You might think that after parting ways with a major label, Jimmy Eat World would take the opportunity to further indulge in the thoughtful experimentation that marked 1999's Clarity, their second and final release on Capitol.
After all, no label means no more A&R guys frowning at songs like Clarity's 16-minute-plus "Goodbye Sky Harbor," with its drum-loop buildup and crescendo of overlapping, programmed vocals.
But left to their own devices, Mesa, Arizona's favorite sons made their most straight-up pop record to date Bleed American, which hit stores Tuesday.
"Things still got pretty gnarly in the studio as far as experimentation," singer/guitarist Jim Adkins said, "but it was always to an end that was complimentary to the song. We wanted to really make sure that we weren't doing things, like, just to put a wacky keyboard sound in. It had to be doing something constructive for the song."
Working with longtime producer/collaborator Mark Trombino (Blink-182, Knapsack), Jimmy Eat World recorded the album themselves. They scraped together the cash to pay for it by using their well-honed DIY instincts and their well-worn tour van (thanks, Capitol). Via indie label Big Wheel Recreation, they put out Singles a collection of rarities and 7-inches and a split EP with Aussie rockers Jebediah, then they hit the road hard, playing to the sizable fanbase they'd built up with Clarity and its 1996 predecessor, Static Prevails.
"We owe this record to fans coming out to shows, basically," Adkins said. And to DreamWorks, who snapped up the completed disc and is pushing it aggressively.
"Yeah, I've noticed we have a label behind us right now," he said, letting out a pleased chuckle. "It's definitely something new and exciting for us. That's definitely a change."
The urgent, high-strung leadoff single, "Bleed American," is already heating up at radio. On it, Adkins sings, "I'm not alone 'cause the TV's on, yeah/ I'm not crazy 'cause I take the right pills every day."
"It's sort of a discussion on how trivial things in your life can end up putting the things that are really important in the backseat," he explained. "It's everybody in general, but more so in America. We kind of give ourselves a lot of rope to hang ourselves with. You see ads all the time advertising Paxil and anti-anxiety drugs, and you don't think about whether this is something that's been going on always, or is it just this new trend that's only come about recently where people are this screwed up?"
After "Bleed American" explodes and collapses in a vocal and instrumental nervous breakdown, the album kicks into motivational mode with "A Praise Chorus" and "The Middle."
For the former, a carpe diem ditty that advises against living life "standing in the back, looking around," the band turned to Promise Ring frontman Davey vonBohlen when it wasn't sure how to cross the song's bridge.
The group sent him a rough mix of the song and some general suggestions, and vonBohlen went into a Milwaukee studio, where he laid down some lifted lyrics.
"Davey decided to kind of play up to the line immediately coming out of the bridge where I sing, 'Come on, Davey, sing me something that I know,' " Adkins said. "So he basically quoted a bunch of other people's songs," including Tommy James' "Crimson & Clover," Madness' "Our House" and Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart."
"The Middle" is more of an upbeat arm-around-the-shoulder song that promises "Little girl, you're in the middle of the ride/ Everything will be just fine/ Everything will be all right." Though the track is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, Adkins said the boot-stompin', cowbell-accompanied guitar solo is actually a tip o' the cowboy hat to a member of the indie-rock establishment.
"In the last two or three years country has crept into my CD collection, but so has a lot of Guided by Voices," he said, "and that solo in particular is sort of a tribute to Doug Gillard from GBV."
The likely next single, "Sweetness," was a fan favorite long before the album came out. When a demo started making the rounds on Napster, the band quickly found audiences singing along with the infectious "Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh"s that dominate the song.
Throughout the track, in which Adkins insists, "I'm still running away/ I won't play your hide and seek game," guitars play their own hide and seek game, loudly bursting to the fore and then beating a hasty, subdued retreat.
For all its popularity, though, the song was nearly tossed before it was recorded.
"It's just such a ridiculous melody," Adkins said. "I just had this melody in my head and I was demoing it and singing it and kind of having a hard time with it. I almost didn't bring it to the band because I was thinking to myself, 'I can't just say nothing. I can't just use all these sort of alyrical whoahs for this much of a song.' "
This week the band whose lineup also includes guitarist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch and drummer Zach Lind began testing the potency of "Sweetness" on the lip-ring and wallet-chain crowd, kicking off a stint on the Vans Warped Tour, their second appearance.
For a headlining tour later this year, Adkins said, the band will bring along Brian McMahan of the For Carnation, who'll handle a sampler as well as additional keyboards and guitars. Also joining them will be That Dog's Rachel Haden, who sings backup on five Bleed American tracks, including "The Authority Song" a Weezerish tune that namechecks John Mellencamp's "Authority Song" while dancing around to a riff cut from the same cloth as the Heartland rocker's "Hurts So Good."
Between the Warped Tour and their own outing, they'll open a string of shows for Blink-182, whose frontmen Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge are among Jimmy Eat World's biggest fans. Earlier this year, DeLonge's bride enlisted the band's services at their wedding (see "Sorry, Ladies: Blink-182's Tom DeLonge Gets Hitched").
"It was bizarre, but really cool. Playing weddings isn't something we're intending to make a habit of, but you could tell that they were really touched by it, so it felt good.
"We just played a couple of requests from the bride, and then the '80s cover band came in," Adkins joked.