- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Being in a Christian band like the pop-punk quintet Relient K is a bit like walking atop a fence that divides two fairly distinct worlds. You toss Christian singles to one radio station and mainstream singles to another. You sit down for interviews with Christian press and answer when the mainstream press calls. Your fans play tug of war over the meaning of your (purposely ambiguous?) lyrics, like the ones in “The Best Thing,” a tune from the two-month-old “Five Score and Seven Years Ago.”

When lead singer Matt Thiessen cries he’s been “searching for you,” one group may give the credit to God, while another assumes the musician has found the girl of his dreams.

“It’s kind of weird,” says Mr. Thiessen, who helped found the band in 1998. “Some of our fans wouldn’t like us if we didn’t write about our faith, and some fans are indifferent to that.”

Despite the balancing act they appear to be managing (at faith-centric fests like Rock the Universe and amid the mosh-pit mayhem of the Vans Warped Tour in the same year), the frontman says that from his perspective, “It all works together for us.”

Clearly, something is working for the crew. “Five Score,” produced by Howard Benson of My Chemical Romance and All-American Rejects acclaim, premiered at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. Previously, the guys had three consecutive gold records, most recently 2004’s “Mmhmm.” They’ve had some lineup changes along the way to their current success, but, ultimately, the band’s momentum hasn’t been affected.

A sort of “God Charlotte,” the outfit combines the thrashy edge and catchy harmonies of other contemporary pop-punk groups with verses that favor redemption over raunch. They don’t quote Scriptures in every track, though. It’s subtler than that, and sometimes sillier.

Mr. Thiessen croons about things that normal young men and young women face: fallouts with friends, regrets and coming to terms with one’s self. The God aspect is there for the taking for listeners who seek it, but even in their most religion-heavy tunes, like the poignant 11-minute “Deathbed,” an epic ballad about a man’s dying day that closes “Five Score,” there are musical elements even atheists can admire.

“We try to have positive lyrics. We try to write about things that we got through and problems and the resolutions that can come from those,” Mr. Thiessen says.

While he sounds quite pleased with Relient K’s current popularity, he explains that for him, the most important rewards have nothing to do with how big the audiences are at their latest tour dates or how many records they push; it’s not about numbers at all, in fact.

“I’ve been getting a lot of response from kids saying, ‘You’ve really helped me through this and had a positive impact on my life,’ ” he says. “When you really step back and think about it, having a difference in someone’s life really tops the list of priorities.”

Relient K rocks the 9:30 Club (www.930.com) on Monday .

All jazzed up

When three musicians from the Twin Cities area reunited for a Minneapolis club gig in 2000, they weren’t sure what would happen. While they’d contributed to each other’s projects over the years, music had since scattered them in different directions.

Bassist Reid Anderson had been making moves on the New York jazz scene. Pianist Ethan Iverson had served as the Mark Morris Dance Group’s musical director. And drummer Dave King had become a session player in L.A.

Something started to gel that night, however, and this tenuous glue turned to cement a few shows later when the jazz trio, dubbed the Bad Plus, threw a rock cover tune into their set.

Mr. Anderson can’t recall the exact song (it may have been Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” released on their lauded 2003 disc “These Are the Vistas”). Yet he vividly remembers the role it played in shaping the group’s sound.

“It puts you in this territory where there’s no road map,” he says. “There’s no agreed-upon way to cover Nirvana as an acoustic trio improvising.” Since then, the Bad Plus has become a sort of Christopher O’Riley, the classical pianist famous for his Radiohead transcriptions of the jazz world. Their albums do feature plenty of free jazz-influenced original compositions, but they’re sandwiched between interpretations of Police, Pixies and (would you believe it) Black Sabbath tunes.

On their forthcoming “PROG,” due out Tuesday, amidst sprawling nine-minute musical explorations, listeners will find no less than four re-imagined pop gems. The makers of “Grunge Lite” should proceed immediately to their version of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which proves once and for all that rock’s dark edges aren’t inherently shaved off in the process of translating songs for more classical instrumentation.

“I guess jazz can have a reputation of being kind of an exclusive art form in a way,” Mr. Anderson says, “and we very much don’t have that attitude.” The Bad Plus play the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (www.claricesmithcenter.umd .edu) Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

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