Tag Archives: Jawbox

Is Jawbox Reuniting or What?

Ok, here’s the breakdown:

Today, Billboard had a little write up on Jawbox, which featured an interesting quote from bassist Kim Coletta on a potential Jawbox reunion:

“I’d love to,” Coletta tells Billboard. “It would be the coolest thing in the world.”

What’s this? Do explain!

Coletta says the Jawbox’s “Jimmy Fallon” performance will be “a safe way of seeing if it’s still fun to play together, or get back together. It’s an easy way to test the waters. I can’t say whether it’s going to lead to a full-length show or any touring, but we’ll see. We’re taking it one step at a time.”

Interesting… especially considering just a short while ago, J. Robbins told Buzzgrinder something completely different:

There were good and bad things about Jawbox, but we always held ourselves to a pretty high standard as far as playing shows. We would want to make sure we did it right, and we felt like we couldn’t take the time to do that. So that was pretty much the beginning and the end of the reunion discussion.

Odd… perhaps Robbins was just pulling our collective chain… or Coletta for that matter.

That’s the tough thing with all of these bands-getting-back-together-matters, and another reason why I really appreciate Fugazi’s extended hiatus: it’s a bit abrupt to just toss everything away and call it a day when who knows what the future may bring.

So, perhaps the band has been practicing together more since Robbins’ interview and they’ve collectively found their mojo, something to really work with, do a full show or a tour beyond Fallon. Perhaps. Let’s just say never say never.

Jawbox – “Savory”:

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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.

Interview with Travis Morrison

When I last dropped a line about America Is Just A Word, I mentioned that I’d be interviewing a few different artists who’s bands’ narratives are either barely known or not given the proper coverage. One of those groups is The Dismemberment Plan, fronted by Travis Morrison. Of the three groups mentioned in the previous post (the other two being Mineral and Drive Like Jehu), The Dismemberment Plan have had a little more coverage, media exposure, and lifeline over the years, playing together for a full decade and receiving considerable notoriety among music fans. The Plan’s sound is an excellent mix of the cathartic stop-and-go guitar work of DC first-wave emo, hip-hop, electronica, and post-punk and the band are well known for having put on some fantastic live sets.

In the first of many correspondences to come, Travis answered all of my odds ‘n’ ends questions I tossed his way – poor guy. Here’s a small dose of the interview:

*What got you into music? What made you want to pick up an instrument in the first place?

Travis: “It’s hard to say. I was always very attracted to music. I sang along to Beach Boys records when I was really little. Talking Heads were probably the band I wanted to be in when I was 10-11-12.”

*How did you and Eric [Axelson, bassist] become friends? What made you decide to start a band with him?

Travis: “He was in a punk band at my high school called The Milk Carton Children and being in that band was a bandmate with one of my very close friends, and we stayed in touch as we went into college–really came to be better friends then, we were acquantainces before–and  we just started talking about playing.”

 

Image from DCist

Image from DCist

*Growing up in Bethesda, I always felt this ominous spirit of-sorts in relation to D.C.’s music community before I was ever really aware of Nation of Ulysses or Jawbox of Fugazi. When you were first starting up The Plan, did you ever feel the impact of that spirit, especially considering the year you guys formed?

Travis: “Sure. We loved all those bands. Still do. So inspiring to see bands like that on local stages. I look at YouTube clips of Fugazi, especially on the Repeater tour, and they were just amazing, like Zep. I cannot believe I was able to go see a band like that for five dollars at a church.”

*When The Plan first got started, did you feel welcomed by members of the D.C. music community at first, or did it take a while?

Travis: “You mean like older folks? I kinda got the sense that MUCH older folks thought we were a hoot, really punk and snotty, and that the people immediately above us were a little more doubtful or hesitant or just found us annoying. But I don’t know, I was 21 and stupid. I would never trust my recollections of my social standing then. ”

*The Plan is pretty well known for putting on an active, exciting, and fun live set. What initially made you think to get people up and really dancing during your set? Was it difficult at first trying to do this, simply with the idea of approaching potentially-complete strangers to open up and dance in public?

Photo of D Plans last show by Shawn Liu

Photo of D Plan's last show by Shawn Liu

 

Travis: “Well I mean rock and roll was originally dancing music. But I dunno, it’s become such a cliche now… I don’t even expect dancing per se, I just want them to wake up. Heckle us, dance, throw things at us, give us a cake with pornographic icing… all these things have happened and it’s what I think we really wanted. Interaction.”

*How much of your own innovation also comes from your interactions with other bands in the D.C. community? I know you guys are pretty well known for incorporating a strong hip-hop sound into the post-punk mix, but (for example) Smart Went Crazy were also doing something of a similar notion but to a bit of a different effect. Were you and Smart Went Crazy particularly close, in terms of musical interaction, friendship, etc?

Travis: “Oh, your peers are immensely important. We learned so much from the bands around DC. Hoover‘s weird time signatures… Smart Went Crazy’s tunefulness and colorful arrangements… and outside of DC, Alkaline Trio’s blend of gallows humor and heartfeltness… there’s many examples of that.”

