Chin Up Chin Up

This Harness Can't Ride Anything

(Suicide Squeeze; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 14 September 2006

Because of Brian Deck, This Harness Can’t Ride Anything is pristine, foamably layered but never obtrusive; this producer is, primordially, a percussionist, and appropriately the album operates around a drumkit core, which, in light of Chin Up Chin Up’s 2004 debut, is probably what should have happened. Not that the rest of the tracks, arrangements, and instruments fan out from the beat, dwindling, because that would be water torture. All hi-hat and spluttering snare clack, Chris Dye’s rhythms grit jaws-of-life teeth and hunker down where Jeremy Bolen’s cadence loses grip. I’m getting ahead of myself, but the point stands: Deck’s a demure master, sonorous only on holidays -- when that’s a matter of rite -- and the best thing to happen to Chin Up, contrapunting the band’s angst away from the kind of white, Midwestern, phallic uprights that connote “post-pubescent” as both a cornbred every-struggle and a big fat nothing.

Politeness aside, Bolen’s lyrics, ashtray delivery, and clunky iamb are still something of a detriment to C.U.C.U.’s precision, especially when precision is what champions the band as a mainstay in a largely flailing Chicago pop shop. To the guy’s credit, he’s drawn back his pistols, hasn’t given in to fisting off one tongue-twisting olio after another. In fact, “Stolen Mountains,” perhaps a lament of wasted time with deceased bassist Chris Saathoff, is Bolen at his most unhindered yet, subtly evoking the ennui in despair with hushed lines, “Oh, from your point of view I want to be there soon.” The Midwest is their locus, and, as such, a starving panorama for hip-slangin’ ruminations on carnal desire, loss, isolationism, and reluctant rebirth. Too often, though, Bolen’s images are mangled by mixed metaphors. He prays that someone, somewhere, will rescue his dangling modifiers, and as he clambers to hold on, the lyrics become a conceptual zero sum, overwrought into colorful nonsense. In part, his atonal swagger can sell the frontman role, develops an interesting bounce when the guitars flatten, but acrobatics like, “This is leftover leaving and my sight can’t stop breathing for cotillions and horseshoes / I never left to leave you,” end up forced into uniform vocal patterns and wrung of all ease.

Even when Bolen’s vocals are pushed to an extraneous niche in the mix, the guitars and percussion sometimes follow too closely, striving to either mimic his pace or straighten his spine. “Blankets Like Beavers,” with Deck on drums, is fevered and stylized, fractured into synth/crash cymbal ups and Califone downs, but the song’s energy is itself fractured, rushed then strangled, furious then meticulous, and the whole never finds ground. Same with “I Need A Friend With A Boat,” which assumes a climax (saved by glistening strings retrieving a great melody) as the song’s only motivation, otherwise content to retread piano gimmicks and Indiana hum. For most of the LP, Deck’s lush production mounts instrumental tension, watches the jittery guitars talk circles around the bass, while allowing each piece its own space. When tricks are employed, like the siren’s din and dah-dah harmony at the close of “We’ve Got To Keep Running,” these barrages draw attention to themselves, but are usually earned. In effect, Harness sounds full, grand, and seamless, and so any experimentation outside of subversive little time signature shifts and dynamic toddling is inevitably obvious, but never garish.

The album does have three true blue beauties: the title track, “Islands Sink,” and “Landlocked Lifeguards.” The former, which eeks out “dry hump” like a slurred “triumph,” sets a standard for the rest of the album in a simple balance between acicular riffs and gunmetal torrents. While borderline shameless in their difference, a distance punctuated in industrial crashes and double-time cymbals, the two ends of the mix are alloyed in swathes of creepily Micro-soft synths and throaty cello. The full effect is damned catchy and so smooth that any enervation on any player’s part is brilliantly hidden. “Islands Sink,” too, has that rousing clamor of voices finding one catchy line to pound mercilessly into the mix. Bolen sounds assured and, for all pragmatic purposes, too confident to rush his soapy word mess. “Landlocked Lifeguards,” the longest cut on Harness, is one melodically gifted send-up to everything Chin Up Chin Up does so well; Laura Laurent’s vocals are only slightly more evocative than Bolen’s, cooing, “And the way that you move it moves too many horizons,” which reminds me of David Byrne and a certain woman’s hips bopping between clicking drum loops and Jesse Woghin’s sleepless bass; that is, before a screech of feedback and a wall of sound, hailing debris, and Cale Parks’ curiously reverent vibraphone. The temple’s coming down.

This, the band’s second full length, is mystifying when it’s able to render anything ostensible in Kevlar craft. Chin Up Chin Up is, ostensibly, a typical Chicago avant-pop band, all literate and urban cool and walking the line between sunny and abrasive. They play the part well, and We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers(2004) existed breathlessly in that uncomfortable, math-rock limbo. Harness isn’t a reinvention of form, but a revitalization of purpose, so solid, brisk, and economic that calling the group a “typical” anything is a flattering assurance of a new kind of contentment in their sound. Maybe it’s Deck’s help at hand, his restraint poking Bolen in the ear, but there’s something to be said for rewarding repeated listens, for golden nuggets in every song, never buried but never hollering. So, good job, guys: when I bent over to really listen to “Stolen Mountains,” I kinda teared up. Also: I bet you guys regret that song, “Fuck You, Elton John,” eh? That probably won’t win you any points.