Think about your favorite indie rock record.
Maybe it’s Death Cab For Cutie’s Seth Cohen-y breakthrough Transatlanticism. Perhaps you have a soft spot for the last few War on Drugs records. Perhaps you even… gulp… enjoy Animal Collective. In any case, just think about it for a second. Now, after you’ve maybe gone back and listened to your favorite tracks, reliving the ephemeral zeitgeist or emotional attachment that can come from a formative record, ask yourself this question…
What makes that record Indie Rock? Some sort of guitar riff? The fact that it’s released on an “independent” record label? Complicated lyrical themes? Anything at all? Or is it just that whatever friend or blog or fellow artist was telling you about that record before you listened to it for the first time told you that it was indie rock? Or that, in place of other complicated descriptors (Seth Cohen-core for Death Cab, Springsteen-psych for The War on Drugs, or shit-core for Animal Collective), indie rock just seemed to be the easiest way to make sad, just-left-of-pop or rock music seem appealing to that crush you’re making a mixtape for? Even if you answered all of those questions “no,” I think you see where I’m going with this.
Indie Rock doesn’t exist.
The entire genre is a construct to make conversations easier, which means that the actual aesthetic qualities of the genre are only determined by what is being called “indie rock” at that moment. The same could reasonably be said about many tentpole genre designations (“Rappers Delite” and “Love Lockdown” don’t have a ton of stylistic similarities, but both could charitably be called rap), yet indie rock specifically has come under the knife to be sutured and malformed to treat a zeitgeist, all in the name of maintaining a musical safe space for beta-individuals to claim as their own. But as the hourglass begins to grow short on the 2010s, it’s hard to identify what blogs, publications or fellow artists are classifying as the apex of the indie rock moment.
Mark Kozelek seemed to capture some of it with his sad-sack death opus Benji, but he managed to screw himself up royally with the pestilence that is his public persona. Rock Literati might suggest Bradford Cox, the “mastermind” behind Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, as the retro-perfectionist icon of indie rock; others might quibble and say Kevin Parker and his sleepy-psych Tame Impala project. But as much as those albums have their supporters, they have failed to produce a distinct genre moment, when more than a few bands take the progenitors’ sound and move it in new, unexpected ways. They made excellent records (well, one did. The other two aren’t that great), yet they have not wrenched command of indie rock. Instead, one unrelenting genre has burbled below the surface, gradually gaining steam over the last six years, finally arriving about 18 months ago at such a qualitatively unassailable peak that it seems impossible that the genre has not been classified Indie Rock.
Which is why, dear reader, if you value yourself as fan of Indie Rock, you will have already discerned the genre we’re going to dissect today, and the half dozen records that came out this month that could be roped into it.
That said, here we go: emo is Indie Rock.
Woah woah woah… stay with me. You don’t like emo? Fine, let’s take a step back and discuss how we got here, and why you might be less inclined to accept the bevy of incredible records coming out of the emo wave this year (this month!).
We’re in what is colloquially called emo’s Fourth Wave. While that may conjure images of a crappy YA Chloe Grace Moretz movie, it’s actually intended to be a helpful palette cleanser to wash away any of the former incarnations of emo that have heretofore existed. Emo’s first wave, it’s germination in the D.C. underground concurrent to many of the styles of hardcore that we associate with Our Band Could Be Your Life-era punk/grunge, could best be summed up by Rites of Spring. Emo’s second wave, the most artistically/critically sound and the one referenced by many of the emo mainstays in the scene today, was typified by Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity and American Football’s self-titled record.
But more than likely the period of time that scared you away from emo is related to Pete Wentz, and the bastardization of emo’s third wave. The lyricist and thematic frontman of Fall Out Boy, Wentz presided over a crucial breakage in the emo and pop-punk formula, when suddenly everything became juvenile, rooted in girls, and unable to pull its own head from its ass. Fall Out Boy’s first record, Take This To Your Grave, may have been an excellent start, but from the moment “Dance, Dance” hit MTV, emo was over, co-opted by makeup and American Eagle girls jeans worn by guys. Taking Back Sunday (and to a lesser extent, Brand New) could be roped into this, but really, Wentz and his cadre of lesser minions (Panic! At the Disco, All Time Low, Matchbook Romance, Every Time I Die, From First to Last… the list goes on) presided over the divisive rift that is probably still scaring you away from going to a group of your buddies and saying “hey guys, there are these amazing emo records coming out this month.” Hell, Say Anything is still making records, having peaked nearly twelve years ago.
Yet while you weren’t watching, a group of kids unfamiliar and resistant to (some of) the third wave’s uber-dramatic stylization have been working for the better part of a decade to take emo and make something interesting and new with it. Along the way we’ve had interesting stylistic experiments (Crash of Rhinos, A Great Big Pile of Leaves), potential-filled short subjects (Algernon Cadwallader) and even the last two years have seen their share of profoundly affecting and moving records (Somos’ Temple of Plenty, The Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace is There, Hop Along’s Painted Shut and The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s Harmlessness). Yet this year feels like the year of emo’s great leap forward, the moment when its status as Indie Rock’s 2010s representation is undeniable.
Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost
There’s an interesting communion built between an indie rock band and their fans. It’s a sort of hipsterdom-cum-fraternity, born out of the privilege of being an OG follower of a truly exciting artist and the emotional connection the artist can help foster when they’re just starting out.
This can go a number of ways in the end. Fall Out Boy famously called out Hey Chris, one of their earliest fans on “Grenade Jumper,” for being there with them since the beginning. By the next record, FOB was calling out how few of their fans really care about them: “we’re only good so you can have all these famous friends.”
