Process and Dismissal
359 · 13 December 01
Hey Mercedes: Everynight Fire Works
This week's study question is: Is Emo really a genre? Several stipulations must be made before we can begin. First, and most obviously, we must have an operational definition of "genre". There are no formal taxonomic criteria for what constitutes a genre in popular music, for the same reasons that there aren't formal taxonomic criteria for just about anything else in popular music that doesn't bear directly on sales figures. There are clearly some accepted genres, however, so we ought to be able to generalize from them to establish some traits that might be characteristic of genres per se. For example, it should usually be possible to evaluate the genre status of a piece of music solely by listening to it. I don't mean that there aren't border cases, I mean that the necessary criteria are all internal to the music. Metal and Country are quintessential genres: most aware music fans could sort random songs into and out of those categories with an acceptable degree of precision (i.e., Slipknot and the Scorpions both count as Metal, Shania Twain and the Carter Family are both Country), independent of their own personal tastes. Boston Rock, on the other hand, cannot be evaluated without some non-musical information, and is thus a scene, not a genre.
The flip side of musical sufficiency is that genres also tend to produce accompanying conventions for extra-musical self-identification. Although there is nothing structural that prevents a Country singer from going by an invented mythological pseudonym and writing twangy square-dance stomps about Satanic torture, nor a Metal band from showing up in hubcap-sized belt-buckles and freighter-sized pickup trucks and howling nerve-fraying odes to small-town resiliency, neither happens much. It is mostly in an artist's practical advantage to self-identify, so most do. Anyone who spends much time in record stores ought to be able to make reasonable guesses at the genres of half the CDs in a random pile without even taking them out of the shrink wrap. I could probably form good theories about at least a quarter of a random computer listing showing only the name of the artist and the titles of the album and songs.
Genre also usually implies some kind of scale. A genre ought to be big enough to accommodate sub-genres, and lots of pairs of bands who patently both belong even though they're easy to distinguish from each other. A genre's farthest-flung edges should be distant enough from the core to blur into hybrids (thus rap-metal, death-metal and speed-metal, or country-rock and alt-country). There have to be borders, though, however blurry. Although there's something naggingly circular about this, you also can often identify a genre by the fact that it clearly excludes things in other genres. Or put another way, in a Venn diagram of genres in popular music, there would be significant areas of no overlap. Enormous numbers of metal albums could not possibly be considered (or mistaken for) anything else. Whereas "love songs" and "ballads" and "piano songs", to take some non-genre counter-examples, obviously do not form anything like a single layer across popular music's possibility space.
A few more mundane criteria, for completeness: you ought to be able to describe the distinguishing characteristics of a genre without having to list practitioners; you ought to be able to identify a genre's predecessors, progenitors and defectors; it should usually be possible for a band with no real imagination of their own to find a small audience just by adhering to the genre's conventions; a genre should support at least a small contingent of fanatics who appear to like everything within the genre and nothing without. A genre is a medium in which to conduct an obsession.
And whether Emo is a genre or not, it is at least a term, derived from "emotive", and while it may not yet feature in general vernacular, I did not make it up, and not everybody who uses it is doing so solely to confuse you. It is also a term with a definable meaning, but to avoid any risk of begging the question, we won't start there. Instead we will begin in the least controversial way possible, with one final stipulation: there exists at least one band upon whom the label "Emo" may be affixed with utter tautological confidence, and it is Braid.
Hey Mercedes are three-fourths of what used to be Braid, and I assume if I hadn't been such a late-arriving Braid fan I might be better prepared to tell the difference, but certainly a great many bands have gone through far more radical stylistic transformations through internal personnel changes than Damon Atkinson, Todd Bell and Robert Nanna did by effectively trading Chris Broach for Mark Dawursk in the process of breaking up and then forming a new band. Everynight Fire Works doesn't sound exactly like Frame & Canvas, but if Everynight Fire Works said Braid on it instead of Hey Mercedes, I am quite sure that nobody who didn't know the background story would ever have thought to object. I think it's reasonable to propose, therefore, that Hey Mercedes have inherited Braid's position as the standard-bearers for whatever Emo is to be considered.
