In the past, the Get Up Kids' best defense against the emo tag was its live show. Onstage, the band keeps naysayers at a safe distance--its guitar riffs blast with an intensity that has never translated to disc. Even if an ear-plugged bully came close enough to smack a "Kick me, I'm emo" sign on their backs, no adhesive would stick to these sweat-drenched Kids. On a Wire, the group's first collection of new material in three years, changes the rules. Like a once-obese sixth-grader who comes back from summer vacation in muscular shape, the Kids eliminated the elements on which their tormentors focused, chucking giddy-up power-pop numbers and earnest love letters. But think of that freshly slimmed-down middle-schooler coming down with a bad case of acne, and you'll have an accurate representation of the blemishes on the Kids' new sound.
On a Wire qualifies as "Midwestern rock" in the worst possible way. Its relentlessly midtempo songs are conservative, inoffensive and unhip to recent musical advances. The ingratiating, radio-ready opening riffs of "Fall From Grace" scream "Smallville soundtrack"; the hazy melodic jangle-twang of "All That I Know" might fit on the I Am Sam collection of butchered Beatles covers; "Grunge Pig" could be the Black Crowes' Southern harmony and musical companion. "Wish You Were Here" isn't a cover of the Pink Floyd classic, nor is it a nod to the Incubus snoozer of the same name. Instead, it's just another jilted-love lament with a criminally uncreative title.
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On the album's first line, Matt Pryor croons, "You're a few years overdue," a sentiment that promises to be a cheeky greeting to long-waiting fans--until it turns out to be just another relationship gripe. Similarly, On a Wire squanders interesting melodies, steady percussion and keyboard effects by keeping the songs slow (the average pace is standstill) and combining positive elements in a less-than-complementary manner. (The electronic squiggles behind the acoustic "Overdue" seem to be trying to wriggle into a more adventurous composition.) True to the group's newfound knack for misleading titles, all its best ideas pop up during "The Worst Idea," an organ-driven romp that showcases the rhythm section at its most aggressive and Pryor's voice at its most tuneful. "High as the Moon," a piano-perked number more precious than a photo of a kitten in baby clothes, might allow the Kids to score some adult-contemporary radio play. The group might have shooed off the emo albatross once and for all, but its young listeners might not want to associate with straitlaced Get Up Men.