Emotional Rescue

Sad Emo-Punk Boys Pull on Strings, Unravel Sweaters, Shiver ’Til Spring

"Don't be a pussy all your life," Josh Caterer admonished in 1998, shortly before extinguishing Chicago's Smoking Popes. Crooned in a Morrissey swoon, the words were either role-play or self-reproach—this charming man was alluding to both the old in-out and ins and outs of love. But it was a sluice of existential undercurrents that led Caterer to becoming born-again, breaking up the boys, and dedicating the ditty "I Know You Love Me" to Jesus; externalization of internal conflict necessarily ended his emo band. The Popes' Live disc (Double Zero), too-long songs and overall overkill aside, counts in a cluster of recent and imminent records by postpunks who would probably oppose the emo-short-for-emotional label (they're a sensitive bunch—and no one wants to be called a pussy). But each wrings philosophical dissatisfaction from introspection, and shares a sound supplanting the rage of their D.C. hardcore precursors with hurt and, often, heart—sparks leaping from crossed wires of fear and wonder.

Rites of Spring are commonly and correctly credited with the mid-'80s hardcore thaw and rebirth. They rolled the stone away, and over a vaguely menacing, vaguely circusy shard of crystal riff, choked-up main martyr Guy Picciotto seemed to moan about glass (not "the past") caught in his throat. The guy went on to form Fugazi with I'll-just-have-ginger-ale-thanks Ian MacKaye, who himself had earlier forged the just-say-no-arrrgggghh! HC straight-edge scene fronting Minor Threat and proto-emo Embrace. As the kids' rhetoric retreated from stand-offish threats (however minor) to fetal-position embraces, the straight-punk chords splintered into sticks sharpened at both ends: Dexterous hands refracted raw power to articulate complexity. Beyond mere mastery of the minor scale was the seismic sounding out of black sea bottoms through dynamic shifts.

Shock waves soon spread on land, and by the time of grunge's blowup and pop-punk's day-after breakthrough, emo nearly broke—Billie Joe Armstrong took the Smoking Popes on tour, and East Bay trio Jawbreaker opened for Nirvana. Jawbreaker's 1995 big-label debut, Dear You, neatly folds its deeply personal epistolary purpose into dramatic fist-fight mood swings. Its best song, "Accident Prone," is also on Live 4/30/96(Blackball), recorded just before Jawbreaker's dissolution and released last winter. "I cut in line, I bled to death. I got to you, there was nothing left," Blake Schwarzenbach . . . I want to say barks, but really he maintains a mellifluous monotone: crushed velvet. Anyway, the track's three tiers ascend and recess and finally collapse into a ramp that launches the jet-black denouement. Producer Rob Cavallo, who also helmed Green Day's masterwork, Insomniac, must've stayed up all night (while Blake "couldn't sleep to save [his] life").

Modest Mouse's major-label move earlier this year took them from the shed next to main mouse Isaac Brock's mother's trailer in Washington State to a glass mansion where the creaks in the M.C. Escher escalators sound like processed Rites of Spring guitars extrapolated to infinity, plus a bit of the old ultra-violins. Meanwhile, if Modest Mouse stripped and shellacked emo's undergirding, the Dismemberment Plan have reassembled its steel beams in three dimensions. When left-coast emo-pop-punk as formulated by Samiam and Jawbreaker flipped back to the nation's capital, the Plan gang-of-foured up on it, also answering the Buzzcocks' singular, syncopated inquiry "Why Can't I Touch It?" with a rhythm section as supercollider. Discovering elementary particles is like finding happiness: "hard work, and harder every day." Heartstring theory.

Jawbreaker Schwarzenbach moved on, to New York and a new group, Jets to Brazil, but on that band's latest, Four Cornered Night(Jade Tree), he admits, "If it takes a broken heart, just roll the tape—'cause nothing's changed." Maybe the story remains the same, but the sound's changed, even from the extradition-escapers' debut, Orange Rhyming Dictionary(I have one, too—it's blue!). The new black-box recording spoofs emo's wordplay ("You're Having the Time of My Life") and sentiment (monster ballad "All Things Good and Nice"); the gallows humor now hangs from strings and pretty piano. Not that we weren't already smirking when Guy Picciotto cried, "Now I started crying—Why are you not crying?" or Isaac Brock heard hell had frozen over and deadpanned, "I got a phone call from the Lord sayin', 'Hey boy, git a sweater. Right now.' "

Wit, intentional or, uh, otherwise, unclogged manifold methods from the about-to-burst-steampipe that crusty punks chose as their conduit for communication: self-reflection, and an assertion of the absurd, to name two. San Diego duo Pinback's new groovy-in-both-senses EP, Some Voices(Tree), explicitly acknowledges this mindset: "Why do I assume these things are bad? Why must all the pretty things seem so sad?" Lest the pretty things sound boring (what lesser emo acts confuse with plaintive), the two boys layer dramatic-yet-fragile sounds like so many multicolored tissues—slowed, spiraling sirens, hiccuping metronomes, folk-guitar fragments, broken beats, and vocals like Kleenex being tugged from a box. Meanwhile, Scott Sherpe, singer for Paris, Texas, inflects like he's from Manchester, England, though his band's from Madison, Wisconsin. Brazilliant! (Polyvinyl) is relatively bright, as its not so brightly conceived title suggests. "Dress Stress" sounds pre-prom, 16-year-old nervous, recalling the old joke about getting a sunroof in your first car for the extra leg room.

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