Sunday, June 03, 2007

album review: The High Strung - Get The Guests

It's always been about the overachievers with The High Strung. The strivers. The ones who seem to have it all, mostly because they work their asses off for it. Take the very first lines off the band's 2003 debut, These Are Good Times, the song "Wretched Boy." (YouTube)

"My mom reads another classic book each night/my dad can always tell between what's wrong and right" and "my brother works so hard he's gonna own this town/my other brother owns half the underground."

Or later, on "The Gentleman" off second release Moxie Bravo, there's that mythically debonair title figure - "a curio, a giant and a dream." But in the eyes of the song's narrator, "I know with a little work I can be that good for a little while."

A little work, or a lot of work. These people and things are typically seen from the outside, from the perspective of one who's sharp enough himself to know what it takes, who would, who could, but hasn't done it himself.

Another way of saying it is that for all the fun and buzz in their sound, there's a certain sort of intelligence in The High Strung's music - it's visceral, but it's not mindless. I run screaming from bands described as "literate," (having been an English major myself, I'm loathe to find out what happens when they start rock bands, throwing all their precious allusions around, and so avoid them like the plague) so I'm not going to use that word here to describe any of this. A slightly better word for the kind of intelligence and taste I'm talking about, and I'll use it guardedly, is "middlebrow." Willingly or not, The High Strung might be the most middlebrow great power-pop-indie-rock-act I know of. And perhaps that's why, unfortunately, most aren't familiar with them. Let me explain.

With two, now three, terrific albums out, I've tried to figure out why you probably haven't heard of The High Strung. It's damned difficult to imagine an American indie band in existence for more than 20 minutes whose number of feature segments on This American Life (listen to one here) beats the number of features - hell, the number of meaningful mentions - found on the Pitchforks and other such cooler-than-thou tastemakers of the world. Well, at least NPR's Ken Tucker named These Are Good Times among his top ten albums of 2003, right there with Outkast and the like. After achieving minor notoriety for "donating" their tour bus to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they've arguably become as well known for their summer public library tours (a great idea) as they have for their music.

I haven't got any other good excuses, not that they should need them. The music is fan-freaking-tastic. If the band's antecedents - Detroit-bred, Brooklyn-based - and general sound shouts "garage rockers - go back to 2002!" they've proven a little too boyishly wry and versatile to be pegged to that. There's nothing remotely emo at all about them, either, which means they're still stuck playing rightfield at the moment.

On their new release, Get The Guests, The High Strung doesn't abandon their angle, their characters, nor too much of their basic musical m.o. - bright, hooky sketches in three-piece rock - but they throw a few new curves, too.

Where Good Times and Moxie conquered via amped-up garage-rock and psychedelia with the odd T.Rexatastic touch, this is a somewhat gentler record, in that it actually has gentle spaces. The tender, jangling guitars, earnest lyrics about never ever getting complacent in love, and Josh Malerman's keening vocals on "Watch Me Sustain The Early Days" put you in the mind of something like mid-90s Matthew Sweet - you wouldn't flinch if you heard it slotted in after something off Altered Beast (and that's a high compliment for me). It's also a long way from "come on Loretta, let me put my free hand up your sweater," a less moderate plea from a less moderate, outrageously fun old track like the debut disc's rambunctious "Show a Sign of Life," back when the band displayed tons of energy (and an extra singer/guitarist) but not nearly so many gears to shift between.

If there's a misfire here or there while testing those gears - "So Dry" doesn't do much for me - there's much to get excited about, like "The Curator," about a frustrated curator cheekily rearranging the museum in the middle of the night because "I've got the keys, and they trust me." Really, who else would sing about a crazed curator? Horns pay off on "The Meddler," while "Childhood" (slightly woozy as it is) and "What a Meddler" come over all trippy 60s, swirling organs and harmonies - which Malerman's high, wispy, honest voice is peculiarly suited for. But "Raise The Bar" and "He's Got No Soul" rock straight, hard and true.

If my theories about a thread of low-key bookishness and aspirationalism are correct, then "Rimbaud/Rambo" is quite possibly the essential High Strung track - the distilled sound of Strungtopia in all its witty, energetic glory. Either way, it's one of the very best things I've ever heard from the band, and I'm hard pressed to stop playing it. Very loudly.

It's not the most avant-garde concept, so why hasn't anyone else written this song before? I'll tell you why. In the hands of a lesser, or more pretentious outfit - the idea, right there in the wordplay of the title - wouldn't come off. It would have been schlock. But this is not. A guy asks himself; what to do, how to live -like the sensitive, poetic romantic new man or like the guy "made of muscle/he's well-armed and he's built like a boat" who'll kick ass if you look at him the wrong way? Rimbaud, Rambo, or both?

It's every bit as loud, caffeinated and gutsy as anything they've done, led out by Chad Stocker's propulsive bass, glam-rock grooves and shouty backups. Loading the bases in style, the last minute-thirty drives the runners in - a fabulous coda, all crashing and cascading bass and drums, the whole premise of squaring the macho/sensitive circle (is this not the quandary of 21 st century masculinity? I digress.) getting summarily thrown out; "Never mind, turn out the lights, go back to sleep." Glorious. Turn it up. (MICHAEL KOCH)

The High Strung MySpace

The High Strung - "What A Meddler" mp3 buy cd eMusic

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