Chicago's Chin Up Chin Up turn in one of the spikiest, most energised albums of the year.
Sometimes you feel it's possible to work out whether or not you'll like a record within 30 seconds of the opening tune. You have a visceral, gut reaction to it. It provokes a smile of recognition, it's pushing all the right buttons. "Track two is pretty good, too," you think, "this is gonna be great". You hope that the feeling will be proved right, but often it isn't: the album is heavily front-loaded with good stuff and then it tapers off, it's a disappointment, and all that goodwill and expectation is blown away. I'm happy to report that the second album by Chicago's Chin Up Chin Up, This Harness Can't Ride Anything, starts off strongly and gets even better. It is as solid, compelling, and, most of all, consistent as anything I've heard all year, lean as fillet steak with no fillers or weak links. This is a mature and fully realised album that warrants playing from track one to ten without the need for the skip button.
A significant leap forward from 2004s We Should Have Never Lived Like Skyscrapers, the sound is richer, warmer and more deeply layered. Produced by Brian Deck, who oversaw Iron and Wine's classic Endless Numbered Days, the vocals of Jeremy Bolen are pushed higher up in the mix, which imbues this most talented of bands with a much more strident, confident sound. It's definitely a step forward from the more subdued whispery style of talk-singing he displayed on their debut.
Listening to this hugely impressive album, I was frankly puzzled why they are so often pigeonholed in the dubious category of "math-rock". This seems to be both lazy and incorrect; this is angular and fractured guitar music that transcends the strictures of that narrow genre. Its appeal is far wider, for starters; much care has been taken over melodies and hooks, rather than prescriptive time-signatures, and the result is a record that could appeal to a mass, rather than niche, audience. If anything, I would say the musical touchstones here are post-punk -- Wire, the Fall, Orange Juice -- but imbued with a gentle mid-western warmth and humour. Forget the "math-rock" tag, and forget, for the most part, the misleading comparisons with the work of much lauded Canadian bands Broken Social Scene and the Arcade Fire. Excellent as both of these groups are, there is none of the ramshackle jamming of the former, or the aching grandeur of the later. Brian Deck keeps proceedings clean and pared down, and the album is all the better for it. Bolen and Nathan Snydacker duel away with their guitars like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the rhythm section is taut and played with just the right amount of muscle.
Opener "This Harness Can't Ride anything" is a blizzard of cleanly defined, swirling guitar notes reminiscent of the Cure and augmented by subtly suppressed strings. The track has a breakneck, irresistible energy over which Bolen yelps his oblique, impressionistic lyrics. "Water Planes in Snow" is softer, more pastoral in feel, and gives the impression that you are privy to an unclear though poignant moment as he sings "I'm losing track of my lies / I'm losing track of my mind". The band produce a rich, complex sound with instruments straining in different directions whilst always serving the melody. The magnificent "Islands Sink" is surely a track in which anyone mourning the demise of Pavement will find much to comfort themselves. Though Boden's vocals are much more overwrought than those of Stephen Malkmus, the tune itself resembles something from Terror Twilight crammed with sudden changes of pace and stabs of unexpected electronic effects. Both "Mansioned" and "Stolen Mountains" share a woozy, understated feel, eschewing driving guitars for elegantly rendered, gently strummed chords and plucked notes clear as mineral water. Built around relatively simple melodies, they build gradually and repetitively until they are firmly embedded in your mind.
"I Need a Friend with a Boat", built around the desperately repeated lyrical refrain "And they all asked me what we were?", perhaps provides the solitary explanation for any comparisons with the Arcade Fire. Pianos and strings swirl dramatically around a driving bass line that could easily have come from the very early days of U2. Standout track for me is "Blankets like Beavers", which offers precious little lyrical cues as to what it's actually about: "I was looking for Minnesota", Boden yowls gravely at one point. It doesn't matter. This is a hugely varied tune that roams across the precise minimalism of Wire, the pile driving central riff from the Breeders' "When I was a Painter", a bizarre space synthesizer mid-section, and ultra fast Wedding Present-style chord patterns. It's fascinating: the sound of a band unafraid to experiment but never letting that urge get in the way of delivering a killer tune.
The only impediment to crossing over to a larger audience is, perhaps, the obliqueness of Jeremy Bolen's vocals, which I personally like. Otherwise, there is more than enough here to thrill anyone interested in original spiky guitar pop. Poignantly, the band recovered from the untimely death of original bassist Chris Saathoff in a tragic hit and run accident shortly before the release of their debut album. On this evidence they are to be applauded for continuing to produce such fresh, challenging, and inventive music. I just hope this is the breakthrough record it so clearly deserves to be.