I know some writers follow me here as well, so hey, message me your email address if you want.
I know some writers follow me here as well, so hey, message me your email address if you want.
Before I got into the music business or marketing, I managed an ice cream shop in Melbourne, FL, the town where I grew up. I worked there for six years, and somewhere in the middle of those, I reached a point where I’d heard so many screaming and crying children that, almost overnight, I was able to subconsciously tune out their screams and cries. It was like a light switch inside my head was permanently stuck in the off position. It wasn’t anything I made a concerted effort to do; it just happened.
There’s a parallel to be drawn there with the prevalence of corporate-owned, ad-heavy live music venues. If you live in the real world, the one where most people are less concerned with smashing the state and more concerned with paying their bills and just being happy, it should be easy to reconcile the existence of these places with your own ideals and recognize them as a means to an end. No one likes going to a punk show at a club littered with Miller Lite banners, but at this point those banners should be easy to ignore and, if acknowledged, done so with perspective. Those banners, in theory, help the venue’s owners keep the lights on, pay their employees a fair wage, and book quality bands and tours. Marketing, advertising and sponsorships are so heavily ingrained into how we consume media and culture now that a lot of people (myself included) often fail to notice even the most overt advertising. We’ve seen and disregarded so much of it over the past decade or so that our brains are rewired to discard and ignore even the most invasive marketing, much like those screaming, crying children just moments away from sugar-fueled bliss.
What’s also interesting about seeing a punk show at a corporate club though, as opposed to a house or basement, is the stark difference in crowd dynamic. Because these venues have the inherent ability to advertise, they can attract a different type of person. Not better or worse, just different. These people, punk fans through and through, are not entrenched in the DIY scene like a lot of us are. The term “safe space” isn’t in their vocabulary and they’re used to paying $8 for a beer that would cost $3.50 at nearly any other bar. A lot of them also don’t know how to act when a band is playing and have little to no regard for the enjoyment or safety of those around them. They throw elbows in the pit, hardcore dance during melodic, mid-tempo punk songs, and generally run into people who aren’t there because they want to be run into. That sucks sometimes, but if you don’t like it you can always stand in the back, I guess.
It just goes to show you that punk really is the people’s genre, warts and all, through egregious advertising, misplaced audience hostility, watery overpriced beer, ticket service charges, and barricades with burly security guards stationed behind them. Through all of that, through divergent backgrounds and wildly different dispositions, the music still prevails. The definition of punk is fluid and perpetually intensely personal. There’s an arcane kind of beauty in that.
We’ve encountered a brief lull in the 2014 release schedule already here in March. It’s fitting, considering March’s status as a tweener month in which vague hints of spring co-exist among the bone-chilling remnants of winter. In March, the notion of mood improvement finally becomes palpable; we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s filled with short sleeves and sweaty wheat beers and uncracked skin and baseball and new records.
By “we’ve encountered a brief lull,” of course, I mean me. I can’t be bothered with this new Real Estate record—every jangly guitar record (and there have been a lot of them lately) sounds like a more reigned-in Grateful Dead to me. That type of music isn’t nasty or aggressive enough; it often seems artificially profound, brazenly distant or self-satisfied by its own inherent laziness. Growing up punk, it can be hard to shake the notion that emotions in music are best conveyed in a manner that’s very simple and direct. This can yield and has yielded a lot of dumb, unlistenable music to be sure, but most of it is real, at least, warts and all. Some of it is even pretty fun.
(Actually, now that I think about it, even my own writing style [or my intended style, anyway] is influenced by punk. When I write, I try to be as simple and as clear as possible. I don’t worry much about weaving a hard-to-follow narrative or using words that some readers might need to look up in a separate tab. What’s the point?)
Point is, I feel unchallenged and under-stimulated by what I perceive to be deliberately standoffish music of any genre or subgenre. I want that riff to fly toward my ears like an Africanized killer bee; I want to feel the bass drum in my chest like its beats are violent heart palpitations; I want a vocalist to scream in my face like their life depends on whatever they’re screaming.
