Antennas Up is known around these parts for playing a brand of dance pop that falls somewhere between cheeky and geeky — Kansas City's They Might Be Giants, say. But just as comic actors long for dramatic roles, goofy-nerdy bands eventually aspire to be seen in a more serious light. You can detect a trace of this phenomenon on the quartet's aptly named sophomore album, The Awkward Phase, which seeks a balance between party-time vibes and more mature songwriting.
The good news is that the cornball impulses marking the band's previous output have been dialed back. A handful of influences are clear right off the bat: the smooth-funk guitar tones associated with acts like Phoenix and Tigercity; ELO robo-vocoder effects; the silky, soulful falsettos of Beck's Midnite Vultures; and the kind of modern power-pop hooks you hear on 96.5 the Buzz. It's a rich, complex stew, and Antennas Up occasionally mixes up the portions. The line between good catchy and bad catchy is a slim one, and a few of the hooks on The Awkward Phase are so huge and self-aware that they end up ringing hollow. Bassist Kyle Akers took over as lead singer for this album, and he sometimes makes the beginner's mistake of cramming too many syllables into too tight a space.
But in many other spots on The Awkward Phase, Antennas Up reveals some remarkably convincing pop chops. The band has a tight handle on the buildup, evident in the soaring synth line that accompanies the final chorus of the title track, and in Akers' restrained vocals in the face of the wall of ahhhh-ahhhs that close out "Pretenders." The standout cut is "Untitled (How Will I Know)," which splits the difference between "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Debra" and clocks in at a well-earned five and a half minutes. Here, Akers finds the groove and rides it out through the song's furious, powerful conclusion. If he and the band figure out how to strike that kind of balance on more songs — and I suspect they will — the next phase won't be awkward at all. It might even be pretty great.