You Blew It!
Keep Doing What You’re Doing
by Trevor Johnson
“Okay I’ll admit it: this past year I’ve been kind of an idiot.”
Let’s start at the end and work our way forward. Tanner Jones decided to begin the final song of Keep Doing What You’re Doing, You Blew It’s second full-length release, with that line. There is perhaps no better band to kick off 2014 than You Blew It!, a group that came out of relative obscurity (read: Florida) to play a huge role in what mattered about emo music in 2012. Their debut, Grow Up, Dude, quickly became a flagship release for Topshelf Records and a new staple for twinkle fans. Moreover, our first glance at Keep Doing What You’re Doing comes via Pitchfork.com and their Advance Series. Now I’ll let 2011-you pick his or her jaw up off the floor and try to process that tidbit. That’s right, the onetime bastion of Indie Rock snobbery, the current recorder of seemingly any and all music that shows up for a live show on a flash drive, is bringing you the new You Blew It album. This isn’t meant to be overly critical of Pitchfork as an entity (full disclosure: I read it every day) or anyone involved. But the kids that stuffed into an apartment above B. Good Burger on Mass. Ave and Boylston or in an Allston basement in 2011 to see YBI, would have laughed in your face if you suggested this was music that should even be reviewed on Pitchfork.com. And yet, here we are. This is how much the bands and labels that make up this scene have grown and furthermore, how deeply devoted the fans of each have proven. But anyone still crying foul about where this genre has gone, where droves of people with and without guitars brought it, best leave that in the past. Let 2013 be the year of Emo bickering, posturing, and willful obtuseness. It’s 2014 now.
Beginning with one very obvious factor — if all hairs have been split cleanly — Keep Doing What You’re Doing (produced by Into It. Over It.’s Evan Weiss, coming off an all-time banner year) does not sound like an emo album. At the very least, it doesn’t sound much like the brand of emo that has been covered so thoroughly these past 18 months. Regardless of how deeply Tanner Jones digs into his own throat to growl through tracks, this is a power pop album. The feat at hand is actually how the Florida quartet pushes the boundaries of pop and punk pop music, upbeat rhythms, while dipping into tales of spoiled friendship and self-loathing. This plays pretty flawlessly as a second album. Where Grow Up, Dude was riff driven, pretty, delicate, even (ugh) twinkly, its successor bases a vast majority of its songs in chords. It’s a stark transition for a band that, on its freshman effort, hit the perfect swell in audience preference at the perfect time. To borrow a Yeezus phrase, it was popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist. Keep is far more energetic, the type of album you write to play live, once you realize just how great playing live can be when full rooms become more and more frequent. And, as Jones (the only remaining member from the recording of Grow Up) offers during the bridge of “House Address,” “I’m not the sum of my own parts; just a rough combination of the people I’ve met so far.” Similar things could be said of bands on their first albums. Take nothing away from Grow Up, however, by all means an impressive debut. It’s just always fun to see what a band produces when they have something to live up to, when they have themselves to consider along with their record collections.
Jones’s lyrics, a high point, litter the album with notes on regret and self-examination. “Strong Island” is the first breath the album takes after two opening tracks of peak intensity. Just above a whisper, Jones rides a bass-and-drum verse to a chorus of “I’m still finding pieces of me that I could live without.” As one of the best choruses on the album, the line is almost too honest and brutal to fail. There are plenty of dispatches on this record about discontent with someone else (“You can always consider me a friend, just strictly in the past tense,” “You’ve made the list of people I’d like to forget.”) but one of the most brutal is more or less said into a mirror. It shows growth in a way similar to fellow emo southerners, Two Knights. No longer the one averse to picking fights, it becomes clear early that few are safe.
The aforementioned “House Address” is an emotional trek, confessing “Eventually I’ve got to get used to ‘remember when’.” It ends side one in a vein similar to “Ghost Man on Third” or “Freakish,” proving that slowing things down does not have to mean easing up. “You & Me & Me” is the type of track that, if treated like a blueprint, will translate into a very long career for You Blew It!. It’s a pop rock equivalent of a .400 on-base percentage: it doesn’t do any one thing that demands your appreciation, yet over multiple listens it’s the track you keep coming back around to. Ironically, on an album that is more than half composed of quick, fleet power pop songs, it’s the few mid-tempo jogs that make the biggest impression.
It would be hard to slip a Saves the Day reference past myself or my co-blogger here at Half Cloth, and naming this album Keep Doing What You’re Doing seems to be more than just a wink at the Saves The Day’s seminal third LP Stay What You Are. The issue is that Saves The Day used that album to define their sound and reach a watermark they have never been able to match as a band. They had already released two very successful and fairly innovative records, to boot. It’s of course a very unfair comparison, but where Saves The Day seemed to have no limitations, You Blew It! meets a few of theirs on Keep Doing What You’re Doing. Tanner Jones doesn’t quite establish his singing voice on this album, rather, diving between the extremes of borderline screams and soft, low coos. Strangely, vocals were never a point of contention on Grow Up, Dude. While it never goes as far as to derail a specific track, Jones struggles to find a comfortable level on a few occasions. Keep Doing also struggles just a bit with a choppy, start-stop rhythm (especially guitars), though finding their handle on new rhythmic ideas largely constitutes welcome growing pains. This record might end up being the response to the call to Grow Up, Dude, even if there is a smoothness, an ease that comes with the type of riffing that You Blew It! built their sound around prior to this album. A bit of that here and there might have built a helpful path between some of the forests of quick mutes and ring-outs that YBI are starting to fold into their aesthetic.
But it’s songs like the closer “Better to Best” that make this album triumphant. A nice mix of past and present iterations of You Blew It!, it is the band’s first attempt at anything close to an anthem (apply album title in earnest RIGHT HERE). There are supporting “Whooa-ooohh” vocals in the intro and choruses; it is instantly catchy and enjoyable, the type of track you’re thinking about replaying before it’s over. As introspective and as a result, critical, as several other tracks on the record, this time Jones decides to close with a positive: “Maybe this time it wouldn’t hurt to try to be happy.” Let’s all apply the same logic for this line and 2014 as we did the opening line and 2013: “Maybe things aren’t quite as bad as I’ve let myself believe.” Bands like You Blew It! are growing up and growing into their sounds. That isn’t to say that there won’t be growing pains, but these Floridians have produced an album of high water-mark moments and bouncy power pop that you’ll never have to go a single Fest without stagediving to ever again. 2014 is poised to be the year that people stop quarrelling over what they think music should and shouldn’t be called and who does and doesn’t get to talk about it, and start celebrating bands like You Blew It! to their fullest. Cheers, guys; Happy New Year.