Welcome to Compendium, a new column where we offer a beginner’s guide to essential artists, bands, genres, and more. Today: The Get Up Kids.
Compendium: The Get Up Kids
by Chad Jewett
Formed in the mid-90s, just as the golden age of Midwestern emo was hitting its stride (The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, and Boys Life would all release red letter albums within a year or two), The Get Up Kids, at their best, combined post-hardcore’s romanticism and energy with indie-pop hooks, Beatle-esque studio smarts, and a certain dusty bookishness left over from the previous generation’s “college rock”. A foray into the Kansas City band’s fairly rich discography should certainly begin with their magnum opus, 1999’s Something To Write Home About, a pop-emo tour de force with at least five songs that have aged into undeniable punk classics, including the climbing, caffeinated opener “Holiday” and quasi-hit single “Action & Action”, all zooming octave chords and James Dewee’s signature, buzzing moog. Elsewhere the Kids indulge their power-pop sweet-tooth on “Ten Minutes” (still a crowd favorite) and anticipate the bands’ earthier next phase on the more atmospheric, autumnal “Red Letter Day” and “Close To Home”. Complete with an iconic cover image of two doting robots adorned with love-letter font, Something To Write Home About is just one of those inimitable essentials, as foundational a document of its time, place, and genre as you’re likely to find.
From there, you can either go backwards, to the scrappy but tuneful Four Minute Mile, or forward to the pensive, painterly, and criminally underrated 2002 LP On A Wire. The former has loads of charm – in many ways its similar to The Promise Ring’s 30° Everywhere, a likable rough draft with enough spirit to patch over the rough edges – and the 1-2 punch of album-openers “Coming Clean” and “Don’t Hate Me” is undeniably great, even beyond the ways they anticipate the breakthroughs of Something To Write Home About. But On A Wire deserves more of your time. One of the most daringly expansive follow-ups in the history of punk music, On A Wire eschewed the fizzy rush of Something for somber folk confessionals (the haunting “Overdue”), alt-country (“Stay Gone”), 60’s-era pop (“High As The Moon”, “Hannah Hold On”), mood-heavy post-punk (“Walking On A Wire”), and, perhaps most memorably, fuzzed-out bedroom indie (“Campfire Kansas”). Fans largely rejected the album as too stark a deviation from the band’s goofball sentimentalism and twin-guitar pop-punk, but the years have been kind to On A Wire, which now, free of all that baggage, plays like an exquisitely crafted, quietly devastating masterpiece.
Finally, your first Get Up Kids shopping spree/Spotify expedition isn’t complete without 1999’s compilation The EPs: Red Letter Day & Woodson. Woodson, like Four Minute Mile, is mostly a set of scruffy pop-punk, though “A New Found Interest In Massachusetts”, which moves from hushed slow-core to a steadily-climbing burst of a finale, is excellent. Red Letter Day, on the other hand, is just about perfect, especially side B, which features the rolling, autumnal “Anne Arbour”, a crisp, airy pop song featuring Matt Pryor’s all-time greatest melody and a pitch-perfect piano riff from James Dewees that sounds for all the world like a set of gently falling leaves. “Anne Arbour” is swiftly followed by “Mass Pike”, a bright crowd-pleaser whose early glockenspiel and drum programming (evidence of the band’s affection for The Cure) swiftly pivot into the kind of perfectly balanced tunefulness that they’d positively command two years later on Something To Write Home About. Quite possibly the band’s two best songs, stacked on atop the other, “Anne Arbour” and “Mass Pike” represent an acme.
Like contemporaries Braid and The Promise Ring, The Get Up Kids released an absolute ton of singles, 7”s, and splits in their early years, eventually (helpfully) collected on 2001’s odds-and-sods compilation Eudora. Not everything here is essential (a Motely Crüe cover?), but the stuff there is plenty of gold to be mined, especially the band’s effervescent cover of The Cure’s “Close To Me”, entertaining alternative versions of several classics (including a great, piano-heavy take on “Forgive and Forget”) and the wonderful, plucky “Up On The Roof”, arguably the band’s last word on the guitar-and-keys driven aesthetic of Something To Write Home About. Similarly, the band’s 2005 live LP, Live! @ The Granada Theater captures the energy of an era about to end. Heavy on fan-favorites and boasting great live renditions of On A Wire standouts “Stay Gone” and “Campfire Kansas”, Live! is good fun. Next up should be Guilt Show, the final album of The Get Up Kids’ original run. As with Saves The Day’s Sound The Alarm, another album with a difficult history following- a wrongfully rejected artistic risk, Guilt Show occasionally sounds like a band trying sheepishly to capture an old sound. But at its best, as on songs like “The One You Want” and “Man of Conviction,” the album has a buoyant, likable power-pop effusiveness.
After reuniting in 2009, the band issued a self-released EP, Simple Science, and then a full-length follow-up, 2011’s There Are Rules. Both have their moments, and its likely best to approach them as documents from a different band and group of people than the one that released Four Minute Mile. Simple Science is the more rewarding of the two, a brief but spirited collection of indie-rock songs that seem as influenced by bassist Rob Pope’s role in Spoon as they are by the writing of Matt Pryor and Jim Suptic. Past that, there is a hefty discography of Get Up Kids side-projects and adjacent bands, including the aforementioned Spoon (Rob Pope does great bass work on 2010’s Transference), James Dewees affably goofy emo-synth alter-ego Reggie & The Full Effect, and Matt Pryor’s great bedroom-pop project The New Amsterdams (start with 2000’s Never You Mind, 2007’s At The Foot Of My Rival, and 2006’s Killed Or Cured – especially the expanded edition which includes two versions of each song).