Here, then, are the primary elements of Emo as currently embodied. The band configuration is the time-honored guitar/guitar/bass/drums quartet, with various players singing. The drumming is dense, forceful and usually fast, mostly centered on kick/snare/crash interplay, with strong penchants for stop-start articulation and brief, stabbing snare-roll fills. The bass fills a fairly conventional rhythm-section role, except that since the kick-drum is firing so much more often than a classic rock arrangement would call for, the slower and steadier bass here tends to be the thing that identifies which subset of the drum-beats constitute the supporting structure, and thus the author of the pace and rhythm instead of just the product of it. Although there are occasionally snippets of what might be designated "lead" guitar, by general rock standards both Hey Mercedes guitarists are playing rhythm guitar. They are also usually both playing at once, so that the bodies of these songs are mostly characterized by borderline-disharmonic chord overlays, in short, cyclical patterns that usually involve long eighth- or sixteenth-note runs. Guitar tones are warmly overdriven, in a medium-sized-amp-turned-way-up way (as opposed to a dynamic-submerging mammoth-stack roar, or an insectival metal buzz). The overall production aesthetic is carefully uncluttered and naturalistic, without much if any identifiable studio processing. The singing, easily the most identifiable component, is melodic, but executed by voices with extremely limited pitch and dynamic ranges, so emphasis is provided by banging up against the upper edge of the available register, and/or pushing from singing into the early or middle stages of shouting. The vocalists are plainly youngish men without appreciable technical training. The overall performance aesthetic aspires, I think, to evoke small rooms from which music is the escape, and tensely ordinary lives for which music is the cathartic release. The lyrics, correspondingly, deliver personal epiphanies and doubts in sketchily intricate surges. I know dozens of Braid songs from their first few measures, and almost none of them by title. This is music engaged in a struggle with itself, not music aiming to sell you anything else, and although on some level almost all performance art is selling you an implied lifestyle, there's a qualitative difference between empathizing, as an audience, with a performer's expression of a personal experience, and being passively marketed at by material with no self-generated purpose. If you want to hear the most instructive demonstration I can think of of Hey Mercedes' midpoint between deliberately alienating avant garde and mass-accessibility concessions, juxtapose Everynight Fire Works with Fugazi's Repeater and Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American. Along just about any axis worth tracing, this triptych moves from Fugazi's confrontationally brutal punk-derived minimalism to Hey Mercedes' smoother, steadier and more introspective rock drive, to Bleed American's diligently honed pop-crossover edges. I can imagine this album carrying people in either direction, luring a fan enticed by Jimmy Eat World's sheen deeper into the roots of the form or helping an old Fugazi straightedge purist become reconciled to the pop potential that Fugazi has always so stubbornly avoided. Whether either of them really wants to cross those lines is a different question, but I want them to want to. There are few things more pathetic than obvious kindred spirits wasting the tiny amount of space and time between them by building walls through it.
Thursday: Full Collapse
You won't find many steps in music smaller than the one between Hey Mercedes and Thursday, so if Emo describes anything it must surely describe both. The clever trick Thursday manage, here on their second album, is pushing Hey Mercedes' redemptive tension both forward and backward at once. In terms of dynamic range and tempo control, Full Collapse is a bit closer to Fugazi, more willing to let the guitars drop out and the sixteenth-notes stutter; in both songwriting and production terms, though, it often inclines towards Bleed American, a little more reverb, a little more studio clean-up around what could have been the ragged edges of the guitars, a little more of the melody seeping into the instrumentation. Thursday are a quintet, with a dedicated singer, and although Geoff Rickly obviously hasn't spent his extra free time taking opera lessons, he does provide the single clearest differentiation between Thursday and Hey Mercedes. Although the singing end of his range is almost identical to Bob Nanna's, the shouting end skews way over into territory even Fugazi rarely visited. At its hoarsest extreme, the hair-raising coda at the end of "Cross Out the Eyes", Geoff careening on after everybody else has stopped playing, his fevered bark could very nearly pass for death-metal. Except in the very last second of the track, as his last yowl dies away, we hear him inhale, suddenly human again, and a metal band, having gone through all the effort to construct a monster, would never have let that instant destroy him again.
