Until recently, the Anniversary was often crowded into the same dry space under the emo umbrella as its Kansas City scenemates, the Get Up Kids -- a purgatory where sensitive souls wailed, while carnival-style keyboards mocked their pain. Those tragicomic figures made mirth out of misery, like Charlie Brown entertaining the "Peanuts" gallery with his can't-win ways. But unlike Charlie Brown, the Get Up Kids grew up, married the little redheaded girls, and proceeded to write midtempo love songs for them. Meanwhile, the Anniversary's members graduated to become animated characters who look like Scooby-Doo's Shaggy and sound like Yellow Submarine's imitation Beatles.
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 (itself an '80s throwback) by a good two decades. But despite this shift in direction, 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, just after a two-month tour in support of new material. "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 the band never attached itself to emo -- even if many critics did -- the Anniversary feels free to absorb and lovingly re-create any genre. It wouldn't be surprising if they returned next year with a folk-and-blues album or revisited 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 the 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 in part of 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-bedroom at a small hotel down the street from the studio -- conditions that Pope says led to frequent brainstorming and, well, occasional emotional claustrophobia. "We didn't get a break from each other, so we were always talking about the record," Pope says.
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 will be composed after they return from the tour, which brings them to the Grog Shop on October 19.
"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."
Indeed, to paraphrase an aphorism about Missouri weather: If you don't like the Anniversary's current approach, just wait a few months. But while the Anniversary's royally remodeled sound has inspired critics at several national publications to bow reverently, other writers have been 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"). After failed attempts to set the disc on fire ("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.
For her part, Pope is diplomatic about the abuse. "Wow," she gasps. "Cool. I'm glad he was able to get out some anger with our record."