Tag Archives: Chris Carrabba

Nothing Sounds Good If You’re Andy Greenwald

This is why I cannot respect Andy Greenwald’s opinion on emo:

andygreenwald

Obviously, taste is taste. Opinion, opinion.

But if this man is the guy who’s supposed to be the emo know-it-all (read: self-created title/Spin created title), I’m not buying it. The guy doesn’t seem to understand the impulse that emo acts have towards evolution, probably because the very thesis of Nothing Feels Good denies this concept.

He denied Sunny Day any post-Diary existence in his book, cramming much of their timeline into a brief paragraph and noting their later stuff for its prog leanings versus any relationship to emo.

He seemed happier to call The Promise Ring’s Wood/Water “joyless” than express the band’s need to let their music grow, saying when they performed it live opening for Jimmy Eat World, “When Davey strummed his acoustic guitar to thousands of eager teenagers at a sold-out Roseland Ballroom in New York City, he was greeted with implacable silence, the sight of an entire generation of music fans regarding him like they had just caught their dad moshing” (NFG, p 125). Opinions abound about Wood/Water, but Greenwald was more than elated to include this one show as evidence that TPR went “dad rock” and left emo, when in fact their new music retained much of the spirit of earlier albums, but held a newfound sense of wonder and exploration into non three-chord territory. And why did the kids greet the band with silence? How many big, sold-out shows did you go to for the opening act? It’s commonplace for fans at big ballroom/arena shows not to know a damn thing about an opener: when they’re playing music like what’s on Wood/Water, what’s a more appropriate response than simply watching in silence? (Go to an acoustic show where you don’t know the musician and see how you react).

Greenwald wrote this about Chris Carrabba:

“And I think: in some small way, it’s already past him. Dashboard Confessional was an emo moment, not an emo career. Carrabba may have many more years and songs ahead of him, but those frustrated, tormented ballads will live on. His worst moments may well outlive his best moments. He has pushed the punk/emo model as far as it can go…” (p 265)

He wrote that just before A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar came out, before Carrabba really broke emo into the mainstream, remade “Hands Down” into a genuine hit and a car commercial-worthy song, and became a Billboard-topping recording artist at number 2. And then again in 2006 at number 2. And then again in 2007 at number 18. And all performing music that, gasp, was in the exact same vein as before.

Greenwald got all that dead wrong, and he’s dead wrong about Brand New. Considering Greenwald is speaking for what is believed to be the voice of emo for critics, for some reason his voice holds some water, even after emo continued to conquer the Billboard charts in ways he hadn’t properly predicted when he wrote Nothing Feels Good. His opinion is his opinion, but to say that Brand New hasn’t written any new material as an “emo conessuire” all while practically every other critic has hailed the band’s last two releases, and fans have pushed their music to the top of the Billboard charts (number 6 just today). Something just doesn’t add up. Considering Greenwald considers himself the “voice of emo” and yet he cannot seem to fathom why or how or that Brand New could write their new material is plain laughable. I’m all for dissenting opinions, but I find his just kind of ridiculous.

Brand New – “Gasoline”:

Just Short…

So, for folks who’ve been following along in this blog, I submitted a proposal to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series to write a book about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good. Series editor David Barker emailed everyone who submitted a proposal today concerning those he picked to make it to the shortlist, the final compilation short of the 20 or so that Continuum will select to be turned into fully-fleshed out books (you can check out the shortlist). Unfortunately, my proposal wasn’t chosen for this list, for simple space reasons on the shortlist (I emailed David to find out specifics of why my proposal was turned down and it turns out it was one of a handful that barely missed the cut). In any case, I really enjoyed writing this proposal and speaking to those involved in creating the album about the process of writing a book on Nothing Feels Good. Rather than let it go to waste, I’ve decided to post my proposal here, below, for your enjoyment, complete with some multimedia elements that could not have been included in what was submitted to 33 1/3, but are helpful illustrators nonetheless. Enjoy it… and if anyone has any interest in further pursuing this project with me in some other forum, please feel free to contact me:

33 1/3 Book Proposal:

The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good

Guilty pleasures tend to rear their heads in an interview with music’s next big thing. So when a VBS TV correspondent was chatting it up with No Age, the uber-hip and critically acclaimed experimental punk duo from L.A., singer/drummer Dean Spunt interrupted guitarist Randy Randall’s ruminations on MC Hammer with a shocking revelation:

“I used to like The Promise Ring.”
Beat.
“Yeah, so did I,” replied the stylish interviewer.
The three guys proceeded to awkwardly chuckle and talk over each other until the interviewer brought up his stunning thought:
“Is it really at the point where MC Hammer is less embarrassing than The Promise Ring?”

Great question. And not unlike one I ask myself just about every time I crank up my stereo while playing 30 Degrees Everywhere or Wood/Water. What’s so embarrassing about The Promise Ring? It could be the band’s association with emo, the now-repugnant term for a post-hardcore genre that’s all but taken over the Billboard charts. It was the release of 1997’s Nothing Feels Good that the four “averages Joes” that made up The Promise Ring were presented with the title of poster boys of a genre once thought to be six feet under. The rest of the trials and tribulations of emo remain embedded in our international conscience thanks to numerous pop-punk acts influenced by The Promise Ring. Say what you will about your Fall Out Boys, My Chemical Romances, Dashboard Confessionals, Cute Is What We Aim Fors, Thrices, Taking Back Sundays, Panic! at the Discos, Saves the Days, Coheed & Cambrias, Alexisonfires, New Found Glorys, and Underoaths; when push comes to shove, most of these bands don’t come close to the potent passion, intelligence, and vibrancy of The Promise Ring and their sophomore effort, Nothing Feels Good.

