This year, we’ll be spotlighting a prominent Minnesota musician or band each month with our new Artist of the Month feature. You’ll be able to hear a variety of songs from throughout the artists’ career on both the Local Current stream and the Local Show, and you can read more about the artists’ history and their role in the community right here on the Local Current Blog. Our local artist of the month for June is The Hang Ups.
The Hang Ups – Revisiting One of Minneapolis’s True Indie Pop Treasures
By Steve Seel
Last year, Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith caused a minor uproar while talking about the Minneapolis music scene to the UK’s Guardian. Frustrated by what he perceived as an overblown sense of booster-ism toward acts that would supposedly never cut the mustard outside of our adorably sheltered hamlet, Gatesmith described his hometown scene as one defined by two clearly-defined tent-poles of quality: the Prince/Mats/Husker Du axis on one end, and a handful of bands working at the moment (presumably, including his own) on the other. The long period in between? Gatesmith described it as “the lull.” The Howler-in-chief was met with a chorus of howls in response. Tons of great music was made here in the ’90s; doesn’t every local music fan know this?
Well, no, clearly. And while an ostensibly “connected” artist like him should know better, perhaps a typical alternative rock consumer can’t exactly be blamed for thinking the ’90s was a yawning expanse of inactivity-cum-mediocrity in Minneapolis. After all, where were our Yo La Tengos, Pavements and Superchunks?
Here at the Current, one of the goals of our Artist Of The Month feature has been to shine a light not just on Minnesota’s established, Hall-Of-Fame-worthy acts (such as Dan Wilson and the Jayhawks thus far), but also on some of the artists who’s output has gotten serious short-shrift on the national stage. Some of those bands actually did make it to the precipice, but were spat out by the fickle maws of the music industry almost as quickly (see David Campbell’s excellent tribute to 12 Rods for one such maddening, heartbreaking tale). Others never got there at all, but in an alternate, just universe, their songs would have shuffle-moded through the CD changers of every 90s hipster, right alongside the twee tones of Belle and Sebastian and the ingratiating jangle of Teenage Fanclub. And one of those bands, in my mind, has always been the Hang Ups.
At first glance, The Hang Ups may seem like an odd choice for such retroactive canonization. Unlike, say, Semisonic (one of Minneapolis’ true chart-toppers of the time) or the aforementioned 12 Rods (a barreling locomotive of quirk-rock that ended with in a derailment as devastating as their promise was immense), the Hang Ups’ scale was smaller, their gravity lighter, their movements quieter and less demonstrative.
But where the band delivered in a very big way—bigger than scores of their indie peers at the time—was in the department of radiant, melodic guitar pop, directly descended from the the Byrds, the Kinks, and Revolver-era Beatles. Neither psychedelic nor folky in the way any of those bands could be, but clearly tuning in to the same fuzzy, distant wavelength first dialed-up by them long ago. Additionally, while this was not a band fronting some messy-haired, too-cool indie swagger, they were also, significantly, not twee. Nor did they traffic in irony, the language of greatest currency during the ’90s. The Hang Ups were elegant, if that’s a word we can still use to describe something actually desirable. It was a kind of music purveyed by few in the wake of the grunge era—music with a kind of grace, lightness of touch, and economy—practically the antithesis of the qualities that the major labels were seeking out during that dark age that gave us the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit (while at the same time, the indie labels would spend the decade in an arms-race of irony-chasing, leaving us with—what exactly? Man Or Astro Man?)
The Hang Ups’ sound begins and ends with “jangle”—that ineffable, hard-to-define sound that you know when you hear although you’d be hard-pressed to explain exactly how it works. But for The Hang Ups’ Brian Tighe—singer, songwriter, and chief jangle-ist—playing a series of ringing, open E and A chords weren’t (and will never be) enough. Tighe is a master of the unexpected, unusual chord voicing and the just-weird-enough modulation; at times, his songs seem to go out of their way to contain at least one chord that morphs the whole affair into something that makes your brain go, “I think that’s the first time in history that’s ever happened.” One imagines Tighe chasing after a thousand “A Hard Day’s Night” opening chords, fine-tuning his verses in pursuit of one more combination of notes that ring just so, like a paisley peal of bells, like the notes that underscore John Lennon singing “Rain, I don’t mind”… you know, levitational chords, no big deal.
