Tag Archives: grunge

Origin Story

I came across this odd post entitled “The Origin of Emo” on an unusually blank WordPress blog (though the thing appears to be written by a Thom Lloyd, which is the gmail address at the bottom of the article). It’s the only post, and it’s written in a pseudo-term-paper light, with citations that don’t really say much of anything or connote to any one article/book/etc (though some of the names provided can be linked up via a quick search). It’s all very odd.

What’s even odder is Lloyd’s thesis statement on the origin of emo, which he sort of drops in at the end:

Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate did not start the emo genre.

Eh? Lloyd continues to throw out vague, inconsistencies, many of which I can agree with (genres are a culmination of the sounds that have influenced the bands), and some that are rife for contradiction. Namely the last point:

With all of these factors in place a band and or a label had to start the wheels in motion forming the emo genre.

Huh? Didn’t he just say Rites of Spring did not start emo? And Dischord doesn’t count because emo didn’t rise solely out of it?

This happens to be an ongoing problem with people seeking a solid definition for emo: the fact that the genre/sound exists as a fluid and evolving concept that many individuals ignore simply because of the condescending nature of the term makes it damn hard to tack a pin in it and call it a done day.

But, those irrelevancies aside. Rites are duly credited for starting emo: that’s where the term as a definition for a musical sound came from. Period. Not Husker Du, who Lloyd credits as an important factor. The fact is, Zen Arcade came out after Rites were a fully formed band with an entire pedigree of songs (1984 to be exact). Rites were listening to all sorts of hardcore (nothing I’ve read remotely mentions Husker Du though), and sought to challenge the trends within their own community by embracing a poppier sound. They took from many a British popper: The Buzzcocks are most credited as an influence there. But nothing about Husker Du.

And Lloyd’s idea of indie rock fusing the gap between Rites and Sunny Day is… well, a bit much. Lloyd also calls into play grunge as an important influence on emo and bridging these two bands: hardly. As far as grunge goes, the only role that played was its skyrocketing popularity behind Nirvana led to sale numbers that helped Sub Pop move out of the red zone and avoid bankruptcy so that they could go on and sign SDRE: grunge’s influence on emo is really relevant in a business capacity. Emo was a complete change from grunge, which is why Sunny Day startled so many people in Seattle: it was different. They were different. They took from hardcore, took from bands like Rites, Fugazi, Lungfish, Shudder To Think, and many of the DC bands that Lloyd overlooked. Yes, as Lloyd mentions, there are too many bands to name, and many of them he overlooked when trying to tie these two distinct bands (ROS + SDRE together). Since when do you need to fill in a time blank in terms of bands that came about that were important and led to another important band of the same sound anyway? How many of the new shitgaze (or whatever you want to call them) bands actually took other sounds and used them in their own songwriting? It’s always possible, and often an excellent appeal to change. But I can’t see Vivian Girls having taken lots of notes on IDM when they wrote their fuzzy, 60s surf garage rock sound. (It’s possible, but after the interview where they dissed bands that use a dancey drum beat, I doubt it.)

But there are plenty of bands that “filled in those years.” Just on Dischord there were a bunch (again, Embrace, Happy Go Licky, One Last Wish, Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, Lungfish, Shudder To Think, Jawbox etc etc). And then there’s Jawbreaker’s take on the sound from DC. And then there’s Drive Like Jehu’s take on the DC sound and it’s impact on the San Diego scene: that whole arty-hardcore-meets-DC-emocore is indebted to the DC scene. Gravity Records, Heroin, Antioch Arrow, etc etc. And all of this in the years between 1984 (Rites of Spring) and 1994 (release of Diary).

That’s a lot of time, and many of these bands aren’t remembered because, in terms of folklore or the progression of a genre, only a few – those considered to be important for one reason or another – are consistently remembered and repeated to the next person, and the next person, and so on and so forth. That is an evolution of a genre, not some influential indie band that has nothing to do with these groups: no offense to The Pixies or Sonic Youth, but those bands hardly share anything with the first wave of emo. And because genres evolve, and many within different spheres and cultures (aka underground or mainstream), it may sound different at different points along the way. So, of course emo sounds different than it did before: it’s not static. Some things grew, other bands made their individual changes, and other bands made changes on other bands’ changes. Though the definition is rather fluid, a general line is fairly recognizable (one that doesn’t exactly include Sonic Youth, who were more no wave affiliated and who’s experimentation is mostly left out of many an “emo” act, or The Pixies, who tend to have a fairly basic pop sound that, as it’s well known, is more a grunge influence than an emo one) and observable.