Embarrassment aside, Spunt should have nothing to be ashamed of for name-dropping The Promise Ring as a band that’s clearly influenced the critically-lauded musician. The Promise Ring’s back catalog is filled with nugget and gems of post-hardcore-meets-pop bliss, and much like when No Age’s current work combining elements of pop with hardcore, the results are fantastic. Nothing Feels Good is The Promise Ring’s best and most succinct work, an anthemic, passionate burst of homegrown pop-punk, filtered through tales of existential crises, cross-country road trips, and references to modern Americana. The hooks are sharp, the lyrics poignant, and the performance still as unbelievably urgent as the day the original tapes were mastered over a decade ago.

Part of what’s so phenomenal about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good is the impact the album had when it hit record stores in the fall of 1997. Neatly-packaged emo-pop amalgams are a dime a dozen these days, but there was nothing “neat” about Nothing Feels Good when it was released. Although the album’s music has the sugary-sweet taste of bubblegum pop that numerous artists today no doubt want to tap into, the band’s sound subverts the pretenses of slick pop on Nothing Feels Good with quick bursts of hardcore-influenced instrumentation that seem intent on spilling out of each track marking and into the life of the listener. To mis-quote The Promise Ring, it displays a sense that the band had of having no defined sense or absolute understanding of the world around them, but simply enjoying the view. Life’s peculiarities, ambiguities, and “big questions” aren’t shunned, but brought to the surface with keen observation. In frontman Davey von Bohlen’s hands and sweetly contorted lisp – a performance factor that only makes the music on Nothing Feels Good sound an umpteenth more sincere – The Promise Ring made an album of daring proportions and a musical document to the banalities, every day norms, and even celebrations of human existence not heard since Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Nothing Feels Good cover

Nothing Feels Good cover

Part of the story behind Nothing Feels Good is known, but little of it has a concentrated focus on the actual album or the band behind it. Beyond the musical content, Nothing Feels Good was a smashing success. For Jade Tree – The Promise Ring’s label – it meant financial stability, as the album surpassed their modest predictions and allowed the company to flourish, something of a miracle in the years following the alternative music buyout which had left many independent record labels for dead. For the national emo scene – a ragtag, ambiguous assemblage of independent artists around the U.S. – it legitimized their work in the face of the post-grunge milieu that ruled the radio waves and crippled mainstream creativity. For the members of The Promise Ring, it meant video premiers on MTV, critical acclamation, a position as one of the most creative bands operating in America’s underground music scene, and, much later, a place in cult-music lore for having inspired countless musicians to take emo (or whatever genre they called their own) in new and distinctly personal directions.

Although we’re still feeling the impact of Nothing Feels Good today, the known-narrative of the album’s creation is bare. What inspired the dozen songs on the album, and what transpired in their evolution from muddled creative concept into full-blown pop gold? What about the practices that hammered out the hooks, high-hats, and lo-fi hits in The Promise Ring’s oeuvre? What about the guys behind the instruments, their day-to-day existences and thoughts that no doubt burrowed their way into the band’s sophomore album? What were the moments before, during, and after 1997 that made Nothing Feels Good stand out from a mass of other bands and recordings that make up emo’s so-called second wave? What about each member’s upbringing, their lives in the Milwaukee area, relationships with friends, family, and significant-others? What made four young men band together to form The Promise Ring and create such a phenomenal release as heard in Nothing Feels Good?

These are the pivotal questions I’m seeking to answer with my book on The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good for Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series. Here is an album and a band who’s impact on music today in innumerable. Part of the unknown quality of The Promise Ring’s importance is due to the fact that these deep-seated questions have never been asked – or rather, published – on such a large-scale forum. Considering the fans that the band amassed since forming in 1995, a list that no doubt has been growing with every article, band, or cultural critic name-checking the quartet as one of indie rock’s great cult bands, The Promise Ring are more than due for their proper place in the rock narrative limelight. And the 33 1/3 series is the place I would like to bring the tale of The Promise Ring’s best album.

For this project, I plan on writing the kind of book that exemplifies the credence imbued in Nothing Feels Good. My model for this manuscript isn’t confined to the band-nostalgically-reminiscing-on-a-piece-of-the-past-type writing you may see in a lot of oral histories or straightforward music books out there. Certainly my work will represent the mold that previous 33 1/3 books have upheld, but I’m also inspired by the writing styles of the great new journalists and literary non-fiction pieces. In essence, I’m looking to produce a book that lives, breathes, eats, speaks, and plays music the way that the members of The Promise Ring did when they made Nothing Feels Good. I want to make someone who’s never heard the album feel as though they’ve been following the band since Day One, that they’re back in 1997 and sprinting to the record store in order to merely touch an album by a band that has touched them. Essentially, I want to write a book about The Promise Ring in the same way the band created their music.

