By Dave Herrera
By Jesse Livingston
By Cory Casciato
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The collective lyrical output of rock and roll reads like a shopping list of things that are hard to do. Breaking up. Making up. And, inevitably, just plain old growing up. Through cracked vocal cords and hormone-scalded nerves, the Jealous Sound's Blair Shehan came of age in Knapsack, a small group from Davis, California, that belonged to the fertile mid-'90s emo underground. Its 1995 debut album, Silver Sweepstakes, lurched and throbbed like pubescence itself. With equal parts bombast and modesty, Shehan used the broken-edged indie pop of Superchunk to gash open the tender flesh of Sunny Day Real Estate's angelic post-hardcore. Power chords had rarely felt so delicate. As titanic slabs of melody floated down like falling leaves, Shehan's voice chewed up the dirt of heartbreak and spit it back out in a gravelly wail that hit just the right pitch of adolescent anxiety.
Confidentially, it also made for great make-out music.
Knapsack soldiered on through two more discs -- 1997's Day Three of My New Lifeand the following year's This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now -- in the process building up a rabid if humble following. And as Shehan and company plugged themselves into a thriving network of warehouses and coffee shops and college venues around the country, the oddest thing happened: Their music began to grow. With the addition in '97 of guitarist Sergie Loobkoff, on hiatus from the revered San Francisco outfit Samiam, Knapsack was sprouting whiskers all over the place. Guitars were groomed, pimples were popped: Someone had been reading The Bell Jarand The Catcher in the Rye. Pensive cellos and a pouting organ sprouted out of lush arpeggios. And Shehan's voice, previously so injured, began to scab over and heal -- though not without leaving jagged scars of anguished intensity.
That, of course, was when the band shed its skin and fell apart. Right after the release of Conversation -- and with nowhere to grow but up -- Knapsack shuffled off this emo coil.
"People were just sort of ready to move on," explains Shehan. "If Knapsack had kept going, it would have basically been just me, one of those bands with only one remaining original member." Now residing in Los Angeles, the singer/guitarist sounds slightly regretful about his previous group's parting of ways: "When Sergie joined Knapsack, he thought he was done being in Samiam, but that actually ended up not being the case. Our bass player left during the recording of our last record. And our drummer got a really good job and moved to San Francisco, and then he had a kid. He wanted to be more domestic, with a real job and a real life. He was ready to be a little more grown up."
After writing a few new songs and recording some demos, Shehan began fishing around for fresh bandmates in 1999. He soon assembled a lineup of veterans of the California punk and indie-rock scenes: drummer Tony Palermo of Pulley, bassist John McGinnis of Neither Trumpets Nor Drums and guitarist Pedro Benito of Sunday's Best. Benito, in particular, was a boon for the Jealous Sound; though he recorded only two albums with Sunday's Best, his dynamic, Brit-pop-tinged playing helped stir the waters of a sound that was swiftly becoming stagnant. Conscious of this fact, Shehan himself decided to veer ever so slightly closer to his vision of full-on, monolithic pop rock.
"I have my strengths, things that I'm pretty good at as far as music goes," he says. "I wasn't going to start a country band or whatever -- go in the opposite direction of what I had been doing. I think there are so few rock bands that rock or write good songs in a rock format. It's kind of a rarity these days. I've always been that kind of guy; I've always liked those kinds of songs."
A handful of "those kinds of songs" wound up on the Jealous Sounds' eponymous EP, released in 2000 on the independent imprint Better Looking Records. With hooks big enough to assemble space stations, the disc was a promising -- if slightly underdeveloped -- debut. The most obvious tether connecting it to Knapsack was its simplicity: Even in the midst of a flourish or an embellishment, Shehan always bolted his songs onto a spartan framework of solid pop.
"Any really good song is generally very, very simple," he admits. "And then you sort of color around it. We try to add a lot of different types of sounds and harmonies and stuff, but when we do, we try to make sure it has a purpose. It really has to flesh out the song or add some new and interesting element."
Such elements help elevate Kill Them With Kindness -- the Jealous Sound's new and inaugural full-length -- far above the earlier EP. Dusted with synthesizers and erupting with riffs the size of icebergs, the disc is a triumph of precision songcraft and emotive catharsis. Instead of serving as the soundtrack to a heavy session of emo spin the bottle, Kindnessis measured and deliberate, doling out wallops of brute melancholia. Some tracks channel the vast, oceanic pop of Swervedriver or Tugboat Annie, while others bear a resemblance to Jimmy Eat World's less cloying moments. "Dear misunderstood/When you fight back does it feel good?" asks Shehan in "The Gift Horse," flexing his knack for puzzle-like wordplay. "Did you manage to forget?/Did you tie the tourniquet?/Forgive me if I'm gushing." And with its dreamy bleakness and squalling guitar lines, "Anxious Arms" comes across like a Quaalude-ridden Weezer. Throughout the album, Shehan's voice is a misty, seething whisper that fills every nook of the songs like aerosol.
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