Sunday's Best: Poised to Break
If we're bracketing our way outward from Hey Mercedes, and we allow Rickly's voice to peg Thursday to the Fugazi side, a corresponding step pop-ward is Sunday's Best, whose first full album, Poised to Break, came out last year on Braid's old label Polyvinyl. (The band are from LA, although for reasons the credits do not explain, the booklet photos are all of a Boston subway train). Singer Ed Reyes can do the plaintive Braid yelp, too, but his range spreads almost perpendicularly to Rickly's, extending into a confessional intimacy à la Kind of Like Spitting in one direction, and cheerful glibness à la Blink 182 in the other. The most confident songs here, it seems to me, are all aspiring pop-hits. "The Hardest Part" rips off the pealing guitar hook from the Sisters of Mercy's "Temple of Love" and grafts it onto pensive verses that sound uncannily like the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic", but the shouty, galloping choruses yearn unironically for spring break. "Saccharine" tries to balance muted "Lucky Denver Mint"-ish verses against a giddy "We want it and we want it now!" chorus. "Indian Summer" is jangly and unhurried, with hints of both the Replacements and the Connells. Much of "In Beats Like Trains" sounds like what happens when you take away one of Hey Mercedes' two guitars, but for me the song finds its own identity when it stops dead at the beginning of the choruses, Reyes whispers "So angry all she tastes is flame", and instead of the whole band slamming back into gear in earnest there's just a single downbeat they let die away under his next line. The rueful "Looks Like a Mess" is quieter and slower, but the choruses lean into their guitars in Braid fashion, trying to recast that texture by only employing it sparingly. "Winter-Owned" gamely tries to follow the "What's My Age Again?" pattern, but screws up by slowing down at what ought to be the most boisterous moments. "Congratulations" sounds three parts Too Much Joy and one part Sunny Day Real Estate. I don't actually have any idea whether Sunday's Best arrived at these noises by recipe, and Poised to Break predates Bleed American even though I heard them in reverse order, but this is the kind of album I imagine people could and would make if Emo were enough of an established genre for there to be a point to observing its guidelines. And I guess there is, since playing this way got Sunday's Best onto Polyvinyl, who are at least one rung up the ladder out of abject obscurity. And sustaining a record label isn't enough to make a genre, but it helps, and if there's no such genre as Emo, Polyvinyl is a lot harder to understand.
Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American (single)
Jimmy Eat World's own oblique chances at parlaying a modified version of Emo into pop stardom hit a small snag when somebody (them? the label?) decided the post-attack media climate couldn't tolerate the title of Bleed American. Personally, I think "Bleed American" was an unremarkable title before the attacks and a brilliant one afterwards, but nobody asks me. The album has been repackaged as self-titled (a discography-insensitive move since the band already had a self-titled EP), and the single has been retracted and reissued with the song itself renamed "Salt Sweat Sugar". (Somewhere a skittish accountant is praying nobody mounts a germ-bomb attack that involves a disease transmitted from person to person by turning sweat sweet and then waiting for the ensuing public epidemic of licking each other.) The single adds two demos for Bleed American album tracks, "Your House" and "The Authority Song". "The Authority Song" just sounds rougher, but "Your House" amounts to a fairly different version, faster and harder, and although I think the changes for the album incarnation were improvements, before hearing the demo I didn't know the song wasn't always that way. The real reason for domestic audiences to buy this imported single is the non-album b-side "Splash, Turn and Twist", which was the bonus track on the vinyl and Japanese versions of Bleed American. Rhythm-guitar single-mindedness keeps this song from reverting to Hey Mercedes mode, but compared to the crisper, bouncier songs on the album, it's certainly a throwback to something. It seems to me that it also actually has a more engaging chorus than "Bleed American", but nobody asks me about that, either.
Hot Little Rocket: Danish Documentary
If Emo is going to be a genre at some point, we're going to have to convince ourselves it applies to some bands that don't sound so much like Braid and Hey Mercedes. One particularly good candidate, in my opinion, is the Winnipeg band the Weakerthans, and although they didn't put out a new record this year, there is a new one by Calgary's Hot Little Rocket, whose lead singer, Andrew Wedderburn, sounds to me so much like the Weakerthans' John K. Samson that I'm still not entirely convinced there isn't some kind of tax dodge going on. The voice is the key Emo credential in both cases, a thin, youthful yelp somewhere in between Braid and Wolfie. HLR's drumming is much more rattly, the guitar parts rather less ambitious, the bass more assertive. The songwriting seems less focused, as well, and a few too many of the songs get from beginning to end more through persistence than planning. But although "Let's Play in Traffic" and "Denmark" both sound adrift to me, musically, they both have lines ("Maybe you ought to change your name to something that I can't even say" in one, "If you drive far enough in a car small enough, you get airtime on Danish documentary television" in the other) that feel like the beginnings of something much more memorable. The second half of the album is easily worth the whole plastic to me. "Did Yr Ship Come In?" is patently Emo, clattering drums and slashing guitar. "Five by Five" has an Emo-ish vocal delivery, but otherwise buzzes along in a cheerful punk manner. "The Last Thing" is sputtering and uneasy, Wedderburn yelping like a teenage Howard Devoto, and on several parts of the song the players lapse endearingly out of sync. "Maybe You'll Learn to Drive" is spiky and abrasive, more Magazine than Buzzcocks. "Firesale" isn't much of a finale, the bit about furniture's taste in Big Star records notwithstanding, but it doesn't have to be any kind of finale, because the finale is actually unlisted, a fabulous, sprinting punk ode to anachronisms that might be called "Propellers". If this is Emo, it has been simplified, but simplifying is almost always the first variation you try, and usually, as you only realize much later, the most effective.