My main informants for this project will be the members of The Promise Ring; as I want to get into their heads and extract information about their environment, attitudes, and memories, they will be my go-to source for the book. I’ve been in touch with Promise Ring singer/guitarist Davey von Bohlen for well over a year, having recruited his current band (Maritime) for a concert and Davey himself for a previous writing project. I have been corresponding with von Bohlen about this proposal for well over a month, and he has given this project his supportive and enthusiastic seal of approval, and has gotten me in touch with the other members of The Promise Ring. At the moment that I’ve submitted this proposal, I’ve been in touch with two other Promise Ring members, Jason Gnewikow (guitar) and Dan Didier (drums), and both are quite enthusiastic about the project. I plan on having extensive interviews with these three members, as well as the two bass players who played in The Promise Ring during their Nothing Feels Good era, Scott Schoenbeck and Scott Beschta.

Although interviews with the members of The Promise Ring will constitute a large portion of my research, I plan on culling information from as many sources as possible in order to make the narrative more vibrant and colorful. I plan on soliciting interviews with not only those closely associated to the band, but also their detractors and adoring fans. Alongside a list that includes friends and family, I plan on speaking to Tim Owen and Darren Walters (Jade Tree owners), J. Robbins (Nothing Feels Good producer), Stuart Sikes (Nothing Feels Good engineer), Jessica Hopper (former publicist), Tim Edwards (former booking agent), Josh Modell (creator of Milk Magazine and close friend), along with musicians who’ve worked with, influenced, or been influenced by The Promise Ring, including Tim and Mike Kinsella (Cap’n Jazz), Jim Adkins (Jimmy Eat World), Bob Nanna (Braid), Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate), Matthew Pryor (The Get Up Kids), Eric Richter (Christie Front Drive), Eric Axelson (The Dismemberment Plan/Maritime), Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional), Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), Chris Simpson (Mineral), Chris Conley (Saves the Day), Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi), and countless others for their involvement in this project. Although not everyone listed is guaranteed to be involved, with my personal connections to some of the people previously listed and with the help from the former Promise Ring members, I will have an enormous number of people contributing to the book’s dialog.

Interviews aside, I plan on digging through swaths of information to aide in the creation of the book. Included will be the usual sources of information; articles on the band, reviews of their albums, zines, blogs, and any other published work that would enhance the narrative. But, I plan to go beyond those musings as well. I will approach the band members to see if I could use personal paraphernalia to help me spin a more personal yarn. This would include anything from old photographs, letters, journal entries, lyric sheets, music sheets, and even doodles scratched into scraps of paper they’ve kept through the years. I will also approach the narrative from the direction of an informed anthropologist by researching the socio-economic background of The Promise Ring’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Through census information, background information on area high school and college education systems, and the resources for youth in Wisconsin that was available at the same time Nothing Feels Good was in the making, I hope to gain a better sense of The Promise Ring’s background. I’ll also dig up information on American society’s views of Wisconsin and the Mid West and how that was reflected in the actions of those who lived there. It may seem onerous, but the brief scene in Wayne’s World that takes place in Milwaukee speaks volumes about the international perception of the place where The Promise Ring was formed. Throughout all of this, I hope to get a sense of why The Promise Ring did what they did, but from an entirely different perspective than the usual interview could warrant.

What I hope to accomplish after 15 months of research and writing is a work that can live up to how I felt after first popping Nothing Feels Good on the stereo, and something that will be as powerful as each subsequent listen to that album. My work may lack the aural quality of the album, but I hope it will be able to bring an entirely new sense of being to Nothing Feels Good, and one that will only boost the listening experience of longtime Promise Ring enthusiasts and bring some new fans to the album as well.

Dear Science, I’ve Made a Mixtape for You

After a bit of a delay, I finally present to you my review for TV on the Radio’s Dear Science,. But I’ve decided to offer up something entirely different in the way of reviews by focusing on the one pitfall of music critique I cannot stand yet find myself using at times: comparison. It’s quite often too easy to draw comparisons to well-known music in the past to describe something unheard of in the present. When used sparingly, it can work well, but used to often and it just comes across as cheap. But I’ve decided to tackle this situation head on by combining it with the underlining theme of this blog; I will compare each track of Dear Science, with an emo song that shares some similar quality of its structure (lyrics, instrumentals, etc). It should have quite an odd result, but hopefully it will allow someone out there to either reconsider some song or band they passed over due to a label (emo) or consider a new song they might stubbornly dismiss just because. So, without further ado, here goes:

*”Halfway Home” = The Promise Ring – “Why Did We Ever Meet”

Both of these songs exercise a certain sense of juxtaposition by combining uplifting instrumentation with relatively dark lyrics about the death of/confusing state of a relationship. And with both singers (Tunde Adebimpe of TVOTR and Davey von Bohlen of TPR) taking on the between-lyrics vocal melodies of “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” (“Halfway Home”) and “do-do-do-do do-do-do” (“Why Did We Ever Meet”), it stretches those juxtapositions to pop power’s upper reaches.

*”Crying” = Egg Hunt – “We All Fall Down”

“Crying” details the trials and tribulations that people go through in life (drug abuse, disaster, biblical disasters, the works) and how they face those problems, often taken in the guise of releasing one’s emotions with crying. Egg Hunt, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s post-Minor Threat studio project, crafted their sound in a similar light to what TV on the Radio do with “Crying”; that is, combine the gamut of pop influences into a powerful musical force. “We All Fall Down” does that, discussing the potential pain one endures in attempting to accomplish things and get somewhere in life, and all with a bit of funk that’s heavily imbued in “Crying.”