I also become disappointed and frustrated whenever a band earn a ton of praise for reasons I clearly can’t hear. It feels hollow, like a hivemind agreeing that this boring thing is what they’re going to endorse. But where does my frustration lie, with myself for not “getting it” or with others who do “get it?” Maybe it’s a little of both. It’s definitely difficult to pin down either way.
And as easy as it is to just shrug and move on, I want to get it, especially if it resonates with so many people whose work I admire and opinions I respect. On top of that, there are few better feelings in the world than that fleeting moment when an album clicks with you. I’ll be chasing that dragon forever, and you should chase it forever, too.
Quick plug: My first episode of Noise Complaint airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Y-Not Radio!
Noise Complaint is a weekly, hour-long, punk-focused music show. Tonight I’m playing some new jams from Direct Effect, The Hotelier, Donovan Wolfington, Against Me! and a bunch of others. Should be fun! Feel free to create a drinking game based on how many times my otherwise velvety voice cracks.
Deep Elm Records has made each piece of their vast catalogue available as a name-your-price download, which is very nice of them.
In its heyday, the label had a not-always-accurate reputation as a haven for whiny emo bands; this was long, long before the #emorevival, when “emo” was derided by many as means to categorize musically and perhaps intellectually bankrupt crap with limp song structures and curdling vocal cries. Really, it wasn’t that long ago that most punk rock was devoid of personal emotion, of relatable feeling; the genre had broken out of the classic rock shell in the late ’70s and then quickly re-hardened itself from the outside world, and from portraying anything resembling vulnerability.
Anyway, point is Deep Elm was never just an emo label. Their catalogue is more diverse than a lot of folks realize, and today’s scene owes these bands a debt of gratitude, even if they don’t realize they do. If you’re unfamiliar, I’ve compiled what I think are Deep Elm’s essential releases. Feel free to share your own picks with me; it could be something I haven’t got around to hearing.
The Emo Diaries Chapter 1: What’s Mine Is Yours (1997)
Worth it for Jimmy Eat World’s “Opener” alone, which is one of the band’s best early-era songs and I believe, is now only in print as part of this compilation. Good songs from Samiam, Jejune and Camber as well. The Emo Diaries is Deep Elm’s recurring compilation series, which now has 12 editions and was arguably the largest catalyst for its aforementioned reputation. None of the 12 are perfect, but for a full picture of the label’s history it’s important to be aware of them.
Cross My Heart - Cross My Heart (1999)
Cross My Heart - Temporary Contemporary (2000)
Baltimore band who did an admirable job of melding emo’s inward tendencies with crunchy, anthemic guitars and clean, catchy vocals. If you like early Hot Water Music but wish it were a little less gruff, Cross My Heart would be up your alley. The band reunited for a one-off show at The Fest last year; let’s hope they end up doing more.
The Appleseed Cast - Low Level Owl Vol. 1 + 2 (2001)
Deep Elm reissued this a couple years back for its tenth anniversary, which is the version embedded above. It’s without a doubt, the Appleseed Cast’s most popular and accomplished collection of music, and was a massive influence on the current freshman crop of emo bands. It’s an album that merges intricacy and directness in an almost scientific way, and it’s a long but ultimately rewarding listen.
Red Animal War - Breaking In An Angel (2001)
Red Animal War - Black Phantom Crusades (2002)
Dallas, Tx.-based quartet who came up informed largely by the distortion-driven DC post-hardcore scene. Could seamlessly navigate between outward melodics and tightly-wound, catchy weirdness (see the 1-2 opening punch of Black Phantom Crusade’s “Still” and “When Fat Pigs Fly”). One of the more consistent bands to spend time on the Deep Elm roster.
Benton Falls - Fighting Starlight (2001)
Benton Falls harnessed the pretty/ugly dynamic better than most bands of their era; their songs generally featured lots of guitar interplay, with twinkling and tapping lines dancing around hard-charging riffs and doses of tension-building empty space interspersed in between. Really underrated.
Desert City Soundtrack - Funeral Car (2003)
The instrumentation on Funeral Car is really great; it initially sounds like a reserved, laid-back record, with minimal percussion, quiet vocals, as well as piano and horns, but as it progresses it seems to simultaneously become more aggressive and intricate. The piano is more or less the lead instrument here, so if that’s not your bag, skip it; but be warned, you’d be missing out on a record with a surprising amount of personality and grit.
