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

The Hang Ups don't quite stand out in a crowd. They don't stand out even when there isn't much of a crowd. Dressed in their Ragstock prep casuals and loitering before an underpublicized October 26 in-store at Let It Be Records, the quintet's members are relatively indistinguishable from the boho gentility scouring the record racks nearby. But then star power has never really been a Hang Ups hang-up. Neither glam nor ironic, the nine-year-old band has long made music that is out of several fashions at once.

Characteristically, when the musicians approach the performance space in the corner of the store, they don't so much take the stage as settle into it. The crowd soon settles in, too, growing larger and less homogeneous. Business suits here and there suggest a downtown contingent lingering after work. The students comparing philosophy notes--"but they believed virtue couldn't be taught..."--suggest a lingering collegiate fan base. And an infant's gurgled yelp between songs suggests someone is hungry.

"I'm glad to see some babies in the audience," says singer-songwriter Brian Tighe. Then he strums his Epiphone, coaxing a muted banjolike tone to kick off the title track of the group's new, recently road-tested album, Second Story. The slowly building song echoes the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" while squinting into the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," and its elegant strength shows how thoroughly Tighe has transformed himself from a Garfunkel choirboy to a more forceful disciple of Ray Davies. All the better that he has achieved this feat with affection rather than affectation, forgoing the American mod habit of adopting a doofy British accent.

Fittingly, the Hang Ups' version of a homecoming anthem isn't so much triumphant as cozy. With one hand balancing a tambourine on his hip, the other covering his ear, former drummer Steve Ittner lends his measured harmonies. (He hasn't toured for years now, so only locals get to hear him live.) The band's newest Minneapolis auxiliary, Marcel Galang, pecks out the song's signature riff on his keyboard. After honing this and other tunes around the country, the ensemble's other members--guitarist Jeff Kearns, bassist Aaron Lundholm, and drummer Chad Nelson--seem to relax into the momentarily thickened bed of sound.

 

To say the Hang Ups aren't the same band that debuted with 1993's auspicious He's After Me, or who refracted the sunny sound of AM radio into the grand glimmer of 1996's So We Go, isn't to repeat some publicist's cliché. The group weathered a lineup shift that would have hobbled most acts not harboring delusions of being Fleetwood Mac. The most significant loss was John Crozier, the virtuoso guitarist who joined the Hang Ups in 1992, two years after Tighe, Ittner, and Kearns (on bass) formed the group while attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Crozier set up an irresistible interplay between his carefully chosen wrong notes and Tighe's folksy strum, a form of prettified dissonance that gave Tighe's hooks their distinct texture.

Like Ittner, though, Crozier couldn't commit to touring, and left when it became clear that Tighe and Kearns wanted to establish a band identity outside both the studio and Minneapolis. Two years ago Kearns made the switch to guitar, Lundholm joined on bass, and Nelson replaced Ittner on drums, catalyzing a live shift from the more languid dreamscapes of older Hang Ups stuff to punchier, more rock 'n' roll tunes.

As wide-eyed as ever, Tighe has hardly started swaggering. (He seems committed to a pre-Presley idea of hip motion, though he did unleash a cutely agitated "fuck" at a hapless First Avenue soundman last summer.) And the band is still not exactly gunning for a Family Values Tour slot--rather than kicking out the jams, they ask them politely to vacate the premises. But the band's recent live shows make it hard to disagree with the singer when he claims, during a conference call with the band from New Orleans, that "there's a more visceral feel to our playing," adding, "that's a sound that jelled on the road."

After rarely venturing out of state for years, the Hang Ups spent a third of 1999 touring on their first real national jaunt, finding responsive audiences in Washington, D.C., and Portland, and colder ones in Birmingham and New Orleans. This last gig's mood improved slightly when Dave Pirner and other friends from home showed up, says Lundholm. "But most of the time we've got to rely on each other to keep our spirits up during slower shows."

While the Hang Ups' label, Restless Records, bankrolled the all-expenses-recoupable trip, it postponed the band's CD release for months. "They're kind of moving in an R&B direction," Tighe comments diplomatically before dismissing what he calls "label politics" and steering the conversation back toward music.

Kearns, though, is readier to complain on the record. "Right now it's all about Warren G," he says sardonically, alluding to their Long Beach labelmate. "There's a clear arc to this process, but psychologically you're supporting a record that doesn't exist yet. You get the feeling people think, Aren't you those guys who were going to put that record out last year?"

 

Released the day of the Hang Ups' in-store gig, Second Story's final masters were finished way back in February. But its genesis stretches back to fall 1996. It was Bill Hein, the group's erstwhile Restless rep, who first introduced the band to producer Don Dixon. After remixing "Jumpstart" for the Chasing Amy soundtrack, Dixon suggested the band to Mitch Easter as a possible occasion for the two producers to reunite. The duo is best known for blurring the edges of R.E.M.'s Murmur and coating it in evocative kudzu back when postpunk had barely graduated to college rock. They decided the gently nostalgic wash of the Hang Ups' sound would make for a perfect new project.

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.

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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