Unfortunately, no video/music presentation for this one – check the Dischord site.

*”Dancing Choose” = Atmosphere – “National Disgrace”

And they said emo-rap was weird. Here, TVOTR run into new territory as Tunde’s lyrics are delivered with the kind of spit-fire fury and speed of most hip-hop. With lyrics that portray an odd underbelly of society, it hearkens to Atmosphere, who’s place in the emo spectrum was one of many kinks in the genre’s definition but one that added some fluidity and originality to its constraints, and “National Disgrace.” Fueled with an overwhelming sense of anger towards America’s vapid consumer culture, “National Disgrace” recalls the same fiery passion of “Dancing Choose” by distancing the creator from the negative aspects of a culture they’ve become a part of.

*”Stork and Owl” = Cap’n Jazz – “Oh Messy Life”

TVOTR’s “Stork and Owl” is a dazzling and affecting start and stop song a la’ “I Was a Lover,” with an electronically-plastered back-beat and muddled lyrics about life through the eyes of a couple of animals. “Oh Messy Life” is a brash interpretation of life that’s no less affecting, with lyrical outbursts that turn into-run on rants similar to the section of “Stork and Owl” when Tunde delivers “it goes it goes it goes it goes.” It’s all in the stories of other individuals, and the quick snapshots seem to say a lot about life without ever pointing anything out in a cliched manner.

*”Golden Age” = Dashboard Confessional – “Hands Down”

For those who’s only math involves the equation of “punk + crying = Dashboard”, “Hands Down” is perhaps the happiest song in Chris Carrabba’s canon. It’s simple, catchy, carefree, and yes, happy. It’s also easily one of Dashboard’s best-known songs. And here comes “Golden Age,” a simple, catchy, carefree, and happy song by TV on the Radio, a band that’s certainly known for addressing the negative undercurrents of society. And “Golden Age” looks poised to be one of TVOTR’s best-known songs, hands down.

*”Family Tree” = The Get Up Kids – “I’ll Catch You”

Here are a couple of songs that are almost a departure from these bands’ passionate, bombastic rock sound, but also happen to be just as affective as any ear-bursting blast (if not more) and more haunting than most other tracks. “I’ll Catch You” trades in The Get Up Kids’ usual pop-punk persuasion for a near-ballad, a piano-based ditty that flat-out addresses romantic love, while staying true to the band’s punk parallels with fits of guitar squeal. “Family Tree” is just as moving, letting TVOTR’s sea of feedback settle to reveal an affecting vocal performance similar to Desperate Youth Bloodthirsty Babes‘ “Ambulance.” And it’s all about love, but not without TVOTR’s nom ‘de artiste, with the symbols of death and rapture close behind.

*”Red Dress” = Fugazi – “Nice New Outfit”

Here are two songs that discuss the nadir of society’s underbelly – war – with the symbol of clothing. TVOTR note society’s ability to ignore war, slavery, and pain with the line “go ahead put your red dress on,” while Fugazi comment how that “nice new outfit” with its “straight clean lines” was woven with fabric made of blood and war in foreign countries. And all over a jittery, repeated guitar squeal.

*”Love Dog” = The Appleseed Cast – “Hanging Marionette”

These are two slowly paced songs that seem to send shock waves with each painstakingly sung chorus (or lyrical break) and attain something of a similar melody. Their lyrical qualities can be seen as different sections of a long narrative. In “Hanging Marrionette,” the narrator is stricken by the loss and complete absence of someone near and dear, while light years later that person has transformed into a lonely little “Love Dog,” completely lost to the world.

*”Shout Me Out” = Brand New – “The Archers Bows Have Broken”

TVOTR’s “Shout Me Out” has the aesthetic ideal of casting off the ails of old, facing your problems, and defiantly shouting in their face, all to the tune of an electronically-inclined dance beat. “The Archers Bows Have Broken” is a song that builds and rises, with the characters/band overcoming the death of the old world and facing whatever adversity they had built in their minds with a defiant shout. And man are they a couple of victoriously-charged songs.

*”DLZ” = Jawbreaker – “Boxcar”

“DLZ” is an ambiguous indictment of hipsters/trend-chasers/whatever you want to call them, and the general “mess” they make of things. But when it comes down to it, there’s a certain amount of disconnect between their actions and the ideal they like to say they play out. So when Tunde shouts at the end, “this is beginning to feel like the dawn of the loser forever,” is he eulogizing the 90s punk ideal of loser that Jawbreaker was defending against posers over a decade ago in “Boxcar”? That just may be – both groups seem to notice how the out-crowd has been stifling with too many in-crowd seeking individuals, and are taking their frustration of their culture to the front-line, backed by some pop-friendly panache.

*”Lover’s Day” = Pedro the Lion – “Rapture”

Now, here are two songs about one of the three tenants of rock ‘n’ roll – sex. And while they have divergent views on the issue – TVOTR discuss it in positive terms, while Pedro’s take has a certain element of guilt as the song’s characters are having an affair – the ravenous description of “love making” ties the two together. TVOTR’s celebration of the act (“Yes of course there are miracles/a lover that love’s is one”) eventually meets the orgiastic height of Pedro’s heaven’s gates-as-sex narrative (“Oh my sweet rapture/I hear Jesus calling me home”).