Sorry About Dresden: The Convenience of Indecision
Record labels come up frequently in Emo conversations, if for no other reason than without media attention labels are one of the more important discovery vectors. Saddle Creek isn't even up to Polyvinyl's level yet, but they do have both Cursive, who sound like an Emo band much of the time, and Bright Eyes, who sound like an Emo band sporadically. They also now have the debut full-length by North Carolinians Sorry About Dresden (whose name has been insensitive for decades, but still nobody asks me), who seem intent on making my old contention that Emo is Buffalo Tom with a migraine sound more reasonable. "A Losing Season" has a handful of Bill Janovitz's vocal mannerisms to go along with an arrangement that swells up as thickly as "Tail Lights Fade". "One Version of Events" might be the bratty punk past Buffalo Tom could have had if they'd made their first album when they were younger, without meeting J. Mascis first. "A Brilliant Ally" is more measured and expansive, closer to the mood of Big Red Letter Day. "It's Morning Again in America", another one for gutless DreamWorks weenies to recall, pulls out bluegrass instruments and suddenly sounds vividly like it comes from Carolina, not Boston. The strained harmonies on "Deadship, Darkship" are a perfect Buffalo Tom detail, but the rest of the song is more complicated, including boomy drums and some distinctly Emo yelling. "Carthage Must Be Destroyed", "It's Not Early Anymore" and "Faulty Math, Tired Horses" is a trio of titles that upstage their songs, for me, but the evasive, menacing "The Happy Couple" is a frayed penultimatum, and the closing track, "A Reunion of Sorts", a spectral piano-and-violin anti-lullaby, ends practically in the middle of a note. If catharsis is one of Emo's guiding motives, this album that ends in suspension, in a way catharsis' polar opposite, might be one of the guy wires we need to help hold a genre up.
Fugazi: The Argument
One of the most pivotal events in the evolution of a sustainable genre, however, is when the feedback loop starts, and the artists who founded or inspired it start to sound more like the versions of themselves that their followers are following. This happened with several key bands during metal's development (most notably Black Sabbath, who basically reached the point of self-parody in about 1989, but one could make a good case that most important metal bands have regressed towards means in exactly this way, with the notable exception of Slayer), and happened with almost a whole generation of prickly art-school post-punk bands that all discovered synth-pop and became New Wave. Fugazi, though, has betrayed no acknowledgement of, much less interest in, Braid's retrofitting of straightedge back into a semblance of rock and roll. Fugazi albums have followed a defiantly apropos-of-nothing trajectory, in fact, that for me reached a culmination of sorts in Instrument, a numbingly tedious documentary that doubled as a stunningly dreadful and pointless album. On film the band seemed to have become the world's grubbiest irretrievably-pretentious assholes, and for me the nominal soundtrack album had all the appeal of a dinner assembled out of remnants swept off the floor of a felt factory and then perfunctorily stewed. But Ian Mackaye still sounded like a smart person in interviews, and Brendan Canty made a record with Lois Maffeo that I liked a lot, so I was willing to give them one more chance.
Parts of The Argument take it. The brittle, menacing "Cashout" is as insidious and vitriolic as anything the band has ever done, a grimly realistic anti-development rant that realizes Living Colour's "Open Letter (To a Landlord)" was just grandstanding. "Full Disclosure" is surging and bleakly beautiful, deadpan rock sections with sighing backing vocals from Bridget Cross and Kathi Wilcox of Panax sharing the track with shrieking noise-rock passages as if broken-car-alarm/Hüsker-Dü-daydream/broken-car-alarm was just as common a song pattern as verse/chorus/verse. "Epic Problem" is like an "Institutionalized" remake in which human language lacks an adequate term for whatever it is the singer wants instead of a Pepsi. The muttering "Life and Limb" sounds a little like rockabilly performed by goth robots, but Cross' quiet harmony humanizes it again. The brash, twitchy "Oh" reminds me that Minor Threat and Gang of Four always had a lot in common, and for once I'm thrilled to discover that my favorite misheard lyric, "I'm pissing on your modems", is what they're singing. The first three minutes of "Argument" are as close as Fugazi has come to writing a quiet pop song.
