“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.
I’d give Paris, Texas and even better labelmates Sunday’s Best props for their pop corniness, except alt.radio sap is no longer so sweet; it somehow slipped into a knot. The Nirvana-Green Day-Hanson-‘N Sync string makes sense; “Bye Bye Bye” is pop-punk like “Longview.” But when major labels slashed rosters and emo spotted its shadow—going back underground with Cobain—psychodrama got airplay, as always. Big scary DMX and Limp Bizkit were released mad from boys-club kennels and represent (though only one of ’em sucks—guess who?) anger turned outward. Blink 182 and the Deftones get up on your grille, but with a half-baked inward-anger emo influence (listen to Blink’s nonhits, really). “You are so Sisyphus—just pushing on your boulder,” Sunday’s Best man Edward Reyes complains.
Sunny Day Real Estate would prefer, characteristically, to let The Rising Tide (Time Bomb) do the heavy lifting. Sunny Day’s Siamese wet dream is “One”; the threesome were emo’s great pasty-white hopes (circa ’94) precisely because they sounded more alt. than anything. Which means the Big Rock tunes here rule, and all else mostly rots. Boston’s Karate know something about rot: “Violence is so slow, and the patience will do us in.” But later: “Your patience is a simple way to share with me your time.” Unsolved (Southern) investigates the innocuous details of alienation and the sublimation of the pretty-prosaic into melancholy (“I can tell by the way the rain hits the glass that it wants to be cold. It wants to be snow.”) Geoff Farina dabs and dribbles his jazz chords judiciously enough that the Fender-four-string-and-stripped-down-tub-set hopscotch is subtly colored by watercolor waterworks. “Sever” is as much Al Green as Miles (who’s later mentioned), full of r&b fire and this-is-the-dance-floor-not-killing-floor hope for, at least, getting back together.
Emo’s experimental essence links Karate’s meditations with Joan of Arc’s hush; The Gap (Jade Tree), one logically assumes, is supposed to be between what’s heard and what can’t be. But JOA’s (guitarist and guru Tim Kinsellas’s, really) slogan’s always been “Everybody in Irony!”—as in the ads for their latest disc’s dept. store namesake (visually copied on the cover). “John Cassavetes, Assata Shakur, and Guy Debord Walk Into a Bar . . . ” is its own song’s punch line. But the real jest is that some of the pro-tooled-on, spliced-and-diced mope-folk stumbles onto beauty, shards of snowflake crystals from rain. At the Drive-In’s Cedric Bixler responds: “The guillotine laughs again.” He’s not kidding—ATDI are unintentionally funny types. Relationship of Command (Grand Royal) delineates harmful hierarchy even as the El Paso, Texas, fivesome gets top billing from no less than hip-to-be-square Rolling Stone—after all, nowadays an angry veneer equals hard-rock radio polish. Buzzsaw-through-corrugated-steel guitars draw and quarter song structures, jumpy drums smash like boulders through plate glass, and Bixler exudes something like PCP-induced paranoia before begging to be forgiven, buzzsaws turning into scalpels, rhythmic tides buoying the rock in his stomach. And they’ve got two curly ‘fros for Guy Picciotto’s straight-with-split-ends one.
The Faint, who also have nice hair, pick up ladies in the Blank-Wave Arcade (Saddle Creek—outta Omaha); Richard Hell, new wave, and retro-futuristic fun houses are kissing cousins here. “Sex Is Personal,” “Worked Up So Sexual,” and “Casual Sex” (“Is it irrational? Yes!”) launch obscene bass into twin-synth sleaze into drunk-goggle drum machinery, like Octant meets Pulp meets Depeche Mode via “The Bad Touch.” Insincere? Ozzy Osbourne’s elucidation of representation applies equally to all characters who get personal (if not sexual): “It’s just a theatrical role I enjoy, giving people enjoyment.” But, like Ozzy, emo often asks one to read between blurred lines. Witness the Faint’s fellow Nebraskans Cursive’s embarrassing press release for Domestica (Saddle Creek), which giddily recounts lead calligrapher Tim Kasher’s divorce in terms of a song-fulfilling prophesy (also probably why I spied a rusted tour van with HC stickers and one that said “Quit Crying emo QUEER”). But what great songs! More traditional than most of their above-named contemporaries, Cursive observe the Sabbath in late Jawbreaker but mike tiny voices set against one another in rumbles, squeals, and splashes, tripping out of unison. And Kasher is not divorced from the fabricated truths of the subgenre or its critics. “Write some sad song about me,” he sasses, the way his ex-wife must’ve (oops). “Get on that cross, that’s all you’re good for.”