It’s not so much the twinkling guitars and charmingly off-key vocals that differentiate emo from rock’s dozens of other subgenres. Rather, it’s the strange tendency emo has of hunching its shoulders and retreating into itself, a recluse concerned less with the sweaty crowd in the basement than with the thoughts that crowd the head. Born on the coasts in the mid-to-late 1980s, emo grew fat in the heartlands of the Midwest, where it learned to feast on self-doubt instead of swagger. Along the way, it took on certain stereotypes and connotations: the thick-rimmed glasses, the soft-loud dynamics, the willingness — no, the outright eagerness — to trade a simple pop hook for a dense fabric of interwoven guitars. Its overwhelming maleness has perhaps been the hardest stereotype to shake; even today, as emo experiences a late-stage renaissance centered in Chicago and the mid-Atlantic, female perspectives are fewer and farther between than they ought to be.
On their exceptional new album, Hello, Again, Kittyhawk embraces the emo tag while charting a new course that sidesteps many of its inherent shortcomings. The result is one of the strongest statements of the genre’s resurgence, an album filled with contradictions that coexist in fragile harmony. The band’s clearest asset is the voice of singer/keyboardist Kate Grube, whose range injects each song with a relatable sense of pathos.
After the instrumental opener “Contact”, which sets the groundwork for a record that is at times contemplative and at times wildly explosive, Grube comes out swinging with a cathartic melody that’s both soaring and soft around the edges. She instinctively knows when to stay comfortably within her range and when to strain her voice for effect, as she does in the beginning of “Jude II”. When an extra layer of vocals comes in to accompany her around the one minute mark, it’s as if she’s reached the end of her emotional rope and can’t go on without calling for backup. Moments like these, which quickly oscillate from vulnerable to triumphant, are not uncommon on Hello, Again, and to a large degree they drive its appeal.
Speaking of driving, Kittyhawk’s musical backbone rests largely on the handiwork of guitarists Erik Czaja and Mark Jaeschke, both longtime veterans of Chicago’s DIY music scene and members of Dowsing and Joie De Vivre, respectively. But where those bands hew more closely to emo’s holy tenets, Kittyhawk has given both Czaja and Jaeschke some extra room in which to spread their songwriting wings. And, spread they have; aside from Grube’s presence behind the mic, the band’s single most defining feature is their ability to reconcile emo’s self-doubt with a joyous sense of rock ‘n’ roll swagger. Hello, Again has no shortage of uplifting anthems, and it’s hard to resist the urge to run outside in the rain when the razor-sharp guitar intro of “Seasonal Abjective Disorder” shifts into a pop punk chorus pilfered from the late ‘90s wine cellar.
And yet, for all of its irresistible pop melodies, the reason you’ll return to Hello, Again a year from now lies in the unsettling questions that ring out below its surface. The album’s most heartbreaking moment belongs to “Self v. Former Self”, a song that touches on Grube’s favorite themes of duality and how people shift and grow over time. In the song’s rousing outro, she repeats the words “synthesis” and “harmony” over a swirl of guitars. It’s a common convention in pop music to simply repeat a hook, but this feels like something more. It feels like a mantra — something she hopes will take root inside her if only she says it enough. Both we and she know that life doesn’t quite work that way, but with Hello, Again, Grube and her bandmates have provided us with a soundtrack while we search for the answers.
Essential Tracks: “Jude II”, “Self v. Former Self”, and “Seasonal Abjective Disorder”