The group's latest disc, Your Majesty, oversees an expansive musical kingdom, blending dance music slogans (Move your lips, pretty darling/Oh sugar, c'mon/Shake your hips) with prog-rock prose (The sun should drink every last tear/It floats above the casket's leer) and marrying sweetly sighed harmonies to crooked guitar leads. It's a lushly arranged opus that seems to predate 1999's Designing a Nervous Breakdown (an '80s throwback in itself) by a good two decades. Though the Anniversary's rugged, rock-oriented split EP from late last year served as a turn signal, Your Majesty still inspired road rage. (See "Those Muddling Kids," later in this column.) But after a two-month tour in support of its new material, the Anniversary reports that many of its subjects have remained loyal.
"At first, we thought it might be weird," admits keyboardist and vocalist Adrianne Pope. "But we're so confident about the record, and the response has been great." The group's confidence does come across on record -- singers Pope, Josh Berwanger and Justin Roelofs sell their melodies as if they were working on commission. But this isn't a half-assed collection of fool's-golden-oldies; it's a series of passionately rendered period pieces that could have been created only by musicians who'd been living and breathing vintage pop records for several sleep-deprived months. Perhaps because it was never attached to emo, the Anniversary feels uniquely free to absorb and lovingly recreate any genre. It wouldn't be surprising if the Anniversary returned next year with a folk-and-blues album; conversely, it would be shocking if the band returned to Your Majesty's '60s-pop stomping grounds.
Yet the Anniversary really hasn't abandoned its old lesson plan. Pope's keyboards still quiver behind pitch-perfect choruses, the group's guitars still tangle and its meticulously measured rhythmic foundations still keep these air-filled compositions from collapsing like a poorly grounded tent. "I get so much flak, like, 'Why don't you play your moog synthesizer anymore?'" Pope says. "It's all over the record, and I play it live, but it's not leading the songs, and I think that's a good thing.
"We're always trying to come up with ways to make our sets more exciting and fun," Pope explains. "We're already changing some songs from Your Majesty, and we've also been working on making some of Nervous Breakdown's tracks into really awesome live songs."
The Anniversary's affinity for tweaking its recorded material was born partially from necessity. An album thick with guitar effects, grand piano flourishes and overlapping elements, Your Majesty is a sensitive, studio-spawned animal, unable to survive in a concert atmosphere without altering its composition. Pope's keyboard simulates many of the absent elements, and the group compensates for the rest by sharpening its guitar hooks, bolstering its volume and engaging in distracting banter. Making the adaptation easier is the fact that most of Your Majesty's tracks, even the sprawling multilayered closer "The Death of the King," have humble organic origins.
"Josh and Justin wrote that song in our hotel's bathroom at 1 a.m.," Pope says. "Jim, Chris and I were sleeping, and they just sang, played their guitars and came up with it in the dark." The group shared a tiny two-bed room at a small hotel down the street from the studio, conditions that Pope says led to both occasional emotional claustrophobia ("It was pretty intense some nights") and frequent brainstorming. ("We didn't get a break from each other, so we were always talking about the record," Pope adds.)
Despite striking gold in this setting, the band members don't prefer to sketch early drafts in compressed quarters, which means the bulk of their next album's material will be composed after they return from an August/September voyage to England, Amsterdam and Germany and a late-autumn indoor-venue barnstorming tour with their Vagrant labelmates.
"We're already talking about doing some crazy stuff," Pope teases. "We all listen to so many different records so frequently, and that's just given us a whole new way of doing things."
Similarly, the Anniversary's open-to-anything approach has given observers of the Kansas City scene a whole new way of looking at the area's bands. Whereas it was once convenient to diagnose the most visible local bands, describe the symptoms (irregularly heartfelt vocals, abnormally cheerful keys) and conclude that the whole region had been infected by the emo epidemic, puzzled detractors will now detect signs of multiple-personality disorder. Opinions about specific stylistic switches aside, it might be refreshing to be part of a scene known for its willingness to experiment. Besides, to paraphrase an aphorism about Missouri weather, if you don't like the Anniversary's current sound, just wait a few months.
Those Muddling Kids
While the Anniversary's royally remodeled sound has inspired critics at several national publications to bow reverently, other writers were moved to regicide. Ron Richards and David Brown, editors-in-chief and publishers of the quirky bicoastal zine Muddle, tag-teamed the disc with harsh insults (Richards: "a horrible emo meets classic rock hybrid"; Brown: "This band used to be fun. Now they're just unoriginal") before adding the injury. After attempting to set the disc on fire to no avail ("CDs are surprisingly flame-retardant," Richards notes), the Muddle staff obliterated Your Majesty under the wheel of a moving car. A photo essay documents this demolition derby.
Your Majesty isn't the only disc to receive a scathing review in the spring 2002 issue; in fact, Brown's write-up seems relatively tame compared with the lashings he and his staff give dozens of inept hardcore outfits and weepy emo knockoffs. Nonetheless, Muddle issued a death sentence.
"After a discussion among the staff, the Anniversary was nominated based on how crappy the record was and what the Anniversary was trying to pull, what with the entryway through emo and then turning into classic rock," Richards says. "The trend these days has bands slowing down and playing classic rock," Brown adds. "After hearing Your Majesty, it's no surprise that the group would pose for a photo shoot in bell-bottoms and '60s outfits. Come on guys, you might be fooling Rolling Stone, but not Muddle."
Like Buddyhead's Travis Keller and others who have been less than impressed by Kansas City's big-name bands, Brown and Richards maintain they have nothing against the scene as a whole. (Positive reviews of mi6 and Kill Creek discs in the same issue prove as much.) "I'm a big fan of the Get Up Kids," Brown says. "And Second Nature (Coalesce, the Casket Lottery) is one of the best labels around." Although he authorized Your Majesty's smash-hit-and-run, Brown says it's nothing personal. "I respect the fact that they enjoy making music, and as long as they are having fun with what they do, that's fine by me."
For her part, Anniversary keyboardist/vocalist Adrianne Pope was equally diplomatic. "Wow," she gasped. "Cool. I'm glad he was able to get out some anger with our record."
Last but Not Least
On Friday, May 24, the always-enthralling instrumental outfit Mr. Marco's V7 celebrates the release of its latest disc at The Pub; another improvisationally inclined ensemble, Jazz Discharge, opens the gig. Also offering new wax is TJ Dovebelly, whose latest daring act of eight-track deconstruction opens to the public on Saturday, May 25, at Davey's Uptown; soul spinners Super Wolf and Memphis Black get early arrivals funked up. There are acoustic offerings aplenty this week: Arthur Dodge, Julia Peterson, Tawni Freeland, Eric Mardis and OK Jones all get unplugged at the Bottleneck on Friday, May 24. Finally, Eric (not Mardis again; this is a propulsive rock trio) headlines a Zone Monday show at the Grand Emporium on May 27.