And what do I think of Dear Science,? Well, I think it’s clear that I’ve always been a fan of the band. And this has just been another wonderful treat from a group that I feel like I’ve grown with. Simply put, one of the best of the year.

Not Another Post About Movies

I think “dumbfounded” would be the best way to described how I felt after watching this trailer:

Yep.

Somewhere along the line, I guess this had to happen. David Zucker, the man responsible for bringing absurdity-through-seriousness in the comedic splash that is Airplane is also one of the men responsible for the recent rash of (enter genre name here) movies. You know the ones. Date Movie. Epic Movie. Superhero Movie. And what looks to be the worst yet, (it’s sure to be a) Disaster Movie. Somewhere along the line, Zucker found the idea to restart his brand of craming every humorous idea possible in a solid minute of film when he took over the Scary Movie franchise at number 3.

David Zucker

David Zucker

And now he’s back. But is it to seek vengeance or add to the pain? It’s really a toss up. From the trailer, An American Carol could actually go either way. Sure, if you hold it to any standard, the movie is sure to be doomed. But, unlike the relentless “Movie” movies that have been churned out, Zucker wrote and directed this baby; aside from his role as producer for Superhero Movie, all the other films didn’t bare any of his trademark brand of humor – just the residue of his influence. And Zucker no doubt pulled out all the stops for this one with a cast that would never touch Epic Movie with a ten-foot pole; Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Kevin Sorbo, Leslie Nielsen (alright, he has done some terrible stuff, but he’s Zucker’s go-to guy) all star, and there’s even a cameo from Bill O’Rielly. What’s more, An American Carol seems to offer at least some semblance of a conversation on society rather than a pool of tossed out fifth-rate jokes. If anything, the movie is just as much a skewering of the recent rise in terrible film satire as it is of the political world. But honestly, the entire movie rests on one Kevin P. Farley, who is probably turning the stomachs of many Chris Farley fans simply for staring in such a similarly-characterized role.

My thoughts on An American Carol are reminiscent of Say Anything‘s In Defense of the Genre. Both appear to be an effort to resurrect their individual fields of artistic (I use that word lightly) expression; Carol for modern film satire, Genre for modern emo. And yet their over-the-top presence is so off-putting and reminiscent of the very concepts and ideas most people detest about both types of expression. Then again, the significant pull of “celebrity guests” (in Genre, everyone from Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba to Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance to Hayley Williams of Paramore) and the initial draw of the original artist is enough to draw attention to any production. Yet just as An American Carol has its faults, In Defense of the Genre is far from perfect, weighed down in too many songs (two full albums worth) and not enough content. But what’s probably the most irritating thing is derived from the fact that Say Anything (and to an affect, Zucker) is capable of creating great stuff and settles for driving the stereotypic points of emo home. And therein lies the friction in whether or not Genre is simply good or bad. Something like “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” is so blatantly over-the-top and conservative in its employment of typical modern emo diatribes, it makes it all seem like the track and the rest of the album is almost a mockery of itself and the very thing it’s supposed to defend. Maybe its a challenge – the fact that Max Bemis can whip out a double album of this stuff in no time with what appears to be very-little creativity spent on it (at least, in comparison to …is a Real Boy) is both a tribute to and a scathing diatribe against emo. And maybe the thing I like most about the album is that idea… then again, emo is invariably whatever one makes it out to be.

Touche.

Say Anything – Shiksa (Girlfriend) (live):

Rock N’ Roll Post-Graduates

They really don’t make ’em like this anymore. That was one of many thoughts that jumped in my brain while watching Rock N’ Roll High School the other day. Camp doesn’t even begin to describe it. Joyful absurdity. Now that might do it. Whoever had the idea to take a simple B movie, combine it with Airplane-esq comedy theatrics, and center the entire movie around a punk band that had only achieved some semblance of cult status must have been a mad genius. The Ramones may be icons today, but back in 1980, they would have been the last choice to place at the center of a movie. The Jonas Brothers – or whatever third-rate mechanized creations Disney churns out for the center of some made-for-TV movie – they ain’t.

The original Ramones

The original Ramones

Aside from style and vision, the simple juxtaposition of a small-time punk band that failed to realize their dreams of Billboard big-shots playing the role of a big-shot band was enough to make the film such a phenomenal treat in my mind. It’s hard to remotely think of a band today that could be subsumed into a rock-star elite status for a camp film while they struggle away in the real world. Perhaps the only group that could have pulled it off with style and finesse would have been the Promise Ring. The high-calcium pop of their second and third albums would have fit perfectly into a happiness-is-all-the-rage B-movie; moreso, the Promise Ring’s status as a cult-band and icon for the bubbling emo scene would have been a great juxtaposition in the seat of rock kings at the center of a film – their affable attitude is a great base to work with. Not to mention a certain sense of humor and delight that seems to bubble up in their videos:

If anything, one real world emo event seems to have brought Rock N’ Roll High School to reality. When MTV re-started its Unplugged series, it was simply to make good behind the cult of Dashboard Confessional. Not even a cult-group in terms of the mainstream, Dashboard had barely been a fashionable musical name to know when MTV picked Chris Carrabba to be the new face of their once-famous series. So to give a no-name their own special, one which featured high schoolers flanking him in the wings, literally brought Roger Corman’s film to life. You know, if Rock N’ Roll High School were a bit more melodramatic…

Dashboard Confessional – Living In Your Letters (MTV Unplugged):

What a Beardo

Big news out of Belgrade this past Monday, where war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic was captured after years of “living in hiding.” Karadzic was thought to be hiding out in a cave, but had been living in disguise under the name Dragan Dabic. While Karadzic committed some hainus crimes, but I can’t help but be in awe of the situation. So while Saddam Hussein got caught for hiding in a hole, Karadzic hid in plain sight, simply practicing alternative medicine and creating a new identity. What’s most ingenious was Karadzic’s natural ability to create a disguise. Just look at this:

Before and After

Before and After

Now that’s a beard. Honestly, it’s hard to tell that Karadzic and “Dabic” are one in the same. You have to appreciate the finer points of facial hair growth, and it certainly benefited Karadzic (if only for a period of time).

