If you were along for the rise and fall of Max Bemis, then you might be wary of what form his next musical manifestation will take. Two Tongues, Bemis' new side project with none other than Chris Conley of Saves the Day, released this year on Vagrant, doesn't break new ground, but does restore faith in a blemished band.
From venerated indie-rock hero to hypocrite, Bemis married punk rock to an over-the-top theatrical grandeur with his band Say Anything. After a string of solid indie releases, his success culminated in the 2005 J Records flagship album, ...Is a Real Boy. The drug abuse, poorly treated bipolar disorder and existential horror espoused in this chaotic, uncomfortable, but blatantly honest rock opera was literally mind-bending as the process of creation drove Bemis to a stay in a mental hospital. The album also made Say Anything synonymous with unbridled talent and raw stage presence.
However, the lumbering two-disc disappointment entitled In Defense of the Genre that followed was swamped in self-indulgent excess with big name guest vocalists, overproduction and synth-heavy dance numbers packaged for air time. Max's discordant emotional state had become a commodity and was sold as such. I remember driving home after a 2007 show in Salt Lake City, my friend and I trying to figure out how Say Anything could have become the trite veneer we had just driven six hours to see. It was like watching Seinfeld after seeing Michael Richards do stand-up comedy. Something was off. My discontentment continued to grow, and eventually I purged Say Anything from my music collection--the rare recordings, b-sides, everything. I haven't missed it.
Now Bemis reemerges with Two Tongues. Born of a previous collaboration for a Bob Dylan compilation, several members of Say Anything and Saves the Day combine their powers again for a heavier-indie rock back-to-basics approach that shows the maturity and reflection that should have been a cornerstone in In Defense of the Genre. The jointly written material combines the angst and dementia of Say Anything and the straightforward sensibilities of Saves the Day, with the arrangements reminiscent of the latter's Through Being Cool era. The curve-ball inclinations of Say Anything are present, if, somewhat disappointingly, not to the extent of what was heard in ...Is a Real Boy. Throughout the album, Conley and Bemis both play guitar and trade off singing, with Bemis' gravely cry complementing Conley's smoother higher pitch quite fittingly, a vocal meeting of like minds. Ultimately, while Two Tongues doesn't explore unknown territory, they are a fulfilling listen, especially for fans glad to hear Bemis make respectable music again.