But what does the rest of this album represent? Ill-advised impulses they are in the process of discarding? Why the minute-long untitled intro of violin purr and background-noise twitter? The "I'm not a citizen" mantra in "The Kill" can't cover up the fact that the bulk of the song consists of the guitarists making random crinkly noises while the rhythm section treads water. "Strangelight" combines the things I hate about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with the things I hate about Jandek. "Ex-Spectator" and "Nightshop" play punk too straightly, the former halfway between Gang of Four and 999, the latter like the Dead Kennedys mocking surf-rock, and I don't trust either of them. And instead of leaving "Argument" well-enough alone, they tack on another minute or so of squawking indulgence. I believe they've finally stopped unraveling, which is a pleasing thought. But nobody is going to base a genre on this. Hey Mercedes' introspection is accessible through empathy; Fugazi's is private logic, and I often feel like I don't know what the argument is, never mind how I should hope it will end.
But from the same sessions that produced the album, they also extracted this three-song EP, and whatever warring impulses I thought marred the album are totally absent from this short, blasting, exuberant miniature. "Furniture" sounds like the band finally gave in to years of fan pleading to write a sequel to "Song #1", and decided to render Perry Farrell's whole career moot while they were at it. "Number 5" is a frantic instrumental that I would happily see become skateboarding's "Wipe Out". "Hello Morning" could be Fugazi's "Helter Skelter". Listening to these two discs back to back doesn't make me any less confused about what they mean, but it does make me more determined to eventually find out.
And after all that, is Emo a genre? It passes a few of my tests, albeit some of them only narrowly. I don't have to see the credits or the label to evaluate a potential Emo song's qualifications, but it does help. I think Emo can be described, to the limited extent that any musical style can be represented in a form other than music: it is what punk becomes when self-doubt replaces anger, and the desire for solemn self-awareness replaces the desire to alienate people for effect; it is a loud masculine-introversion complementary angle to Lilith Fair's quiet feminine introversion; it is hard rock that deliberately undermines its own illusion of power; it is the largest noise you can make in the smallest room wearing your own old clothes; it is the native music of battered navy-blue Ford Econoline cargo vans. It came from Fugazi (and Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen and Buffalo Tom and Sebadoh), and everybody who starts wanting to be famous starts stopping making it. The instructions aren't hard to follow, and there are plenty of bands who have.
But there is no culture. There are no Emo logo fonts, no goverment-issue Emo lyrical tropes, no countries where this is what every boy means when he says he wants to be in a band some day. Satchels and web logs and an earnestness you don't know how to employ, those are the distinguishing marks. It's not enough. It's too hard to explain how Emo isn't pop or punk. It's too hard to imagine even the most regimented record store attempting to isolate an Emo bin. Most damningly, it does not tolerate variation. Emo subdivides only band-by-band. It is a style, but it is not a genre.
But what, you may have been asking from the beginning, does it matter? By the time you reach the level of specificity of an individual band, after all, almost everybody belongs to a style instead of a whole genre, and there are obviously bands who have operated in more limiting styles than Emo for decades. Maybe you still don't exactly know what Emo consists of, but you probably don't really know what distinguishes Viking metal or hard bop or gabba or glitch-hop, either. If you like a style, and you don't have any hang-ups about needing constant change, you would be well within your consumer's rights to keep buying Emo records for the rest of your life. But here's the catch, and why you might choose to let it matter: you won't get the chance. An individual artist can stand still, but the mass of music cannot. Genres persist; styles morph and drift and succumb. The bands who try to sound like the bands who try to sound like Braid will fail, and become something else. If you attempt to conduct an obsession within Emo, you will end up eliminating bands one by one until the obsession collapses upon itself. So spare yourself; don't worry so much about depth this once. Like what you like, and then follow the threads. From Braid to Fugazi to Propagandhi to Too Much Joy; from Braid to Jimmy Eat World to the Connells to Del Amitri; from Cursive to Helmet to Earth Crisis to Hypocrisy; from Bright Eyes to Kind of Like Spitting to Richard Buckner to Richard Shindell; from Braid to Elizabeth Elmore to Juliana Hatfield to Jewel; from a moment of shared dissatisfaction to a plan for what we don't consent to, to a list of concessions we won't demand, to the courage, in whatever medium we are confronted with style rules and genre borders, to ignore them entirely, and to say what we actually believe, for the same reason that we insist on labeling things: so that our matching delusions may seek each other out, in the sea of what might be.