In Circles

When music-inclined and web-savy individuals open their browsers this morning and click over to Pitchfork, they may end up reading a review with this funny little quote:

What immediately strikes you about Diary is it doesn’t sound intended to be a gamechanger– even if it’s no surprise that one of emo’s most enduring documents is called Diary of all things. But even if it doesn’t break new ground musically, it signaled a new way to talk about the passion.

Does that sound, well, odd to you?

***

It seems these days everyone’s got a beef with Pitchfork. Either their “too cool” and ahead of the curve and used to read the site back when it was a lowly blog and now can’t be bothered with it, or they hate it’s newfound control over the culture of cool/hipsterdom, or maybe they just have never heard of it. Whatever. You can place me in some column of mild irritation. I appreciate a lot of what they do, and, for all their wreckless bashing of many a band that might not deserve it (and, hey, maybe even some that do), they’ve managed to make the world of music journalism translate into the Internet age and thrive, a feat among feats as the media self-perpetuates its own demise right next door.

The reviews are inevitably what it comes down to for people. (I hide no shame in saying that I regularly check the site for its news updates because, hey, I’m one person who can’t track every press release even when they hit my own inbox, so to see it marked up in a solid fashion ain’t too bad.) Rarely will I take a review at face value, and often I won’t even read them.

But, when I noticed the Sunny Day Real Estate reissues (Diary and LP2), I figured I’d take a gander. Of course they’d give it the “Best New Music” treatment: the folks at P-fork may have a select taste that has no use for 99.9% of emo, but they certainly can tell what has played an important role in our culture.

So it was a little dumfounding to read Ian Cohen’s remarks on the albums. Much like the quote above, I was a little confused by the review… not because he crammed so many gargantuan words where they need not be  (a problem of my own), but because he repeatedly seems to contradict himself. And not purposefully: I can see what he was getting at. But, it’s just… well, odd. To say that something isn’t “innovative” and yet completely changed things is just kinda like doublespeak. And I get what Cohen might be trying to get across: that SDRE took a combination of sounds from disparate scenes and communities and just put them together but that idea isn’t so much revolutionary as it may seem. I just fundamentally disagree with that statement, I guess.

Is this a case of Pitchfork trying to prove it’s might in writing it’s version of musical history? I can certainly see what Cohen is doing as a challenge-the-hindsight-and-historical-POV-about-SDRE type thing, but I really feel it falls flat. Reading, talking, and listening to the immediate community within which the band was wrought, there was literally nothing like them for miles around. Sure, zines and mailorders could connect music communities from across vast spaces, but it’s not like today where some kid can download kwaito and baile funke tunes and try and be the next Diplo. The Seattle scene which SDRE was geographically a part of was overrun with grunge, as it was ground zero. Most people looking for a break in the city must have looked stupid trying not to do grunge as that was what people asked for. So to say SDRE, who may have pushed a heavy and punk sound that was a brethren to grunge only in volume, wasn’t a gamechanger (for Seattle and the rest of the country). Well, you could call that a gamechanger.

Sunny Day Real Estate – “Seven” (Guitar Hero edition):

Lionize the Losers

The NFL regular season wound down yesterday, which left me pretty excited seeing as the Baltimore Ravens have made the playoffs and have a pretty good chance of taking their season beyond their Wild Card spot. The Detroit Lions have finally gotten national attention where there was none previously by becoming the 1st team to go 0-16 since the season was expanded from 14 to 16 games. Just as the Patriots were celebrated for their undefeated regular season last year (which we all know the ending of), the Lions have gained a bit more publicity than any other season in the past decade… and they go out without tarnishing their defeated season as the Pats did last year (tarnish depends on your perspective of the Pats from the fan’s seat).

There’s something so endearing about the state of teams/players in competitive sports, where the losers get just as much attention and adoration as the winners do. Even in a state of mind where there can only be one winner, there are so many stories that fill a season/year, because otherwise, we might just be bored with the competition. But the “loser” narrative is so intriguing, mostly because it isn’t celebrated by its fans.

In music, there’s nothing quite like it. Sure, “loser” became a catchall term for the grunge/alternative scene of the early 90s, epitomized by Sub Pop’s flagrant hype machine printing out t-shirts of the term by the truckload.

