Emo at the Crossroads: “Very Emergency” and “Something to Write Home About” at 20 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Emo at the Crossroads: “Very Emergency” and “Something to Write Home About” at 20

Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of the 1999 Albums by The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring

Oct 04, 2019 The Get Up Kids
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In early September of 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas, The Get Up Kids’ hometown newspaper, ran a piece about the tenth anniversary reissue of the band’s second album, Something to Write Home About. In the article, local music promoter and friend of the group Jacki Becker recalls listening to an early copy of the CD with excitement. “This record was really right at the beginning of something big musically that the industry had dubbed ‘emo’,” she recalls. In one sense, her statement is pretty much indisputable. In another…it’s complicated.

September 28th, 1999, was a red letter day for the rock genre that back then still rejected its name or simply refused to acknowledge its own existence. That Tuesday saw the release of not just Something to Write Home About, but also The Promise Ring’s third studio album, Very Emergency. Both groups were on the upswing at the time, though the same could not be said for a number of their Midwest peers. Chicago band Braid had played their farewell shows just a month before. Austin’s Mineral had parted ways the previous year. Denver figureheads Christie Front Drive and formative Kansas City crew Boys Life were long gone, both having split in 1997, with various former members then going off to make Cure-tinged dance music (Antarctica), heavy space rock (The Blue Ontario), and more emo-adjacent material (The Farewell Bend). (Braid, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, and Boys Life have of course all reunited this past decade for at least a tour if not to make new music, because no band stays broken up forever anymore.)

That said, The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring were not quite the last sensitive men standing amidst the genre’s declining second generation at the end of the ‘90s. Sunny Day Real Estate were one of the first and biggest names of that era to go, but they were also the first to come back, releasing the high water mark How It Feels to be Something On in 1998 after what amounted to hiatus of less than three years. Jimmy Eat World had also recently gone all widescreen ambition on their third album, Clarity. Released in early ‘99, that record would eventually come to be seen as the axis of Jimmy Eat World’s comeback-kid story. In the fall of that year, however, it was just a surprisingly accessible rock record that wasn’t being accessed by nearly as many people as Capitol Records would have preferred.

Clarity should have sold a million copies and marked the beginning of a new technicolor era for emo. Instead, it was the next Jimmy Eat World album, Bleed American, released a couple years later, that sold a million copies. Bleed American in 2001 reaffirmed the path that the genre had been sent on by Something to Write Home About and Very Emergency in 1999. The new model placed melodic efficiency above guitar intricacy. Stop-start rhythms were now start-start. Post-hardcore’s indifference to hummable choruses had become more passe than noble. Weezer were now retroactively labelled an emo band, a misnomer that still clings to them today for which The Get Up Kids had to take at least a sliver of responsibility for.

Blame aspiration or blame the classic LPs from the ‘60s and ‘70s their parents raised them on, but the path to power pop was inexorable. “We’ve just been trying to write good songs for a long time, and I think we finally maybe have done it,” said Promise Ring leader Davey von Bohlen to Alternative Press in an interview at the time of Very Emergency‘s release. Though he admitted that the arrival of his perfect-pop revelation came with an edge of concern that such songwriting might be “predictable and dull,” ultimately these were the kinds of tunes he wanted to write. “I would never listen to our first record,” he continued, forsaking the fan-beloved 30º Everywhere. “If we could have put out [Very Emergency] for our first record, we would have.”

The Promise Ring had earned their confidence. Very Emergency was, and remains, a very catchy batch of songs. The first strident guitar riff and its beaming lyric, “I’ve got my body and my mind on the same page/And honey now happiness is all the rage,” got lodged in the brain immediately and refused to leave. “Happiness Is All the Rage” followed by “Emergency! Emergency!” followed by “The Deep South” and “Happy Hour” is an admirable opening run that drags the polished sound of The Knack and The Cars through all the unswept indie venues von Bohlen and his cohort had ever parked their tour van in front of. Very Emergency never veers off course; there are no obscurities, no indulgences.

Intentional or not, “I’ve got my body and my mind on the same page/And honey now happiness is all the rage” was also a firm rebuke of emo’s moody reputation. Naming their second album Nothing Feels Good had already poked fun at all the seriousness of the genre growing around them and their friends, and Very Emergency all but officially filed for separation from the scene. What many fans didn’t know at the time was that von Bohlen’s body and mind weren’t actually in tune.

