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Published: 2003/07/28
by Mike Greenhaus

Keep It Together – Guster

Don't worry about their degrees; Guster will always be a great college band.
They've got sharp lyrics and a superb sense of suburban irony. For almost a
decade, they've taught themselves the craft of creating the perfect pop
album. But, until Keep it Together, they've never truly embraced
their clean-shaven sound.

A carefully produced mix of folk-rock and baroque pop, Keep it
Together is jam-packed with all of Guster's essential ingredients. It's
got catchy harmonies, quirky time signatures, and educated lyrics. It's full
of bongo beats, light psychedelia, and collegiate individualism. Yet in a
dramatic stylistic departure, it's also layered with keyboards, strings, and
the jarring beat of an electric drum. While the group once used '80s
indie-rock and traditional Americana for fodder during in-concert comedy, on
KIT they've wrapped these influences into a polished pop package,
replacing their granola crust with clever, but conventional songs. Guster's
first attempt at professional pop, KIT contains the group's most
commercial sounds, yet it's also their most mature effort to date.

Oddly enough, Guster spent four years – an entire college cycle – creating a
follow-up to their first major label album, Lost and Gone Forever.
While that album signaled the end of the group's underground innocence, it
remained in-line with Guster's trademark instrumentation: two semi-acoustic
guitars and a sooped-up bongo set. Though successful in many ways, the album
did not take many stylistic chances and often seemed caught between sounding
cutesy and serious, as illustrated by the group's ubiquitous hit "Fa Fa." In
a conscious effort to expand their pop palette, Guster use KIT to
broaden their studio boundaries, juxtaposing an awe-inspiring range of
styles and sounds. With tracks as diverse as the emo-edged "Amsterdam" and
the country-rock jingle "Jesus on the Radio," most songs are variations on a
similar, and very conventional, verse-chorus pattern.

Buried beneath up-tempo pop, Guster have recorded some of their most
emotional gems; clean cuts the group could have ripped through during their
days as a fledgling college band. KIT's title track tackles the
trio's maturing notion of professional musicianship, while the album's
centerpiece "Come Down Stairs and Say Hello" is a multi-part pop epic that
evokes the emotion of the group's previous centerpiece "Two Points for
Honesty." "Backyard," the album's finest moment, would not sound out of
place on Parachute, the group's acoustic debut. Yet it is beefed up
with strings, banjos, and a Dylanesque harmonica solo that adds weight and
depth to the song's structure.

"Red Oyster Cult" is the group's first real rock song, complete with a drum
roll and radio-friendly chorus. Yet the song's conventional feel only masks
guitarist Ryan Miller's most revealing lyrics ("Call your mom on the
telephone/tell her you're coming home / tell her there's not a chance you're
ever going to change the world.") As they near their 30s, Guster have
accepted their place in pop culture, yet they still hold on to their
adolescent sense of individualism.

For many longtime fans, KIT will no doubt conger up the term
"sell-out." In many ways they are right. After all, Guster have created a
mainstream pop-rock album. Moreover, most of the album's catchiest songs
were recorded during a separate studio session by a label-approved producer
to compliment the album's more adventurous tracks. But KIT, as a
whole, is a natural progression for the organic pop trio. Like a new suit on
a college graduate, it polishes their granola edge, while filling out their
more human tones.

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