But the question I’m thinking of remains: who celebrates a “loser” band, aka a bad band? No one would willingly plunk down any money to go see a band they absolutely hate (never mind one’s own limits for spending money on bands one likes). But there must be some celebrated band that people love to hate, and I’m not talking just Nickelback (they still manage to sell millions of albums and play amphitheaters). I’m talking a band that sucks so much that people off all backgrounds detest them with the mightiest passion, hate every song, buy their merch just to burn it. Methinks – and probably because the underlying subject of this blog might tip it off – of an emo band immediately, as there have been hundreds of thousands of bands to soil the name of the genre in no time. But nothing stands out in particular, and even what I feel are the most idiotic and contemptuous emo groups have their own devoted, rabid fanbase, ready to tear apart haters at a moments notice. But there must be one out there…

So where is this mythologically bad band?
I can only think of Manowar, but come on, their whole package is too hilarious… or maybe that’s the right qualification…

Don’t Shudder

Great news today from reunion land, where Shudder To Think will join a growing list of acts banding together to make a little tour. It’s not much, but I’ll certainly take it. It also doesn’t hurt that Boston is one of the few locations in America that the band is scheduled to hit; they’ll be playing at Paradise Rock Club on October 11th.

Shudder To Think\'s Dischord Days

Shudder To Think provided one of the most interesting sounds on the Dischord roster when they joined in the late 80s. Sure, Fugazi was turning all notions of post-hardcore and emo on their heads, but Shudder To Think was an entirely different beast. They were a band that pulled more and more towards the aesthetic elements of psychedelia over time, though their ethos was still intensely grounded in the DIY punk realm. Their earliest work veered through the quick one-two punch of hardcore drumming before opening up to gaping waves of 60s-flavored guitar-work (see “Chocolate” off of Funeral At The Movies).

The band did refine their sound, as seen on 1992’s Get Your Goat. Shudder to Think did more than simply re-tread the old aesthetic waters of Revolution Summer emo acts. They took the combination of hardcore and pop on a roller coaster to the clouds; it didn’t hurt that frontman Craig Wedren’s eerie falsetto became as controlled, textured, and wholly unpredictable as the band’s sound. Their work mirrored and even impacted their future touring partners, Sunny Day Real Estate (at least according to the Alternative Press article on the 23 bands, where Shudder To Think is name-checked as being one of the DC bands perpetrating the particular style of emo). It’s hard not to see the connections between the two bands. Both made use of intelligently-crafted punk rock, both sought solace in the musical realm of the 60s and 70s, both featured vocalists with unusual singing styles in the realm of punk, and both brought a distinct change in style to the labels they became a part of (although, Sunny Day’s work at Sub Pop was more a rejection of by then typical grunge than it was an evolution of the label’s aesthetic… then again, Dischord had a fluid aesthetic that lends emo a certain sense of flexibility that exists to this day). Shudder To Think’s status as not only a creative, genre-bending band, but a cross-national influence works to establish their importance in the narrative of emo; their eventual connection with Sunny Day is one of many moves that helps to solidify a cross-substantial aesthetic idea of emo, as well as a burgeoning community surrounding emo (touring would become an important part of the Mid Western emo community as many bands that toured with one another shared ideas and friendship through their troubadour spirits).

Shudder To Think would continue to spread the idea of an evolutionary emo sound when they signed to Epic to release the Pony Express Record; they were only one of two Dischord bands to sign to a major label frenzy in the great alternative buyouts in the post-Nevermind music world. But the world wasn’t ready for the Pony Express Record (nor was it ready for most of the bands that were signed in the major label buyouts). Hell, emo wasn’t really ready either. Shudder To Think always had an odd style, but it got even weirder with their major label debut. In an aesthetic style that prided itself on lyrics that were both ambiguous but contained a sense of personal investment to the band and listener, Shudder provided a great thesis in that flexibility and a great revolution against the concept. Pony Express is lyrically obtuse, it’s music strung all over the place. And it’s still positively great, though a little rough to get into at parts. If emo means emotional music over punk rock, nothing fits that idea better than the wailing anthem that Wedren lets out against a sea of guitars on the two-plus minute long chorus closing out “X-French Tee Shirt”.

The rest of the Shudder To Think tale is all over the map. Wedren battled Hodgkin’s Disease while recording their second major label album. And a couple of projects were made under the Shudder To Think name: a soundtrack for the movies First Love, Last Rights (featuring guest vocals from folks such as Jeff Buckley), High Art, and a selection of songs for the glitter-rock inspired film Velvet Goldmine.

Shudder To Think broke up shortly thereafter in 1998. Wedren has been the most visible and successful of the band members since the breakup with a solo career. However, Wedren’s solo work is probably best recognized in the guise of three other guys: Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain. Wedren has been the trio’s go-to guy for movies like Wet Hot American Summer (he wrote the song “Wet Hot American Summer” and co-wrote the hilarious track “Higher and Higher”), The Baxter, and The Ten (in which he also played an extra in the chorus of nude dudes).

Craig Wedren

What will happen with the new Shudder To Think reunion? A new album? Five new albums? Or just a simple tour. Whatever happens, something good is sure to come.

Shudder To Think – X-French Tee Shirt (video)