“Play something from the punk record!” The cry went out from the energized crowd at Irving Plaza; Jimmy Eat World frontman Jim Adkins gazed down with a wry smile and a guitar riff: “All our records are punk rock, dude.” Undoubtedly, Adkins was teasing about the lukewarm reception that their new album, Bleed American, has received from the diehard Jimmy Eat World camp. But while Jimmy fans may be grumbling about their favorite band going pop, industry money-makers and booty-shakers surely smell a hit. After releasing the band’s hard-edged Static Prevails and the more successful Clarity, Capitol Records dumped Jimmy Eat World in the nearest Emo dustbin, muttering that they weren’t ready to be on a major label just yet. The band shrugged it off and after more touring and a pair of indie releases, they recorded Bleed American on their own dime. They hired longtime collaborator Mark Trombino (producer of the poo-poo ca-ca all-stars, Blink-182) to give Jimmy Eat World that ever-so-tasteful silvery edge of electronic programming that makes their meaty guitar-rock all the more palatable. After flipping the bill and snagging some pre-record deal radio play, the majors (including Capitol) were courting again, with DreamWorks winning out and snagging Bleed American.
The fans don’t lie; the way the album touches the skin is more paperback than hardcover. Adkins’s voice is more seductive and confident. His intonation would make any automatic tuner jealous, yet his usually clean pitch tailspins into a hyperdrive vibrato that sneaks out regularly. Meanwhile, guitarist Tom Linton, who formerly staked out lead duties on a couple songs per album with his dry baritone, has been relieved of his vocal duties and now only reports for guitar and backup. And while the focus on Adkins’s more marketable voice, combined with lighter sounds and some slick Trombino production, makes for a poppier album, a few extra listens reveal that Jimmy Eat World still diversifies the songwriting enough to make this a worthy contribution to their catalog. In addition, maturity holds the record just above the twin pits of sugar pop and tired rock. However, Jimmy Eat World does not completely abstain from pop cheese: “We once walked out on the beach and once I almost touched your hand/Oh, how I dreamed to finally say such things then only to pretend.” Yet, they demonstrate immense range with tracks like the first single, “Bleed American”: “Salt sweat sugar on the asphalt/Our hearts littering the topsoil/Tune in, we can get the last call/Sign up, it’s the picket line or the parade.” The band can attract an audience that ranges from teeny-boppers to middle-aged rock n’ rollers, which is exactly who attended their September New York City appearance.
After a pair of lazy and forgettable opening acts, Jimmy Eat World took the stage to greet their apprehensive fans. Following tours supporting Blink-182 and the recently popped-out Weezer, the Irving Plaza floor both brewed with anticipation and stewed with “what-if-they-don’t-play-any-old-stuff?” anxiety. After a quick and shy introduction, Adkins and company burned effortlessly through the first three tracks from Bleed American. As if to answer the inevitable eye-rolls and sighs, they kicked quickly into their heavy anti-radio manifesto, “Your New Aesthetic,” (from Clarity) a track denouncing the thin radio-song formula, boldly declaring: “Make them open the request line, let selection kill the old, turn off the radio!” The insinuation seems to be that the listener will turn off the radio to listen to Jimmy Eat World, but given their ascension to regular airplay, turning the radio off is no longer necessary.
While jumping around through their discography, playing mostly crowd pleasers, Adkins stayed away from his vocal high range (which he visits often on album), leaving those parts to Linton and their guest, Rachel Haden (of “that dog.” fame), who appears on four of Bleed American’s 11 tracks. Haden sat at a keyboard, occasionally adding sparse piano, while she swayed quietly back and forth to match the band’s shy yet confident demeanor. Songs like “Episode IV” served as a reminder of why Linton’s voice is so dearly missed on the new album, while many other songs received the 3-part harmony treatment, Haden and Adkins’s near twin voices blending together with improbable live accuracy. Though Adkins’s high-note trepidation was disappointing, his rare ventures into the greater frequencies became that much juicier. In “Can You Still Feel the Butterflies,” with his sweat-sodden mop flipping back over his forehead each time he nodded out an accented syllable, Adkin’s hoarse voice was on the brink of cracking: “If I won’t let myself be happy now, then when?/If not now, when?” It is a sentiment that only seems more honest than trite when given the right instrumental support. The band pulled out no fancy tricks, no nudity, no props, no pyrotechnics, no nü-metal. Obviously, the usual Jimmy tricks of drum programming licking at the underside of their guitar riffs would not make an appearance, but whether they could deliver the goods live was still in question by the time they reached the new song “Get It Faster.” Seamlessly navigating between extreme dynamics and easily stopping on a dime, the question was answered as they cruised without so much as a furrowed brow.
Unmistakably standing guard, hung on both sides of the balcony, was an MTV Music Awards Week banner, flanked on either side by lime green K-Rock posters. For the fans packing the Plaza (most of whom the band had won over again by the end of the night), the posters were the mark of the industry beast, ready to claim yet another band to pump into the hitmaker machine and discard in the local one-hit-wonder landfill. Fans, though, have little to worry about; Jimmy Eat World created Bleed American outside the shadow of major label expectations, yet the critics and the industry still love it. This acclaim will likely enable the band to continue making music on their own terms. Fans, however, will have to endure some much more difficult growing pains: sharing their well-kept secret with the rest of the world.
As Adkins sang “Are you listening?” at the end of the night, the crowd easily responded in kind with a united “Whoa-oh-whoa-oh-oo-whoa!” With a chorus of voices this loud, it would seem that the secret is out. Near the end of the song, a young man with eyes and mouth wide open and tongue outstretched, managed to surface above the sea of happily bouncing Jimmy-heads and crowd surfed over the begrudging people below. This one lone surfer-dude, more so than the MTV and K-Rock posters, was a harbinger of what may lay ahead as the band gains popularity. To a longtime fan, the worst death of a band is when the live show is sullied by the intruders from the TRL look-at-me crowd. The fans can only hope that as crowd surfers go over the “true” fans’ heads, Jimmy Eat World’s music will go over theirs.