“I was going through a bottle of headache pills every two days,” von Bohlen told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 about the making of Very Emergency. “That record hurt to record. Every show supporting it was just awful. Think about having a headache, then screaming and yelling for an hour.” It would soon come to be discovered that he had a benign brain tumor. Multiple surgeries followed. Successfully coming out of the experience with his health, The Promise Ring reconvened. Their music slowed down, but their energy was still focused. Wood/Water, their next—and unbeknownst to them at the time, their last—album, was recorded in England with famed Britpop producer Stephen Street.

If the gigs The Promise Ring played in support of Very Emergency were as painful to carry out for von Bohlen as he described to the LA Times, it didn’t always appear that way. The mood was up when they played the RKCNDY in this writer’s hometown of Seattle in October of 1999, at least. The Get Up Kids had in fact been through the same venue only a few days before. Perhaps the positive vibe carried over. Something to Write Home About and Very Emergency are on similar musical wavelengths. Having recorded their 1997 debut, Four Minute Mile, over a couple of days with Bob Weston of Shellac, they were bent on going bigger next time around.

The Get Up Kids found a willing accomplice in Vagrant Records. As Punk Planet pointed out in a 2002 cover story on the label, a house was mortgaged to compete with the majors and bring the band on board. The Get Up Kids put well more than a weekend into recording Something to Write Home About, and then toured it for the better part of two years. That included “stints opening up huge auditoriums for Green Day and reunited alt-rock heroes Weezer.” Sales of the album would come to surpass 150,000 copies in that time, to which Punk Planet countered, “But at what cost?”

Punk Planet‘s question in 2002 came from the indie vs. major argument that troubled many an underground music fan up until the digital age rendered the conflict too quaint to be bothered about. Regardless, from today’s vantage point we can see that the real answer to their question was “Fall Out Boy.” The Get Up Kids couldn’t have foreseen at the time that by the middle of the next decade one of the country’s biggest rock bands would be not just citing their influence, but sometimes biting their habit of using incongruous childhood-fave movie quotes for song titles. Plenty of third generation emo bands in the 2000s made it bigger than The Get Up Kids, but Something to Write Home About helped open the door.

Singer/guitarist Matt Pryor had an instinct for teenage gut-punch lyrics in early Get Up Kids records. Never was that more pronounced than on Something to Write Home About, but the sentiments also spoke to transitional experiences. The first words on the album are shouted questions: “What became of everyone I used to know?/Where did our respectable convictions go?” “Valentine” laments how “Constants aren’t so constant anymore.” “I’m not bitter, anyway/But I didn’t want it to turn out this way,” goes “Long Goodnight.” These aren’t necessarily the thoughts of a person with the whole world in front of them. At the same time, the charging pop punk that carried so many of Pryor’s weary words suppressed any suspicions that The Get Up Kids were already reeling in the years.

Then they did more or less exactly what The Promise Ring did, and released a significantly mellower follow-up album in 2002. Within a month of Wood/Water, in fact. On a Wire, though, was a more jarring surprise. Surely they had at least a couple more Something‘s in them? How could a group that called themselves “Kids” be ready to start strumming songs called things like “Campfire Kansas” so soon? On a Wire was and remains a solid record, and if you add up the EPs and the Eudora collection along with the first two studio albums you could perhaps see how The Get Up Kids had gone as far as they could with their initial sound. Yet such concessions still didn’t keep some listeners at the time from feeling the band’s newfound maturity was a little premature.

In 2002, The Get Up Kids no longer needed to be their old selves because so many others were arriving in droves to do it for them. The new breed were more slick and direct, brandishing hearts on their sleeves without the obfuscation of poetry and odd tunings preferred by the previous generation. They would also come to sell a hell of a lot more CDs than most of those ‘90s dudes. The influencers were sometimes left in frustrating situations. Andy Greenwald’s 2003 book on emo, Nothing Feels Good, is named after The Promise Ring’s album, but is forced to recall an episode from just the year before when that band were opening at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City for Jimmy Eat World. By that point Jimmy Eat World had gone from runts of the emo litter to leaders of the pack via “The Middle,” and von Bohlen “was greeted with implacable silence” for having the audacity to pick up an acoustic guitar like some old folkie when there was rawk to be played.

Something to Write Home About and Very Emergency, along with Clarity to an extent, mark both the end of one era and the beginning of another for a kind of music that has had identity issues almost from day one. That this moment happened to coincide with the end of a millennium was a suitably dramatic flourish to the story of this particular genre, though of course the rift wasn’t truly visible at the time. In the fall of 1999 these were just a couple of new albums by two indie guitar bands who were still in the process of realizing their full potential. No one saw the likes of My Chemical Romance or the chat-room rise of American Football coming, either.



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