Lock and Key - Pull Up The Floorboards (2004)
Hard-charging, aggressive and gruff, Lock and Key were an unheralded forefather to a lot of modern post-hardcore bands that deal in huge riffs and huge choruses as currency. If you’re into Make Do and Mend and/or Crime in Stereo, you’d probably love Pull Up The Floorboards.
Latterman - No Matter Where We Go…! (2005)
You know how today, there are roughly a billion bands who yell, often in unison, often poorly, over melodic punk riffs about positivity? This is the album that started all of that. A pillar of modern “Orgcore.”
Slowride - C / S (2006)
One of Deep Elm’s more prolific bands in terms of number of releases for the label, Slowride mostly play grungy, slacker guitar riffs that would’ve played huge on rock radio in the mid-90s had anyone been smart enough to notice.
Clair De Lune - Assisted Living (2007)
Fiercely political, often tightly-wound and aggressive post-hardcore. If you like Small Brown Bike you’d probably love Assisted Living.
Papermoons - New Tales (2009)
Papermoons - No Love (2013)
At their core, Papermoons are a folk-rock duo, but that descriptor hardly scratches the surface. Their music is generally laid-back and tension-less and easy to digest, but there’s a certain intricacy and hopefulness imbued into their sound that’s really appealing.
The thing about most popular music is that it’s melody-forward, with lyrical substance taking a back seat to writing the catchiest, most radio-friendly or most club-ready hook. The primary idea is to make the song memorable by making it hummable, repeatable, interactive, whatever. If it’s also fun to sing along to, that’s just a bonus, and for the most part, the lyrical content strays from the profound in favor of easily relatable ideas about love, dancing, drinking, fucking, whatever; the kind of stuff with which a gigantic portion of the music-consuming populace can instantly identify. Whether we want to accept it or not, there is an art to this. Even the dumbest, most bloated pop songs, no matter how many sets of fingerprints on them, are pieces of art; whether the art is good or bad, interesting or bland, is in the eye of the beholder. You can claim that a pop song has nothing to say, but what you’re really saying is that it has nothing to say to you, and virtually no one bothers to make that distinction.
In the underground, though, the pressure is off. Melody and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive; songs haven’t been clouded with A&R intervention, co-writers or other bureaucratic bullshit. The rules of the monolith don’t apply. Still, a lot of these bands were raised, informed and influenced by the radio-friendly alternative and punk of the ’90s (before the rules applied like they do now), which led them down the underground indie rock and hardcore rabbit holes, which led them to where they might be today. Melody is incorporated into their artistry in a way that sometimes, simultaneously aids and directly defies their intensely personal or stridently political lyrical content. When roughly 99% of said music-consuming populace associates melody with superficiality, it makes the oft-overlooked dichotomy of catchiness and depth in the underground even more interesting.
A really great band from Worcester, MA called The Hotelier (né The Hotel Year) are releasing an album next week called Home, Like Noplace Is There on Tiny Engines and it’s one of the most seamlessly deep and anthemic albums I’ve heard in some time, with the type of unabashed earnestness that’s defined Jimmy Eat World’s oeuvre and often, the same sort of billowing catharsis associated with say, modern post-hardcore bands like Pianos Become The Teeth. Hackish references aside, it’s very much its own thing, with poppy rock hooks juxtaposed over intensely confessional, necessarily and impressively verbose lyrical content. It takes the notion of great, straightforward rock and roll writing, turns it on its head, and makes it vague and personal without hindering its message or effectiveness. It’s a weird record, except when it isn’t. The themes—feeling lost, being unsure of oneself, attempting to repair eternally broken relationships, et al.—are eminently universal, but the manner in which they’re communicated here is anything but.
This is gonna be one that appeals to the kids for different reasons than it appeals to people like me, or hardcore kids, or punks. It’s an important record, one that portrays that aforementioned dichotomy rather perfectly and interestingly. And unlike the vast majority of its contemporaries, it has the character to stand the test of time once the newness wears off.