If you're looking for some exciting new music to tide you over 'til the summer concert series hits, may I suggest looking at bands that have recently moved out of the emo ghetto? Please don't laugh; I'm serious. Saves the Day ended 2003 by changing gears and releasing the effervescent pop treat In Reverie. Now Vagrant Records' (emo ground zero, depending on who you ask) stalwarts the Get Up Kids have turned in their shimmering rock record, Guilt Show, moving past the constrictions and connotations of the hazily-defined genre to which they once belonged. (I'll keep it short, but for those of you who don't know, emo is sensitive punk songs about how girls are mean written by guys in their late teens, early 20s. Fourteen-year-old boys and girls eat the stuff up.)
It's a relief to see the Get Up Kids still willing to evolve on the heels of 2002's On a Wire, which while "risk-taking and reflective" (thanks, press release!) was an unexpected sea change from their earlier, punkier work and was coolly-received in some circles. Lead singer Matt Pryor has conceded that while he's a fan of On a Wire, its songs are not that much fun to play live. The curse of the "headphones-record" strikes again! Guilt Show, then, corrects its predecessor's lack of fun (for lack of a better term) with big guitars, catchy melodies and handclaps, but doesn't regress to the days of their more immature, "girls are lame" work. To these ears, the Get Up Kids have finally arrived.
Opener "Man of Conviction" is a bright, 90-second slice of power pop, with clever lyrics ("God bless him he's a man of conviction / With evidence enough to convict him") and the neat musical trick of having the whole damn song fall apart during the chorus, only to rebuild itself even stronger. Right behind "Man of Conviction" is "The One You Want", the band's alleged stab at T.Rex-style glam. Whether it succeeds on that level is debatable, but with its infectious "whoo-hoo-hoo"s and some tasty guitar licks from Pryor and Jim Suptic, the argument is rendered moot. The songs are the best opening one-two punch I've heard in a while. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention "Wouldn't Believe It", which boasts a buzzing keyboard riff that would make the New Pornographers jealous, and "In Your Sea", which out-Saves Saves the Day. Power pop's bounce-in-your-step sure beats emo's heel dragging.
The story goes that Guilt Show -- as a title -- came about when the band misread a billboard for a quilt show (Yes, the band is from the Midwest). Whether it's a happy accident or fate or just the sign of a band on a musical and thematic hot streak, Guilt Show proves to be an apropos title. Much of the album revolves around sin, regret, and hypocrisy, but the songs remain vibrant, never veering into emo's Scylla and Charybdis of self-pity and didacticism. "Will you save us?" Pryor asks on the pointedly-titled "Holy Roman", while staccato blasts of guitar mingle with James Dewees' delicate keyboard. "Martyr Me" isn't as precious as it sounds (by the way, isn't that the name of Creed frontman Scott Stapp's upcoming solo album? Zing!) -- and it's got an '80s college rock guitar jangle to it that's a breath of fresh air... though I'd be appreciative if someone could explain the ambient bar noises that creep in during the song's bridge.
The closing track, "Conversation", points to yet another direction for the band -- genuine rock stars. Maybe they're just goofing around, playing Dress Up as Led Zeppelin, but with the bombast of "Kashmir" and the guitar chops of "Rock and Roll", "Conversation" is as good a rock song as 2004 has yet seen. And is there a more rock 'n' roll sentiment than "Though we had a lot of words to say / I didn't think we'd need to have / Another damn conversation / About it"?
Lazy ending alert: With Guilt Show the Kids are better then alright.