As facial hair has provided safety for some, it’s always been something of a completely different use in my experience. Being able to grow a beard, mustache, or anything else that would never naturally fill a child’s face had been a sign of maturity (or even male superiority in some cases). Whomever managed to squeeze out the first batch of hairs beyond simple peach fuzz immediately gained some semblance of adulthood – or perceived adulthood – in the world of my youth. I still marvel at certain individual’s ability to crop facial hair into whatever whimsical shapes and sizes they could pick from.

Like a young man’s first set of sideburns, much of emo is a reflection of a growing maturity. If rock (and moreover, punk), as Lester Bangs described it, is innately youthful in its purest form, and if hardcore punk is merely an extension of that, then emo and other post-hardcore genres is an immediate reaction to those forms of music. Post-hardcore and emo were birthed as a growth from those primordial forms of music, of which many originators found themselves playing a communal role in. While Calvin Johnson proclaimed himself to be forever a teenager, he intended his mental state to be in that of the youthful open-mindedness, striving to grow beyond the binds of childhood but keeping those freewheeling ideas at heart. Johnson may have been tangling with the close-mindedness of age with his statement, but the emo movement developing in DC confronted those bonds of age in light of everyone’s physical and psychological changes over time. No doubt about it, those who were involved in harDCore had experiences that made them grow mentally as they grew into adulthood, and those changes are reflected in the cultural output of the emocore scene.

Tooth Paste For Dinners Beamo

Tooth Paste For Dinner's Beamo

Although it may not seem like those ideals of personal growth as reflected in music have held true to emo over time, it most certainly has been an important part of the culture to today. Sunny Day Real Estate addressed their evolving thoughts on life and religion even as it tore them apart. The Promise Ring observed the existential crisis of the modern American young adult as a method of moving across the country – the physical movement reflecting the mental change. Hell, even Dashboard Confessional’s tear-stained rants about love are representative of a greater longing than simply puppy love; Carrabba may sing solely about love and loss, but the loss isn’t simply the physical (ie, the lover) but a loss at a future greater than the present situation (a time of growth).

True, these are only a handful of groups in discussion. But for every act discussed, there is a wealth of other emo bands and cultural elements that reflect the ideology focused on grappling with (and simply about) maturity. It may not be a full beard, but it’s all about the journey of growth (be it facial hair or mentally) that’s in focus.

And now, a word on the awesome power of beards from Clone High:

No More Phone Booths

Like any “normal” male adolescent in America, my elementary school days were filled with a love of sports and comic books. For me, it was more comic books than sports. As my friends dreamed of a future on the gridiron, I diligently worked on my impending comic book career. Somewhere along the line I became jaded; it could have been any number of adults and teachers who urged me to take art classes (an idea I despised), it could have been my critiques of my ability to draw or create a narrative, or it could have been middle school that did it.

My childhood - just as I remember it

My childhood - just as I remember it

As my dream job of creating my own super heroes slipped away, my love of comics stayed with me. My own maturation seems perfectly timed with the “maturation” of comic books from pubescent pulp to renowned artistic endeavors with the popularity of the graphic novel. Maus (the unmitigated classic), Palestine (what I’ve read of it – it’s an intense and engaging affair that I should devote more time to than idly flipping through chapters in my free time), Blankets (I remember picking this thing up to pass the time and stay out of the rain at a festival in Norway, and I was immediately absorbed), and others made my love of comics seemed refined. But the superheroes, those endless tales churned out week after week and once seen as a splotch on the American conscience, they remain my true guilty pleasure (perhaps that is why I find Watchmen so endearing; it combines the seemingly low-brow entertainment of super heroes with the high-brow narrative style of graphic novels). So, whenever a new superhero movie comes out, I jump at the ability to see it.

With each coming summer, there’s at least one high-flying comic book based (or inspired) tale on the big screen, and this year is no different. As The Dark Knight approaches, I’ve been subsumed in comic-book films recently and even movies with people obsessed with comic books. While I’ve missed out on The Incredible Hulk (or based on various reviews, not missed out), I celebrated the end of my college education with Iron Man on opening night, saw Hollywood make an altogether out-of-character film with Hancock, and devoured the graphic details that fill Hellboy 2. As I saw the later two films within the past week, two other occurrences have made me think about my adoration of superheroes more than I normally do. One was a great article by James Parker in last week’s Boston Phoenix on what the popularity of superhero films says about our nation’s identity. The second occurrence was a scene in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, where Stan Lee discusses with Brodie (played by Jason Lee) what drove him to create his best characters.

