CHRISTOPHER CONLEY is torn between who he wants to be and who he thinks he might need to be. His New Jersey band, Saves the Day, have a new record out called In Reverie, its first for major label DreamWorks. It's the third excellent and shiny emo-pop album DreamWorks has released in three years, following self-titled discs from Jimmy Eat World in 2001 and the All-American Rejects last year. Like those CDs, In Reverie is packed full of songs that sound like they were born in a three-car garage, scrubbed clean of indie-band grime and three-chord scruff, and engineered to sound great on the radio, or in a high school gymnasium, or in the background when Stifler finally finds true love (or did that happen? I don't remember). Chewy melodies, tasty guitar fuzz, the occasional dollop of electric piano or mellotronit's all there, providing sympathetic support for Conley's choirboy vocals, which are so precise and even-keeled they make Chris Carrabba sound like Shane MacGowan.
On one hand, Conley seems totally comfortable with this. "We were just kids in high school when we made our first album," he says on his cell phone between stops on the band's current tour. "So obviously the label"Hudson, N.Y., indie Equal Vision"didn't know that we could sell records. So they were like, 'Okay, we'll give you eight days in the studio.' They're not gonna go spend a lot of money on us." Seems sensible, like the kind of conclusion any young person in a band might draw. But then Conley starts reeling off sales figures and their impact on the band's recording time with an acuity I wouldn't expect from his accountant: 10,000 copies of 1998's Can't Slow Down earned them 11 days in the studio; 40,000 copies of 1999's Through Being Cool yielded a month and a bump up to L.A.'s Vagrant Records; 2001's Stay What You Are (which spawned a pair of MTV hits in "At Your Funeral" and the puppet-pushing "Freakish") moved 200,000 units and attracted DreamWorks, who gave Saves the Day two months with alt-rock mainstay Rob Schnapf (in the same studio where Pet Sounds was made) to record In Reverie. "I'm sure on the next album we'll wanna have three months to record," Conley says.
SO, OK: Conley's a shrewd music-bizzer, a guy who knows how to get what he wantsadequate tour support, interesting music videos, more time than the damn Beatles to make a recordand someone unbothered by the incessant backbiting and credibility questioning that plagued mid-'90s indie-rock. Terrific, Chris, nice to have you aboard, and thanks for an excellent and shiny emo-pop album that isn't afraid to evoke fond memories of the Cars and XTC. Yet in our half-hour talk he repeatedly resists that characterization. I tell him that In Reverie seems more melodic and considered than Stay What You Are, just as Stay What You Are improved upon its two predecessors.
"I would say each album is different from the last," he counters. "But it's not a deliberate change. It just kind of happens that way." The old indie-rock duck-and-cover. Or is it? "The reason we change is because we are evolving as musicians and as people, and our musical interests have evolved. I wouldn't be able to put my finger on any one thing; it's just all of our collective life experiences." More indie boilerplate, sure, but Conley's recognizing artistic ambition as a Not-Bad Thing, so I note with admiration that a couple of the new songs dip into near-ballad territory, waters that even Jimmy Eat World and the All-American Rejects haven't explored. "I'd say overall the music obviously has slowed down," he allows, "but that doesn't mean it's lost energy. It's just that the energy is expressed in a different way."
I've never gotten why the ineffable concept of energy holds so much sway with so many underground rock groups; doesn't everyone feel tired some days, and, if so, can't music be allowed to reflect that? I tell Conley that Saves the Day's slide into maturity seems like part of a larger relaxation of emo's strict genre rules. Chris Carrabba's new one sounds more like Cat Stevens than Sunny Day Real Estate, I point out, and New Jersey's other big emo band, the definitely crappy Thursday, appear to be headed in some bizarre prog-metal direction. Could emo be ready, as Spin suggested last month, for its close-up?
"I think there is some underlying current in the whole scene of musical evolution," Conley says. "It's a process of everybody growing up. We started out so young that we were forced to grow up in front of people." True to form, though, he blanches a bit. "But I think it's all just kind of happening. It's not like there are back-alley meetings between us and the dudes from Brand Newlike, 'We're gonna do this, and everyone else is gonna follow along.'" If only they did.
Saves the Day plays the Showbox with Taking Back Sunday and Moneen at 7 p.m. Mon., Oct. 13. $18.50 adv./$20. All ages.