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One point gets glossed over a lot in these days of digital piracy: MP3s are fine, but without cover art, how are fans supposed to notice one another on the street or in high school hallways? How, without decorating ourselves in Pynchonian symbols of mutual recognition, are we to nod knowingly at our fellow emo crybabies, hip-hop heads, and gutter punks? We're talking about community here, people. A world without album art is a world without the Red Hot Chili Peppers' circle-cross design, without Iron Maiden's "Eddie," without any of the pop culture images we've carved into our desks, notebooks, and arms. An MP3 is just music; a CD is a cultural artifact that you can see and feel. (With vinyl, there's even a smell, a cross between old books and '70s skunk weed.) Granted, today's record sleeves say little of a musician's art and everything of her belly button, but you can't deny that many people still judge an album by its cover. And the Hang Ups' albums are proof.
In 1999, the semi-celebrated Minneapolis pop quintet released their third and most anticipated full-length, Second Story. But to the band's chagrin, their label, Restless Records, changed the album's cover art from a highly conceptual design featuring a man-bird hybrid from Egyptian mythology to a bland series of head shots, with each band member looking embarrassed. Despite a year of touring to support it, Second Story never lived up to the hype (frontman Brian Tighe blames Restless for under-promotion). But just when the group thought they'd have to search for a different label, Tighe's phone rang. It was a Hang Ups fan who had opened for the band in L.A. nearly a decade ago, a no-name kid with a guitar who found their first album in a record store, bought it, and loved it. That kid was future Rolling Stone darling Pete Yorn, and he bought the Hang Ups record because, he told Tighe, he liked the cover art.
Now, Yorn's Trampoline Records (a label he co-owns with the Wallflowers' Rami Jaffee, among others) is releasing the Hang Ups' new self-titled LP, a deal that might actually bring these Minnesota nice guys the national attention they deserve. Three and a half years in the making, The Hang Ups is a big, glossy, ballsy push to finally make good on an old guarantee: that the Hang Ups are the local music scene's next great band. Their style--a heartfelt, Beach Boys-go-to-the-country brand of jangle pop--has already risen and fallen from the national radar twice since their '93 debut. But when you're running around with classic rock junkies like Yorn and the Wallflowers, you know that some genres are timeless.
The Hang Ups wastes little time playing patsy with flavors du jour. Instead of stripping down the guitars and growling from the garage, the band adds plush layers to its sound. Tighe doesn't just sing his sweet words, he articulates them like a high school speech coach ("bay-bee," not "bay-beh"), and he sticks to those evergreen songwriting devices that hitmakers have been using since phrases like "playing patsy" were in the vernacular: sharp hooks, smart melodies, "dooby-dooby-doo" harmonies, and love songs, love songs, love songs.
That's what Tighe calls them, anyway. And he's right: Though it's tough to hear at first, Tighe speaks of the complexities of the heart with delicate grace and a world-wearied voice, like Stephin Merritt minus the East Village drama queenery, but he uses the word "love" only once on the album. He prefers to speak in metaphor, telling a love story that he claims mirrors his own experiences--he married his girlfriend in the middle of recording The Hang Ups. And he keeps that magic word a secret, like any commitment-wary man might, until the final minutes of the record, when he finally admits, "Woman, I love you dearly." Before that, it's the old boy-meets-girl story, complete with tummy tingles and frank admissions. "You're so cool, it makes me want to be with you," Tighe sings flatly in "Deep Pool," before declaring, "It takes a little nerve to get what you deserve" in "Fool."
But even before Tighe's friendly, puckered voice begins to register, the music blows his big secret. Bubbling guitar hooks pulled straight out of the '60s and flushed out by Marcel Galang's luscious Hammond tell the tale of a lovelorn rocker long before Tighe sings his first line. (One simply does not step up to a Mellotron and write a song about politics.) Like the album's lyrics, the music on The Hang Ups is rich in texture and subtle mystery. It's the kind of rock music that's never satisfied to simply come out with the big news that this band is quite happy, quite in love, and looking to do quite well from now on. Sometimes, it's even a little sad.
Which brings us back to the cover art. The Hang Ups features a crude line drawing of a melancholy young boy watching three ships sail away on a dark sea toward a distant mountain range. The sky is black; the boy, the sea, the sails, and the mountains are all pale and unfinished, waiting to be filled in with the colors from the Hang Ups' songs (titles include "Little Blue," "Blue Residence," and "Light Green Sails"). It's unclear whether this picture is supposed to show what it's like to be alone, or left behind, or even to fall in love, but if it's the latter, then there's emphasis on the falling. That the cover should reflect so many different things at once demonstrates a complex understanding of what love, or at least what love songs, can accomplish. You couldn't get all of that from a couple of head shots. Which makes sense: This time around, Tighe did the cover art himself.
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