Jason Lee and Stan Lee in Mallrats

Jason Lee and Stan Lee in Mallrats

Although the scene in Mallrats was clearly scripted for the plot of the movie, the random chain of events in which I watched the three films and read the James Parker article got me thinking more about my personal interaction with comic books. The one thing that reminded me of what appealed to me about superheroes, particularly the Marvel chain of heroes, was one section of the Parker piece:

“I’m a DC Comics person,” says Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD, over iced coffee at Simon’s in Cambridge. Outside, the afternoon is horizontal with heat fatigue: the cars buzz drunkenly along Mass Ave. “By temperament, I suppose. Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman — they have a lot more moral clarity for me, a more serious code to which to aspire. Marvel is kind of the arena of the neurotic superhero, beginning with Spider-Man, who, of course, is a New Yorker. A neurotic and very introspective New Yorker! Now Batman is thoughtful, too, but he doesn’t think about himself. He broods, but what he’s doing is figuring out what action to take. So it looks like rumination, obsessive thoughts, but it’s actually problem solving. Whereas Marvel characters seem to go around and around.”

 

To me, DC comic characters always seemed so un-human in every aspect. They were nearly flawless (that includes Batman, despite his problems with the past), and aside from one minor problem they may have (such as kryptonite), their entire abilities just made their jobs seem so easy. It made the prospect of even reading the books sound pointless – there’s no way the characters couldn’t triumph over their enemies. Now the Marvel characters had it; they were unique, imperfect, and human; they had to struggle with their own place in the world in order to do good for the world. Sure, Spider-man could swing through Manhattan, but his own problems seemed so realistic, making his situation as a person with superpowers that much more believable. In many ways, this is what I find so appealing about emo; the subjects that are discussed within the lyrics are problems that at their core are undoubtedly human. Whether those problems are as morally thoughtful as corporate greed (Fugazi’s “Five Corporations”), as existentially obtuse as traveling beyond your natural habitat (The Promise Ring’s “Make Me A Chevy”), or simply about loss (Brand New’s “Sowing Season (Yeah)”), they all (hopefully) contain a poignant point about the problems in life, and how we deal with them. In that context, it’s no wonder love is so often discussed.

 

Hellboy and Liz Sherman in a scene from Hellboy 2

Hellboy and Liz Sherman in a scene from Hellboy 2

 

Love was the second big thing that I noticed about comic book superheroes. Well, not so much love as a consistent recalling of it in two films that made me think more about my own interaction with comic books and emo to a greater extent. Being a huge music fan, I often want to know what inspired the songs that I find really inspiring. What I find so appealing about emo (and comic books) is that there are many layers that inform a particular story or song, but in the end it’s what you take away from it that matters. There’s a particular section in Andy Greenwald’s reprehensible book on emo, Nothing Feels Good, where a Dashboard Confessional fan recounts a discussion he had with Chris Carrabba about a particular song; the fan thought the song was about one thing, but was surprised to find out that it was inspired by something totally different. Is the fan wrong to think about the song that way? Not at all – the song had personal meaning to him for a good reason. In the entire emo lineage, the brightest bands have created songs that are multi-faceted; they’re based in personal moments, but can be subsumed by any listener and thought of in a different way. And the thing is, no one is wrong. So, when Stan Lee tells Brodie in Mallrats that lost love inspired the creation of many of his greatest superhero creations, I find everything a little too coincidental. Sure, that story was Smith’s invention, but who’s to say he was wrong? It’s well known that the X-Men were created as a foil to the then-current struggle for Civil Rights, but who’s to say they don’t mean something different to Stan Lee (well, Stan Lee I guess).

 

In many ways, the more I think about it, the more I find the narratives of normalcy particularly appealing to me in terms of superheroes. I love action as much as the next person, but nothing is quite like the personal stories of the people behind the masks in the comic books and films. And again, it’s the same thing with emo; of all the cultures surrounding musical genres, emo is (for the most part) all about normalcy. The musicians and artists discuss personal problems and try and build communities among their fanbase. The world of the “Rock Star,” the realm of 80s Hair Metal; these are the “superheroes,” but they’re not so much super as they are larger-than-life purely due to the size of their egos. I could never equate that attitude with “good,” and I’ll take the normalcy of emo anyday.

 

Dashboard Confessional – Vindicated video (not my favorite, but it sums up the theme quite nicely):

Say Anything About Science Fiction

There’s something about the 4th of July that screams “joy”. It could be the way that folks file out of the woodwork to aimlessly meander around Boston in numbers that rival a sports championship parade. It could be the atmosphere of happiness that bounces off porches and front lawns, where normally reserved neighbors suddenly take to the near-outdoors to share a laugh and an afternoon. It could be the way fireworks careen through the streets of Allston the moment darkness sets in, a venerable battlefield of noises raging through the air. It could be the familiar smell of meat (and your garden variety of vegetables) wafting through the air, almost as if it’s every individual American’s right, nay duty, to fire up the grills and fill our stomachs. It could be the way that Boston turns from a normal city into a communal playground, the kind of place where everyone does indeed know your name, or at least act like they do.

Or it could be The Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel. Seeing as I rarely indulge in TV on my own time and that the number of shows currently broadcasting aren’t what I’d pin down as “entertaining” (though I do watch my fair share of DVDs and random re-runs) it’s funny that of all the days of the year, I’d take the 4th of July to spend some quality time with the good ole’ Jawbox. I’d forgotten about the annual Twilight Zone marathon, and it wasn’t until I dropped by a friend’s cookout did it pop back into my head and on the TV.

