By Tom Lynch
Chicago can sometimes be a very cold, unforgiving place. But throughout its history, local indie-pop band Chin Up Chin Up, one of the best we have, has kept its head up.
Everybody knows the history. Bassist Chris Saathoff was killed on Valentine’s Day in 2004, a hit-and-run accident outside of the Empty Bottle. This tragedy, understandably, tore the band apart, as the members questioned whether or not to continue. Deciding that it’s what their friend would’ve wanted, the band regrouped and finished its debut record, “We Should’ve Never Lived Like We We’re Skyscrapers,” in fall of 2004, on Flameshovel.
The band returns this week with “This Harness Can’t Ride Anything” on Suicide Squeeze, its follow-up to the promising debut, ten songs of painstaking ambition that include endless instrumentation, including banjos, drum loops, organs, synths, cello and harmonica. The band advances beyond its math-rock influences, still using them but in a more textured, compact form. At their foundation, these songs are just pop songs. But with everything presented in layers and layers—plus the whispery delivery of Jeremy Bolen’s whimsical and bittersweet lyrics—“This Harness Can’t Ride Anything” vastly improves on the impressive-in-itself debut, wonderful in invention and execution.
“We definitely really wanted it to be more of a rock record,” says singer/guitarist Bolen. “We really wanted to simplify our songs, strip things down a bit. I’m not sure that we fully accomplished that.”
While Chin Up Chin Up’s material is anything but simple, the songs are presented in a more straightforward fashion than on previous releases by the band. An effort to escape the original math-rock sound? “In certain ways, but not that we’re unhappy with what we do,” Bolen says. “We just wanted to evolve. The main thing is to always be evolving, have something new going on.”
The first thing one notices on the record is the unrestricted use of multiple instruments—which, decidedly, doesn’t exactly offer a “stripped-down” feeling—but it never seems that the additional components to each song are forced, more that they were supposed to be there all along. “We always want to have as much instrumentation as we can,” Bolen says. “Unfortunately, we can’t play more instruments, but we’re fortunate of the nice people who play on the record. I was happy we could incorporate cello on this record—I wanted to on the last record.” Does the lack of players create problems live? “We’re stripped-down live—we’re not playing with a cello player, the vibes won’t be there—but I think we pull it off pretty well. We always write records in a no-holds-barred kind of way. We don’t really worry about what can’t translate live. You gotta make the best record you can make, and we’re not gonna hold back because we can’t do it live. I’d rather have a great record.”
The hopeful nature of Bolen’s lyrics on “This Harness Can’t Ride Anything” is overwhelming in its truth and purity as he weaves lines together with the breadth of a veteran poet—“autistic subways blank the porno miles/This is a map that wants collisions/And the way that you move it moves too many horizons,” from “Landlocked Lifeguards,” is one of my favorites. “I think that’s kind of always what I’m trying to go for,” Bolen says, “trying to write music that’s somewhat hopeful in a certain way. There are kind of sad things about the record, but it kind of lends itself [to the idea] that it’s gonna be alright.”
Did that part of his lyricism become more prevalent after Saathoff’s death? “Somewhat, that’s a small part of it,” he says. “But even before Chris, it’s kind of how, lyrically, I like to think and live. Some music lends itself to that—not abandoning hope.”
Bolen uses his sense of storytelling for much of the lyrics on the record. “I definitely try and do that more on this record,” he says. “I love Bob Dylan, Silver Jews, shit like that. It’s one thing I’ve concentrated on—make it linear, telling some kind of story.”
The band hits the road this month in support of the record, its first true tour since the spring of 2005. “I’ll be missing being in Chicago in October,” Bolen says. “I’ll miss it a lot. But I’ll get over it—we’re going to a lot of beautiful places.”
Chin Up Chin Up plays October 13 at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, at 9:30pm. $10.