their sophomore gambit, ironically titled So Serious, the group shuck all emo pretensions and inhibitions and do what emo punks do best. They rock.
Like the Ramones with proto rock ‘n’ roll before them, the Like Young have taken the pace set by Weezer and their ilk and revved it up to maximum velocity. With twelve tracks clocking in at just over 24 minutes, there is no room for boredom or gratuitous flights of art-rock fancy. The Like Young proclaim “less is more” with their stripped-down guitar and drums orchestration and simple vocal harmonies that rely more on the texture of their intertwined vocal timbres than on overblown multi-tracked production gymnastics. What are revealed are lyrics with heart and hooks that hit hard and low. The duo have distilled the art of pop to a finely tuned science, creating just the right chemical mix to remind you why we all thought rock was the devil’s music. Distorted power chords rip through delicate lyrical phrases, soaring to heights of ecstasy reminiscent of early onset hormonal surges, particularly on tracks like “Sharp or Messy” and “Tighten My Tie”, where the drums key into that biological bass-drum groin-tingle response where the pious fear to tread. The Like Young are well-equipped with a full range of smart and catchy pop weaponry and are wholly unafraid to use it, be it darkly witty lyrics, off-color dissonance, enormous highs, or heart stopping lows, all at break-neck speed. This is not rock for the faint of heart.
Part of the group’s genius lies in their clever, albeit prematurely clichéd boy/girl lineup with the lady on drums and vocals and her husband on guitars and vocals. Regardless of the familial connection, Joe and Amanda Ziemba are no Jack and Meg White. Aside from obvious stylistic differences, the dynamic between the Like Young is wholly different and seemingly more collaborative. Rather than a mere accompaniment, Mrs. Ziemba’s drumming is the force behind the operation, driving the blinding speed and energy of the music and infusing it with a lyricism and cleverness that pervades the entire album. If one could call anything about their stripped-down and intentionally simplified sound “complex”, it would be the seamless fusion of their two elements, a marriage in every sense of the word. The song “Heard Your Health” has as much machismo as any ax-grinding rocker, and proves once and for all that a feminine presence doesn’t mean a softer touch.
If So Serious leaves anything to complain about, it would be that the group doesn’t do enough, that the album is derivative and recycled emo, which is itself recycled trash. In the annals of Truly Great Rock, is there a Like Young shaped hole to fill? To ask that question would be, of course, missing the point. The Like Young don’t promise to save rock, emo, the world, or even your pretty little head from insipid boredom. But, it’s less than half an hour of great music. And, if that’s not reason enough, they’re smart. With a song like “Out to Get Me” they can do what every good rock band can do, only in one minute and twelve seconds. Can your favorite band do that? Like all great minimalists, these artists have discovered what makes their art work, distilled it to a single bold phrase, and then isolated the verb. The result is smart, concentrated rock that pulls no punches and always aims fearlessly below the belt.