The release of a band's sophomore effort carries a lot of expectations. Either they creatively or commercially surpass their debut, or they release an album that immediately gives them a one-way ticket to VH-1's Where Are They Now?
The expectations for Chin Up Chin Up's sophomore album were even more urgent than for most bands. When the Chicago-based indie pop band's original bassist, Chris Saathoff, was killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident outside a Chicago club in 2004, the group painstakingly lifted Saathoff's original bass demos and cut-and-pasted them into their debut, We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers.
The album was greeted with both critical and modest commercial success, but it was uncertain what, if anything, the future would hold for the band. After deciding to continue on as a group--at the urging of Saathoff's parents--the band spent time on the road traveling and playing shows, eventually asking Narrator bassist Jesse Woghin to join the group full-time.
"Any time you go through a tragedy, it lights a fire in some way. It makes you want to say more, to accomplish more," said lead singer/songwriter Jeremy Bolen, speaking via phone from Chicago. "In a certain way, it poses an interesting challenge: You feel like you have more to prove, too."
But promoting Skyscrapers and playing shows across the country didn't give the band a sustained block of time to concentrate on new material.
"There's never any time for writing on the road," Bolen said. "It seemed like we were always driving or setting up or something like that. I always had the intention of at least writing some lyrics when we were out on the road, but it rarely ever happened. We had to go home to write."
So, nearly two years after Saathoff's death, the band began to work on their sophomore album in earnest, taking six months to write a clutch of songs that would form the core of This Harness Can't Ride Anything, released on Seattle's Suicide Squeeze Records.
If there's a unifying theme throughout This Harness, it's about channeling experience into something creative and worthwhile. Arguably, it's an album about maturing not just as a band, but as people. It stands as a statement of intent--an affirmation that life goes on even when time seems to stand still.
"By keeping busy and playing music I think it actually helped us cope," said guitarist Nathan Snydacker in an earlier interview. "Music is such a huge part of our lives that if we had not been playing together, I think we would have fallen apart."
Often lumped in with bands from the early to mid-1990s Chicago math-rock scene such as Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, Chin Up Chin Up actually has more in common sonically and thematically with groups such as Arcade Fire, The Catherine Wheel and Pavement.
And although they do share Tortoise's tendency to veer into unexpected angularity, Chin Up Chin Up resists taking the music completely off the map and reins in the harness to create easily accessible, yet literate, pop.
"My favorite thing about music has always been that you can listen to it and make up whatever you want it to be about," Bolen said. "I like to leave things open to interpretation. But having said that, the new album is kind of about myself and my life. I've spent a lot of time traveling and moving around, so those things definitely influenced the writing."
Recorded under the direction of producer Brian Deck--known both for his work on albums such as Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica and as the drummer for Sub Pop band Red Red Meat--This Harness Can't Ride Anything is quite a departure from Skyscrapers. For one, Bolen's vocals are pushed to the front. For another, it's a bit more upbeat and whimsical.
Bolen credits Deck for encouraging the band to play beyond their expectations. "Brian has more of a drive [than other producers], and when you're recording with him, you don't want to let him down," Bolen said. "He pushed us pretty hard to get really good recordings and performances out of us, more so than we've ever really had before. We learned what we were capable of, and what we're barely capable of. He was like a fatherly guiding force in some ways."
Though Bolen was listening to a lot of T. Rex and Rolling Stones during recording, he said the final product bears little resemblance to either of those artists other than the fact that he considers it to be Chin Up Chin Up's most straight-ahead rock album to date.
"Musically, we want to constantly evolve as a band and continue moving forward," Bolen said. "We want all of our records to have identities and have there be a lot of difference between them."
Many of the songs on This Harness, such as the title track, "I Need A Friend with a Boat," and "Landlocked Lifeguards," are fleshed-out with string arrangements and backing vocals, while others, such as "Blankets Like Beavers" and "Stolen Mountains," benefit from additional percussion flourishes. Whereas Skyscrapers was an exercise in muted control, This Harness is about throwing off the yoke of the past and blazing a new path.
Bolen said he credits Chin Up Chin Up's success to the support of the Chicago music scene. "I feel very at home in Chicago because I've lived here for about 10 years now," Bolen said. "The music scene in Chicago is very, very tight-knit and people are always helping each other out ... I think we're happy."
Oct. 18, 7 p.m., with Cursive and The Thermals, $12 advance, $14 at the door, The Venue, 521 Broad St.