Beer and Pavement

Emo is dead.

Posted in Records by SM on January 30, 2010

OK. So, I’m like eight or so years behind on this declaration, but at least I’m right.

Emo was actually pretty dead before it even started for me1. I came of age in the nineties when we had one, maybe two labels for what we listened to2. I blame electronica and the internets for the proliferation of unneeded and, frankly, unwanted music genres. I heard the term “emo” for the first time in the late nineties to describe anything from Modest Mouse to Jawbreaker to Sunny Day Real Estate3. I really didn’t care for the term as it simply divided up my record collection even more. Emo meant very little to me.

It meant even less when it hit MTV. Every other band was labeled as “emo” whether they were or not, sort of like what they did to grunge or hardcore back in the day4. I watched and cringed as it spiraled from a somewhat annoying musical aesthetic to a downright obnoxious fashion trend found on the racks at Hot Topic.

Anyway, one of the originators from the emo scene was Chicagoan post-rock outfit Joan of Arc5. They were as emo-tional as the next band, but they were way more arty and esoteric than those emos with stars in their eyes. They screamed and whispered, freaked out and quietly minimalized the effect, but somehow they pulled together coherent albums from bits and pieces of indie rock genius. Their songs may not have been complete, but their albums felt as album-like as anything anyone else has released in the last 15 years.

That said, Joan of Arc Presents: Don’t Mind Control is a cacophony of an album not likely to help you understand the conundrum that is Joan of Arc or the idea of emo any more than when you started reading this post. The brothers Kinsella enlisted the help of like 1036 Chicago musicians who have previously played in JoA to help them fill two pieces of circular vinyl with whatever they had lying around to make one of the more interesting compilations I’ve heard in a while7. The difference here is that it’s a select group of bands connected to one band, none of them very well-known outside of this circle.

Thankfully, this is not an emo record. If this is what emo could have become, I would like emo. Of course, this is not emo, so I still don’t like that. The album is good though. It’s as pleasant a surprise as the engrossing JoA project Presents Guitar Duets. Kinsellas hang with some cool and very talented musicians for reals. The gambit of possibilities are all here as folks play some garage rock, ambient, math rock, white boy soul, etc.

New8 kids on the dead emo block are Los Campesinos! with their scream/sing-songy, boy/girl, pop manifestos of sexuality and longing for some American rock ‘n roll. At first listen, one might not hear the emo on their sleeves, but as the record plays, you pick up on sudden start/stop action and some pretty gut-wrenching vocal performances. The largest difference between Los Campesinos! and most traditional emo bands is that they have a girl. That and one can tell by their lyrics that they may very well have had sex with one or more girls9. To boot, the instrumentation is large, varied, and intense.

This music is what emo would sound like with horns, a sense of humor, and some pop sensibilities. Emo could have evolved into Los Campesinos!, but it didn’t. They are certainly no emo band, but you can hear the connection. Either way, their latest LP Romance Is Boring is a fantastically big record, worthy of the path blazed by labelmates Broken Social Scene and Stars.

When a traditional band of a genre and youngin of similar ilk release records on the same day that do nothing but obliterate said genre, that genre is dead. Emo is dead. I don’t care how late I am with this declaration, but it’s dead as dead. No more wisps of jet-black hair over a distraught teenager’s right eye will be tolerated. No more screams over guitar anthems about the girl who left you at the mall. Nope. It’s time to move on. Joan of Arc and Los Campesinos! have. Won’t you join them?

1OK. Really, emo was never a viable genre and certainly hasn’t been around for a long, long time. I’m using it as my only way to connect these two seemingly different albums for a review. I realize that this is lame, but I wanted to write a blog post about the records that came in the mail and this is all I could think of.
2Alternative was the label for the early 90’s, but that became rather lame pretty quick. “Alternative to what?” The other label is the one I use today: indie. It’s maybe worse than alternative, but it has always sounded cooler and less corporate than alternative. I also realize that this also fails to mention math rock, post rock, alt.country, lo-fi, etc., etc. Just let me make my point.
3The funny thing is that Sunny Day Real Estate is generally considered the godfather of emo…That is until emo became not-cool. Since emo’s demise, no one ever mentions Sunny Day Real Estate as an emo band, but that’s what they were. There were probably the emo band.
4Sonic Youth is a perfect illustration of both of these misnomers. In the eighties, they were called a hardcore band. When grunge rolled around, they were lumped in with that lot due to their connections to Nirvana and Mudhoney. Sonic Youth is as much a hardcore or grunge band as they are an emo band.
5Actually, Joan of Arc rose from the ashes of emo-originators Cap’n Jazz. The other band that developed from Cap’n Jazz was The Promise Ring, an emo-trailblazer for sure.
6The number listed on the album’s packaging claims 41. They also included a poster of all the players. I didn’t count them, but I bet it’s closer to 41 than 103.
7Well, since last year’s brilliant Dark Was the Night was released. That was a great record.
8Not really that new.
9This is not to say that virginity means that they are not manly enough for more aggressive forms of music or that not having girlfriend makes them a lesser life form. What I’m getting at here is that emo lyrics often address the absence of a girl in the singer’s life. Just sayin’.