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):

Bastards of Pop

By now most music-loving folk are aware of the pay-what-you-want, online release of Girl Talk’s latest album, Feed The Animals. But this isn’t about that… well, it’s almost not about that. As any other savy internet users are concerned, a trio of folks hailing from the greater Baltimore/DC area new about this all to well. Funny thing is, the title of Girl Talk’s new album is startlingly similar to a certain activity that these three individuals do to fulfill their creative impulses. And darn it if the members of Food For Animals didn’t do something about it. The savvy members of one of the top experimental hip-hop troupes in the country put their imagination to the test and came out with a remix of Feed The Animals that is as hilarious as it is genuinely well-crafted. The inversion of the Girl Talk record cover didn’t hurt either.

Girl Talk\'s Feed The Animals

Food For Animals\' remix

Sure, this may sound like another attempt by an under-appreciated musical act trying to grab some limelight off of the backs of pop sensations. Actually, pop sensations may be the key word to why this isn’t a case of bandwagon-ing popularity. That same realm where Girl Talk has become such a heroic image is one where Food For Animals have gotten their fare and deserved share of praise and following as well; from Spin to Pitchfork, numerous well-regarded places of music criticism have praised FFA for their latest album – Belly.

No, this is not a case of scraping for some 15 minutes of fame. This isn’t even about fame. This is a great case of that simple keyword… community. The FFA remix is more a work of humorous camaraderie than anything negative or self-serving. For Gregg Gillis and FFA, it is another mark of a shared aesthetic dedicated to the opposite of pop-sanctuary; underground artistry. Their physical hometowns may be separate (Pittsburgh for GT, and Baltimore/DC for FFA), but their ideal one is a special place known as Wham City.

Brooklyn\'s Matt & Kim at Whartscape 2007

Wham City is a collective of artists and musicians who’ve made a hometown in Baltimore. More than that, they’ve made a scene-worthy presence out of Baltimore. Although Wham City is a close-knit crew (headed by electronics wunderkid Dan Deacon) and is not the entire community of Baltimore’s diverse art-punk scene, they have nevertheless become the center and face of the creativity bubbling out of the once-forgotten town. While institutions as high on the music-critiquing food chain as Rolling Stone have come a-calling, it has yet to diminish the creative culmination of the relatively anti-establishment scene. If anything, it’s simply drawn other like-minded individuals to the area and those who have made themselves an important part of building an artistically-challenging community. The connections within the scene are more personal than musically-similar. This year’s Whartscape Festival features, along side Gregg Gillis (playing with his side project Trey Told ‘Em) and Food For Animals, a number of musicians from across the country who are more dedicated to pushing the bounds of music than they are to carving a universal pop niche. There’s The Mae Shi (from LA), Black Dice (NYC), Parts & Labor (Brooklyn), and a ton of local Baltimore acts. What they lack in definite sound they make up for in their shared passion for underground music, ingenuity, and community.

Emo was birthed out of a very similar thesis of community as seen through performance. Music was the cache, but it wasn’t the only distinct quality of those communities. The places friends within the scene would interact and think of as home bases, the venues that bands practiced and played, the ideas that individuals shared and used to challenge one another – not just musically, but in life – were as integral to the scene as the tag placed on the original scene’s existence.

The Revolution Summer scene, the first community to be burdened with the label “emo” was a particular exemplary of the feat of flexibility. Some ideological and musical characteristics were shared, but the common bond over strengthening the community beyond the rigidity that defeated DC’s hardcore scene was stronger than any detrimentally-inclined tag. The acts that followed in the footsteps of the broken-up Revolution Summer acts continued to build on the ideas of community, welcoming other individual-thinkers into their world, and emiting a new crop of bands that did little to conform to any standards. Groups like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Shudder To Think, Jawbox, and a host of others opened up the interpretations of the local “emo” sound to distinctly new possibilities. And others flocked to their community. Bikini Kill, though not emo, left the West Coast for DC, while Dischord welcomed Baltimore’s Lungfish in with open arms (quite a feat considering that Dischord was meant to be a forum for only DC acts).

With the breakthrough of alternative music into the mainstream, the emo acts of DC formed connections with others across America through correspondence, touring, and even producing; Jawbox’s J Robbins was a primary producer of many well-known 2nd wave emo acts. As the ideological, aesthetic, and musical aspects of emo spread around the country, tight bonds were formed by dis-separate acts throughout the Mid West. Those who form the core of 2nd wave emo acts  – The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, etc – were all connected through friendship rather than sharing three chords.

Even today, when emo has lost a lot of its elasticity of definition due to stereotypes, community is as an important aspect as ever. Acts bond through touring (such as playing together on Warped Tour), shared record labels (Vagrant, Fueled By Ramen), a communal upbringing (such as Thursday and numerous other acts who honed their sound in New Jersey basements), and friendship (be it Thursday and My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco). Community is the strongest bond of the most-creative (and often times, successful) emo acts. Those bands looking to take advantage of a currently-popular, commercially-consumed genre tend to bring out the worst in emo. But it’s community that has allowed emo to continue to thrive and survive to this day, and it’s community that will continue to drive some of the most ingenious and forward-thinking musical movements.

Food For Animals – Girl Talk

Baltimore’s Double Dagger at Whartscape 2007:

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):