Fade to Green
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 Life and 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 Jar and 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, Kindness is 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.
"On the new record, I tried to use my actual singing voice as much as possible, without any put-ons," says Shehan. "A lot of singers sing with fake British accents or something. They'll do all kinds of crazy stuff. It's like when you play back an answering machine and hear your own voice, and you're like, 'That doesn't sound like me. That's terrible!' Earlier on in Knapsack, I had more of a put-on voice; I just really tried to get away from that.
"This is a pretty honest record," he continues with a laugh. "Sometimes brutally, weirdly honest."
This newfound and unflinching honesty, however, doesn't mean that Shehan's eager to get all gabby about his personal life. "The couple years that I wrote the album were a real transitional phase for me; a lot of big stuff went down," he says a bit vaguely. "I was trying to figure out how to deal with it, trying to discuss with myself what to do to get better. But how do you do that when you don't feel good about anything in the first place? How do you get rid of guilt and things like that? It was some pretty heavy-duty stuff, pretty mind-blowing. It's not really the type of thing I like to talk about."
Luckily, Shehan doesn't have to talk about it; his songs speak for him. "Hope for Us," the album's opening cut, is a bittersweet, innards-twisting ode to dead relationships that naturally renders its title ironic. "There is hope for us/There is distance between you and I," gasps Shehan over stinging snare hits and a tightrope bass line. "Did you celebrate without me?/Did you tell them all about me?/Did you sell me out?/Does it get you off to get it off your chest?/Such an off year, such an awful mess."
"That song is about trying to be hopeful in the face of not feeling so great about things," elaborates Shehan. "And not feeling so great about yourself."
As for bad feelings, the band weathered a raw deal when Jive Records (the mega-label home of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake) bought out Mojo, the label the Jealous Sound had signed with in 2001. Essentially swept under the corporate rock rug, the group had to struggle to get out of its contractual obligations. The prolonged breakup was responsible for the three-year gap between the release of the act's two albums.
Still, Shehan insists, "People like to make more out of that than it really was. I mean, it was a pain in the ass, but it wasn't the end of the world. It was probably a good thing. If we had slapped this record together right when we got signed, it would have been really rough -- we were too new. That gap between labels gave us time to kind of get to know each other a little better, to find out how we worked together. It sort of helped us clarify our goals without a bunch of other people mucking around in everything."
After returning to Better Looking Records and finishing Kindness, the Jealous Sound picked up a new drummer -- Adam Wade, formerly of Jawbox and Shudder to Think -- and packed up the van. Numerous high-profile tours ensued, including slots opening for At the Drive In, the Fire Theft, the Get Up Kids and Death Cab for Cutie. Shehan and his crew's big break, though, came in the form of a string of Midwest dates with the Foo Fighters earlier this year.
"Foo Fighters fans enjoy aggressive guitar rock with big hooks, which is what we basically do," he says. "They didn't boo us or throw anything. Some of them even cheered."
Caught in a kind of limbo between indie-rock credibility and major-label ambition, Shehan can appreciate both sides of the coin.
"Better Looking is a small label, which puts a lot of work squarely on our shoulders. If we want to promote our record, we have to do a lot of it ourselves. But once you become a really popular band, your entire reality changes. You're a celebrity, but you're still a work dog for the label. They have you up at five in the morning every day shaking hands and doing meet-and-greets and stuff. It feels really weird when you're doing it, like, 'Wow, this isn't really me.'
"But at the same time," he continues, "I don't want to stay where we're at. I always want to grow as a band, and that means having more people interested, more people coming to shows and buying records. That's what you try to do as a band -- reach as many people as you can."
Of course, when it comes to reaching audiences, there's a legion of upstart, emo-lite bands out there like All-American Rejects and the Starting Line that are packing venues way bigger than the ones the Jealous Sound headlines. Seeing as how Knapsack helped establish and propagate the mix of emotional punk rock and power pop that all these young dudes are taking to the bank, does it make the leader of the Jealous Sound feel at all, well, jealous?
"I don't begrudge anyone," contends Shehan. "Being in a band, any band, is hard work. And, I mean, I've ripped off people, too. The Goo Goo Dolls ripped off the Replacements and cleaned it up and sold a gazillion more records than the Replacements ever did. That's just the way it goes.
"We've sort of realized that we're a different type of band anyway," he sums up. "Content-wise, it's not necessarily for little kids. It's not teenybopper, puppy love songs or anything like that. We're essentially new grownups, you know?"
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