Emo-punk isn't supposed to be fun. Yet Kansas City's Get Up Kids (who, along with the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate, are the "superstars" of the ghettoized genre) have crafted a flurry of power-pop hits that beg to be heard, complete with explosive choruses and new-wave riffs. They also have a fully functional sense of humor: One song on their new album, Something to Write Home About (Vagrant), is titled "I'm a Loner, Dottie ... a Rebel" in homage to Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and a few Kids moonlight in Reggie and the Full Effect, a truly twisted punk supergroup who package themselves as a lost '80s skinny-tie act. They've even compared themselves to Duran Duran, hardly emo stalwarts themselves.
The Kids' last full-length, Four Minute Mile, was bouncy but still comfortably punk and a bit tensely emotional. Yet Something expands their range considerably, adding quirky synths and ballads so gooey that they beg for slow-dancing (like "I'll Catch You," an indie-rock prom tune). Even the Kids' rave-ups have a degree more polish to them, resembling Superchunk circa Here's Where the Strings Come In more than Jets to Brazil. The epic single "Action + Action" made it onto MTV, quite a feat for a band not even on a large indie label. All of this means that these St. Louis regulars, who are here for the second time since Something's release, should be zingier and more accessible than ever. With any luck, they'll be more popular, too; they have a fiercely loyal local cult, possibly because of a large number of KC transplants, but unlike most cult groups, there's nothing remotely esoteric (or even painfully emo) going on here: just old-fashioned, heart-on-sleeve college rock.
Opening are the Anniversary, the first signing to the Kids' own Heroes and Villains label. The two bands' affinity is obvious: Both draw their basis from emo-rock and then sweeten it, but the Anniversary do so with female vocals and even more prominent Moog lines. Too prominent, maybe -- by the end of Designing a Nervous Breakdown it becomes more of a distraction than an enhancement, and it's hard to shake the feeling that it's just an average punk record in new clothes. Still, it's a welcome twist, one that will probably be groovier live.