A Sense of Where You Are

The Hang Ups return home with a new album, a new sound, and a new chance to start over

Easter's Kernersville, North Carolina, plantation home might seem an odd place to relocate a group of deracinated Midwesterners. Nurtured in a town where alt-country will never die, the band's jangle certainly owes a debt to the Southern fringe of AlternaLand (the protracted arpeggios of R.E.M. and the skewed riff charts of Memphis's Big Star). But there's nothing roughhewn about the Hang Ups' pop; even Second Story's shuffling track "Blue Sky," where Easter rides in on the pedal steel seemingly from out of nowhere, manages to evade rootsiness.

Still, the seclusion of Easter's estate turned out to suit a band that has always feigned a sweet oblivion to its surroundings. And the union between band and producers was just imperfect enough to spur creativity. "Don't get me wrong," says Tighe, "I'm really happy with how the album turned out. But sometimes I wish we had organized our thoughts a little more before springing them on Don and Mitch." He laughs. "At one point we had a little bit of a tough time with Don, but I think we've gotten that ironed out. We tended to get hung up on details, while he kept trying to keep us focused on the big picture. I can see how dealing with the bunch of us might test someone."

So can I. In conversation, the band members have a distracting habit of employing "vibe"--in both noun and verb form--as a synonym for several dozen more specific words. Moreover, Tighe and Kearns both have a habit of responding to assertions with a noncommittal interjection: Tighe favors a considered "hmm," while Kearns employs a contemplative "huh." While endearing in casual conversation, an afternoon of such thoughtful evasions--coupled with the band's typically impressionist suggestions (I can just hear Kearns muse, "The guitar tone on the second-to-last phrase of that solo needs to be less blue-green and more aquamarine")--must have driven Dixon close to the Steve Albini red zone.

From homebodies to road warriors: (left to right)
Tony Nelson
From homebodies to road warriors: (left to right)

Of course, there's something quintessentially Minneapolitan about this passive passion. And like the musicians themselves, the music is enjoyably equivocal--friendly without necessarily being exactly outgoing. Where most indie rock is too cool to settle for the obvious killer hook, the Hang Ups' subtler tunecraft has always been too graciously unassuming to smack you over the head. In a similar way, Tighe's lyrical epiphanies are both romantic and vague: He can often say more with a "la la la" than with his sharpest narrative detail. The singer relies on the lush sound to suggest a depth that might not otherwise be immediately apparent.

On the hypnotic "Parkway," a tale of two wage slaves who fall in love with each other over bag lunches on the outskirts of downtown, Tighe croons, "He felt so ordinary," as his male temp protagonist performs his automatic daily tasks, "tuning in the Sixties airwaves" through his Walkman. With a reserve that coyly masks his characters' desperation, Tighe can't quite capture "what they found" in words. But as an unexpected French horn peeps through the mix to celebrate their union, the song emerges as a suitably modest vision of workaday transcendence.

Everyday life has yielded its rewards more slowly for the Hang Ups. Shaped by external pressures, and lumped together on tour, the band's members have turned inward, achieving a no less modest, if probably less transcendent, sort of self-awareness. The past year has been a "learning process," writes Kearns in the running tour journal he keeps on the band's Restless Web site. "You discover how you organize yourself in different contexts," he concludes. "You begin to notice what you bring along--a pillow, a lamp, whatever--so that your hotel room feels like home. When you're in a different place every night, it's hard to dwell on the same thoughts--or even remain the same person."

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