And then there there’s Tighe’s vocals. They’re airy yet never breathy or cute, of limited dynamic yet still surprisingly distinctive (when layered in harmony, though, they evoke the sweetest highs of ’60s popcraft, with gorgeous la-la-la’s and ba-ba-ba’s that put down the top on your mental convertible the moment you hear them). Together, it’s a sublime combination—ringing guitar lines that defy gravity, counter-weighted with lead vocals that are so attractively modest and unpretentious they are nearly the Platonic ideal of the Indie Rock Singer.
The Hang Ups began with Tighe, drummer Steven Ittner and bassist Jeff Kearns, who had been MCAD buddies and formed the band after Tighe convinced a professor to allow him to switch from visual arts to music and submitted his early demos as course material. In 1993, the debut He’s After Me (featuring the addition of guitarist John Crozier) and subsequent EP Comin’ Thru established the template for the Hang Ups modus operandi—lay out an unassuming enough indie rock groove, then layer on Tighe’s sweetly milky vocals, then apply the twist—be it an unexpected chord in the chorus, harmony vocals with one quirky note that took things to another dimension entirely, or perhaps multiple combinations of same. And always, the jangle.
The indie press noticed. Then so did Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, who was scoring a new movie by Kevin Smith, director of Clerks. Along came Chasing Amy, and the Hang Ups got a song on the soundtrack. Cue Chapter Two of the Hang Ups saga.
For many, 1996′s So We Go is The Hang Ups masterpiece—a collection of 12 songs that delivers not only some of the crispest, sweetest indie pop ever to come out of the Twin Cities, but as MPR arts reporter Chris Roberts once described it, practically the soundtrack of the life of urban bohemia in Minneapolis for a distinct period during the mid-’90s. Tighe’s lyrics paint unusually concise yet vivid pictures of the untethered space between youth and adulthood; songs like the gorgeous title track, “Walkin’ Around” and “Sign the Letter” are still-life snapshots with lyrics that are so barely there as to be almost funny in their sparseness, except for that fact that you don’t notice their brevity because the tunes glide along so effortlessly. There are odes to tea and cherry coffee, to waiting for a train in the rain (seriously), even to a certain beloved hometown stage. Somehow, unbelievably, none of it ever gets cliche, when sprinkled with the magical fairy dust that Tighe and his compatriots concoct. You’re asleep in their field of poppies, and practically all you need are Roger McGuinn’s little rectangular sunglasses to hide under as you nap.
Hopes were high for the follow up, 1999′s Second Story, with big name production contributions from the likes of Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. But despite a couple of songs dat shooda been huge, let me tell ya—“Caroline” and “Parkway” for example—the promotion machine never kicked in for the group. This, combined with a now-ingrained lack of enthusiasm for touring (ultimately, a career-killer for just about any modern band), the inertia was slowing. For me, Second Story is also, ironically, the album that sounds the least like a Hang Ups record of from their catalogue.
With 2003′s The Hang Ups, fans got a big, exuberant blast of the classic sound of the band—those shimmering guitars and breezy chords and harmonies were back in abundance, almost defiantly so. When the band played the CD-release show in the First Avenue Mainroom, Tighe looked like he was presiding over an extended family reunion party in his smartly-chosen suit and brown dress shoes. He was, of course; it was a homecoming for a band that never left home.
In the years since, Brian Tighe has become one of the Twin Cities’ most notable contributors to a short-list of significant bands and solo artists: both the Owls and new band the Starfolk are collaborations with his wife, singer Allison LaBonne, and Tighe has also worked closely both in the studio and onstage with another local pop craftsman, Jeremy Messersmith. To date, The Hang Ups is the last album the band has released and may be the last it will ever release. But a couple of reunion gigs this month hint at a heartbeat that’s still there, even after 10 years of extremely sparse activity.
As I was writing this monstrosity, I put in the band’s 1993 EP Comin’ Through and landed on a track that might be a perfect summation of The Hang Ups’ peculiar magic: their cover of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” It’s one of those covers that tickles your brain so much that you think, “This is way better than the original.” Rather than come off as a gimmicky “we’re-running-this-through-the-Hang-Ups-machine” kind of gag, though, it’s actually the perfect tip of the hat to exactly what made The Byrds the standard-bearers of jangle-rock in their time and makes an argument for why the Hang Ups were among the masters of this more recent era: Tighe leads the band in chiming riffs of his own devising, substituting his own quirky chords ever-so-subtly, just like Roger McGuinn would tuck-in a few choice gravity-defying notes like a master clockmaker to accompany passages like “To everything, there is a season …” The vocal harmonies are both eerie and beautiful, like the glowing-est moments in “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It’s as if McGuinn and Tighe, brothers in the pantheon of jangle, are shaking hands across the decades.