Suffice to say, Rod Serling was a genius and the impact his program has had on popular culture and modern storytelling is pretty hard to underestimate. In just the first episode that I watched (of three), I saw shades of Toy Story, a better and more succinct version of what I think Lost is all about (truthfully, I’ve barely seen that show, and have no interest in continuing to watch it), and the strong influence of Samuel Beckett. Titled “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit,” the episode (part of which I’ve placed below) quickly reminded me just what made The Twilight Zone such an anomaly and a brilliant work of art.

Serling, like so many great artists, had his finger on the driving impulses of humanity. His work has the mark of absurdity, but in the way that what is accepted as normal within The Twilight Zone isn’t necessarily as absurd as what we accept in our reality. Just as many great works of science fiction point out the absurdity of the human condition through metaphors (such as George A Romero’s take on racism in Night of the Living Dead, although that is more horror than science fiction) or critique the absurdity of society (the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it’s critique of the red scare), Serling’s work struck a chord either with the paradoxes of humanity, the state of our society, or simply played on our individual fears.

Absurdity is a great and oft-dangerous tool in art. Use it well and you’re a genius; misuse it and your work suffers (one cannot forget Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, which seems to both use and misuse absurdity in extremes; the film is a bumbling mess that’s both hideous and brilliant at the same time. Unfortunately, one half cannot be without the other). Of all the acts in emo, Say Anything is the one band to make excellent use of absurdity for the bettering of art (and sometimes, abuse it for the unfortunate nadir of art as well). People may complain about the state of emo today, but chances are, none have them would have bothered to pick up Say Anything’s 2004 effort …is a Real Boy (which was later re-packaged as a double album in 2006, with the second half labeled …was a Real Boy). The blogosphere is no stranger to hype, and hype is no stranger to frontman and perpetual mind of Say Anything Max Bemis, but …is a Real Boy is easily one of the best albums to come out this decade.

Still from the \

Epic, mature, humorous, brilliant, lyrically-intelligent, spellbinding, and yes, absurd, …is a Real Boy takes the idea of extremism in punk rock and hits it out of the park. For a first album, any band would be proud. But Say Anything is not any band, and Max Bemis is not any frontman. Here’s the skinny:

Max Bemis grew up in LA a punk-pop prodigy, told from a young age that he would be the next Bob Dylan. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a young man, especially one who would later be found to have manic-depression. After putting out some independently-produced albums, Bemis scrapped all of Say Anything’s back catalog to make something, well, epic. Bemis concocted …is a Real Boy as a great emo rock opera. Quite literally. Bemis even went as far as to recruit Stephen Trask, creator of cult sensation Hedwig and the Angry Inch, to produce the album and what was meant to be a giant musical production of the record’s songs in conjunction with its release. The overarching story is of a boy who is struck to breakout into song when he reaches some climactic and passionate burst of fury over whatever he was agonizing over. Musicals are easily the most absurd form of modern art (honestly, nobody simply breaks out into song and is joined by a massive, perfectly-choreographed chorus in order to express their inner thoughts and then simply act as if said moment never happened afterwards), but the songs on …is a Real Boy made it work. The way a punk lifer described his iconoclastic ideals through passionate bursts of song that made the critiques on reality just as absurd as the moment of intensity of the performance was flawless.

Too bad the musical never panned out. Bemis had the first of many psychological breakdowns during the wrap-up of the album’s production; he got in a fight with strangers on a New York City street corner, believing they were actors in a film about the production of his album. Several nervous breakdowns later and a career in danger and Bemis is found to have manic-depression. A number of years later and Bemis has signed a major label deal, has his videos on MTV, and (rightfully so) has found his work on top of the Billboard heap. Call it what you will, but I was disappointed with the release of In Defense of the Genre; it may have landed Say Anything at the top of the pops, but it was an example of absurdity in unfortunate extremes. A double album with only enough good material to fill a single side, In Defense of the Genre is a good effort, but merely an effort in comparison to …is a Real Boy. The idea of defending emo is excellent, and the cavalry of emo stars who fill out the album’s guest spots is great (such as Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba and My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way), and the (ab)use of a multitude of genre aesthetics is an interesting concept. But ultimately, the performance and the ideas fall flat. Still, it is a valiant effort, even if Bemis is much more concerned with love (most songs on In Defense of the Genre) than, say, rightfully bashing elitist hipsters (“Admit It!!!”).

Sometimes I wonder if the absurdity, nay, even the brilliant social commentary of Say Anything ever really seeps into America’s tweens. But there’s no doubt that Say Anything’s best work has a certain staying power that most pop cannot achieve. Hopefully somewhere in the middle of America those who pick up Say Anything after hearing it through some Clear Channel station will play …is a Real Boy years from now and understand what Bemis is getting it. Or maybe I’m just not giving these tweens the right credit. Sure, Warped Tour is ground zero for shameless product plugs and hours upon hours of pop-punk. But with the cathartic live experience of Say Anything – Bemis is halfway between Andrew WK and a white, male MIA – there’s no doubt that those messages critiquing society’s ails can reach someone.

I’m in a video mood, so here’s the video for Say Anything’s “Alive With The Glory Of Love”, itself a critique on the important aspects of life during times of desperation (listen closely to the lyrics):