By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Half our year is winter," says Jeremy Bolen, frontman for Chin Up Chin Up, one of Chicago's best avant-pop combos. "I wrote a lot of the new songs in the winter, and they were definitely influenced by the surroundings."
The new songs appear on This Harness Can't Ride Anything, the band's skillfully chaotic sophomore effort and the first without founding member Chris Saathoff, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2004.
"The day after Christopher died, his parents came to town and were adamant that we continue to play music," Bolen says. "They thought it was best for his memory that the band wouldn't fall apart."
Using Saathoff's already recorded bass lines, the band pieced together We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers, a debut that served as an elegy as well as a bold statement of purpose. Featuring hyper-literate and resolutely obscure gems such as "All My Hammocks Are Dying" and "Why Is My Sleeping Bag a Ghetto Muppet," the record was clever indie rock in the vein of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire.
"People say we sound like a Chicago band," Bolen says. "And I say how the fuck do you do that?"
Yet there is a sense of Midwestern urban malaise contained in the tense grooves and odd time signatures of Chin Up Chin Up's textured sound. References to ice, snow and desolate terrain pop up on several cuts. But while the debut could come off as a bit arty, Harness makes its case as a more direct effort.
"It's more of a rock record," Bolen says, "simpler, more straight to the point."
That point may be hard to discover in Bolen's dense and detailed prose.
"I really try to make references that are interesting," Bolen says. "I'm into making the lyrics meaningful and obscure."
"We need ice picks to share these houses on the beachfront where tits cling and time is empty," Bolen sings on the prickly title cut as the band pushes against the singer's hectic energy. Even relatively calmer tracks such as "Water Planes in Snow" and "Mansioned" seethe with a subversive undercurrent of regret.
"We want to keep the songs interesting," Bolen says, "keep them going in different directions." The paths Chin Up Chin Up chooses to take are uncommon and articulate, reflecting the Chicago environment as well as the band members' current state of adulthood.
"These are just interesting times," Bolen says, "when a person is taking responsibilities and maybe settling down." Maybe Bolen and his bandmates will choose a place with warm weather.