Although Middle Distance Runner hails from Washington, D.C., the quintet's sharp hooks and retro Britpop stylings would seem at home among current and recent Pittsburgh groups -- alongside say, Camera, Triggers, Donora, The Silver Thread, Black Tie Revue and many more. But even if there were no musical connection between Middle Distance Runner and Pittsburgh, there would be a human one -- bassist Ian Glinka.
Glinka, who grew up in the South Hills and Mount Lebanon areas, was a founding member of Black Tie Revue, where he served as guitarist alongside old friend Anthony Badamo. But even as he was helping to build the BTR machine, he had a résumé circulating in the background, eventually landing Glinka a computer-tech job in Las Vegas ... on the Kerry presidential campaign. Returning home to Pittsburgh a bit disheartened, in 2005 he decided, on a whim, to move to D.C. and start a band. "After working that hard on something, I realized that I had to do the band thing," he says. "Like, now."
In D.C., "everyone was totally amazed by my lack of knowledge of the D.C. hardcore scene," Glinka recalls. Fortunately, he soon fell in with Middle Distance Runner, a group of D.C. natives who were looking for a bassist: guitarists Allan Chappelear and Jay Smith, drummer Erik Dean and vocalist Stephen Kilroy.
"It wasn't totally what I wanted to do," says Glinka; not only was it a spot playing bass instead of guitar, but he still had plans to start his own group. But after MDR started to click after only a few rehearsals, "I sorta realized, 'Hey, what make that harder than it is?'"
Since then, the band has released a rough-and-ready full-length, 2006's Plane in Flames; toured regionally; earned enviable ink in Spin, Paste, Pop Matters and the D.C. press. Despite being unsigned and having a preference for self-producing its recordings, MDR has also pulled in the kind of guns most local acts would drool over: a manager, a publicist and a booking agent.
Which brings us to MDR's brand-new eponymous EP. To capitalize on the interest the band's received, MDR decided to strike while the iron's hot. "There is that kind of sense of urgency," says Glinka. Designed a bit more with the ears of music execs in mind, it's a higher-gloss reworking of the best songs from Plane in Flames alongside three new tracks. The opener, "The Sun and Earth," is anthemic indie-pop complete with a wordless vocal hook, cacophonous drums, xylophone and a nearly whispered breakdown.
"Monochrome Boys," the first song penned by Glinka for MDR, welds handclap rhythms and dark bass lines into a hollow structure simultaneously reminiscent of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" and The Zombies' "Time of the Season." (You'll definitely find yourself mentally adding the "chika-chik -- ahh"s.) On "With Swords," Kilroy's voice sounds a bit like Wayne Coyne's, over psychedelic keyboard swells.
What unites these three fairly disparate tracks -- and what seems the central aesthetic of MDR's EP -- is not giving you what you want, and making you want that instead. Which is to say that the sonic cues -- the higher, controlled vocals, the straightforward-sounding rhythms and hooky, Britpoppy melodies -- seem clues that you're in for fairly formulaic, if satisfying, power pop.
Yet none of these songs seem to repeat the elements you'd expect them to -- like choruses, say, or hooks. Instead, the songs seem to gradually shift through different phrases, finally arriving somewhere you mightn't expect, with results sometimes dazzling, sometimes merely interesting.
If you're wondering whether this kind of smart-ass frustration of expectations is your thing, you might catch MDR's show at Garfield Artworks on Sun., Oct. 7. Whether you should shake Glinka's hand hello, or kick him in the shins for leaving your beloved 'Burgh ... well, that's up to you.
Middle Distance Runner with Syme and special guest. 7 p.m. Sun., Oct. 7. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $7. All ages. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com