One night, just over two years ago, Shawn Neary finally succumbed to the pressure. He came home from school, made sure he was alone in his apartment, and headed straight for the kitchen. There, Neary did the unthinkable: He ate salsa.
"I didn't eat vegetables till I was in college," says Neary, bassist in the Minneapolis band the Glad Version; he's eyeing his bandmates' meaty pizza slices at Fat Lorenzo's in Minneapolis. "Salsa represented everything I hated about eating when I was a kid. It wasn't some sort of ritual thing where there were candles and I slathered it all over my body or anything. But it was like a big first step."
For a group of nine-to-fivers from Luther College who pay their rent on time and go to bed by 10:00 p.m. every night, even Neary's dinner choice seems like a risky move. But for lead singer Adam Svec, life has been a series of big steps. During high school, Svec became involved with the nondenominational Assemblies of God Church, a Christian organization based on what it calls 16 Fundamental Truths, one of which is that those who reject Christ will be eternally punished in a lake of fire. Svec began questioning the AGC during his sophomore year of college, partly because of its views on homosexuality and partly because of the white evangelical church's involvement in slavery. "There was never an apology for that from any of these officials in the church," he says. "It just seemed that the absolutes the church had laid down were not as absolute as I had thought."
Svec continued to struggle with his faith while he was a counselor for an inner-city youth camp in 2000 and saw girls as young as 11 become bulimic. On the Glad Version's dreamlike track "Sand," from their self-released debut, Smile Pretty Nice, he attacks God for letting this happen. Plucking at an acoustic guitar, he plaintively croons over a sample of hushed voices and clinking glasses: "That young girl finally fit into her dress/She's six feet under and two years dead/Is this part of your plan?/Because if it is, I'm not impressed."
The song had more meaning for Svec when, a week after it was written, a friend he met at the camp was killed in a car crash. "He was a very strong person and very gentle," Svec says. His friend had just turned 22 and was two months away from volunteering with AmeriCorps. "I couldn't think of any other reason that he would've died other than that everything is random and there is no plan."
Svec catches himself waxing poetic and switches to a less weighty explanation of the song. "I was listening to a lot of Haley Bonar and Kid Dakota at the time I wrote it," he says, "so I was in kind of a down mood anyway."
These days, the Glad Version are most likely to sing the praises of Minnesota rock legends, or, as known in some circles, false idols for bar-hopping heathens. When the band first moved to Minneapolis in 2002, Svec began working as a temp at the call center for the law firm of Wagner, Falconer & Wagner where he trained in singer-guitarist Erik Appelwick (of the local bands Vicious Vicious, Kid Dakota, and Alva Star).
"I felt sorta lame because I already knew who he was, but I didn't want to let on," Svec says. "I mean, I'd only been going to Alva Star and Kid Dakota shows for the longest time." It was through Appelwick that the Glad Version met John Hermanson of the folk-rock group Storyhill, who agreed to produce Smile Pretty Make Nice and add eerie flourishes such as theremin and accordion.
"I'd been into John and Storyhill since junior high," guitarist Chris Salter says. "So it was a total dorkfest."
Smile Pretty Make Nice is an exploration of the two competing sides of the Iowa transplants: their pensive version and their feel-good-party, well, glad version. On sparsely arranged songs like "Taking Stock," "Your Ghost Tonight," and "Sand," the group mourns the loss of post-collegiate idealism, the loss of a girl, and the loss of God. But for these good boys from Luther, there's also a brighter side. "Options and Absolutes" is a jangly college-rock anthem, while the poppy "Cruelty of Modern Life" treads the emo terrain without resorting to shout-answer-shout screamo or navel-gazing mawkishness. The songs are layered with warm vocals, sprightly melodies, and bouncy rhythms; they sound like the Minneapolis group Love-cars struggling with the ghosts of youth more than combating the unglamorous realities of adulthood.
"I'm a pretty upbeat guy most of the time," Svec says, despite his melancholy lyrics. "I'm painfully normal. We're all painfully normal," he laughs. For the most part, they're the kind of guys who have to come to terms with the fact that their love of alt-country makes them feel old, that Andrea Bocelli's "Con Te Partiró" makes them cry, and that loving Harry Potter makes them uncool.
"We're not terribly hip," Svec says. "But we've all come to terms with that; it's just how we're always going to be."