But in certain circumstances the relationship between fan and band can blossom into something truly special. Take Brendan Lukens, one half of the songwriting team responsible for Modern Baseball. After years of touring behind their sparky first two albums Sports and You’re Going to Miss It All, Lukens fell into a haze of drug/alcohol abuse and self-harm, eventually nearly committing suicide. He was forced to delay some of MoBo’s tour dates, something that frequently eclipses a band’s burbling indie stardom with the shadow of inconsistency.
Instead, MoBo’s fans rallied to Lukens’ cause… and here we have Holy Ghost. Lukens and other songwriter Jake Ewald split the release into their own distinct halves, benefitting those who have a particular taste in one of the songwriters, and an easy way for the singers’ similar vocal style to be told apart. While Ewald’s Side A might contain tighter, more traditionally MoBo fare, if growing the formula and seeming more “mature” in the meantime, it’s Lukens who provides the propulsive, beating heart of MoBo’s big leap forward.
Lukens’ Side B is far shorter than Ewald’s, but that seems by design; the frenetic pace of songs like “Breathing in Stereo” necessitate Modern Baseball not getting precious about the pace they’re setting for themselves. Call it the Joyce Manor-ization of emo, but the increasing fixation on getting in and getting out of a song structure serves Lukens well — he’s best when he’s rushing to get all his thoughts out. Just so, Lukens has said that most of the lyrics for his half were written in the manic final hours of their recording session for the record.
Ewald’s half is longer, yet feels propulsive, tightly wound and slight. He’s still dealing with big picture issues; the death of his grandmother hangs over much of the proceedings (“Wedding Singer”). But for every song that gets below the surface, there are the same typical emo topic skimmers like “Mass,” which is not a slight against the propulsive and hooky single in the least.
The ramshackleness of MoBo’s delivery on Holy Ghost bellies Ewald and Lukens’ growing up process with the band. This was a band writing about checking a girl’s social media to see if she likes him and/or is cheating on him. Now that they’ve endured, and continue to endure, the rigors of a touring schedule, Modern Baseball have emerged from the emo framework as something of an “everybody’s favorite underdog,” similar to the response All Time Low got nearly ten years ago (except, y’know, All Time Low sucked).
The key moment, then, comes at the end, when Lukens is closing out the record in his trademark manic fervor. “I’m not just another face, I’m not just another name. Even if you can’t see it now, we’re proud of what’s to come, and you.” It’s a moment of well-earned reflective pride, with Lukens taking stock of a confidence that has so far eluded him in the face of increasing fame. It’s also a “thank you” to fans who have held on, and kept MoBo holding on, through the worst of times. Holy Ghost is the reward for their efforts, and it’s yet another move forward for the band.
RIYL: Sorority Noise, Saves The Day, Say Anything (the good years), The Menzingers
Essential Tracks: “Mass,” “Wedding Singer,” “Breathing in Stereo”
PUP – The Dream is Over
Touring doesn’t always produce the results Modern Baseball experienced. If there’s one thing the traditional emo handbook has evinced over the now twenty years of emo history, it’s that touring can destroy even the greatest bands. One of the seminal records that shepherded emo’s second wave into its destructive, mass-appealing, Pete Wentz-ian third wave was Brand New’s Deja Entendu. A high-water mark for a band that would then somehow improve upon it with a third record as divisive as it was revelatory, Deja was a record, mostly, about the rigors and destructiveness of touring. “Wrote more postcards than hooks, read more maps than books, feel like every chance to leave is another chance I should’ve took,” Brand New lead singer Jesse Lacey ungrammatically quipped on “I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light.”
For PUP, the raucous Canadian emo-punk band who blasted onto the scene two years ago with their vicious self-titled debut, the stakes were higher. When a cyst on his vocal chords hemorrhaged while on tour with Modern Baseball (the 2010s emo scene is nothing if not tightly knit), PUP lead singer Stefan Babcock had to drop off of the tour early, effectively halting the band’s stream of positive cred from their insane live shows.
Faced with a doctor literally telling them, “the dream is over,” PUP did what any idiot band without other options would do: double down. The Dream Is Over takes what was intense about PUP and ratchets it up, drawing the lyrical subjects closer, quickening their already frenetic pace, and excising nearly every bit of the roots-rock sound that bellied their punkier nature before.
With an opening track as incendiary as “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” it’s hard not to immediately understand the stakes they’re working against. Here is a band that is running themselves ragged (drinking, touring, shouting and fighting) in the name of a dream that they’ve been told in no uncertain terms “is over.” They’re seen relationships suffer; many of the tracks on this record reference support systems for the band dropping out as the tour continues (“Doubts”), the grind gets harder, and the band are left with zero prospects and even less money in their pockets (“Old Wounds”).
Yet the deeper and deeper PUP go into the reasons for people leaving them behind, the more they double down on the anti-hero aspects of their nature. “You wanna know if I’m still a prick, WELL I AM” they yelp on “Old Wounds,” unapologetically railing against those that might be turned off by their specific brand of caustic do-or-die-ism. The number of times Babcock and his compatriots rail against the forces turned against them mirrors the number of times PUP turn their guitars up louder and dive further into the mosh pit.
And why not? As they scream on “Familiar Patterns,” “They say don’t quit your day job, well guess what… I never had one!” If the music that has gotten them this far (“I’ve been blessed with shit luck,” as “Can’t Win” goes) is the only thing that doesn’t abandon PUP, then maybe it’s the only thing worth continuing. Sometimes, that includes life; “My Life is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier” is a hooky screed against the life that has been ripped from him while being on tour, the only life PUP know. But if that life is over, and the members of PUP can “die” outside their band, the only thing left to do is get louder.
“I had every chance, I had every opportunity that I could want and I ruined ‘em all.” To come back from that and dive straight forward into the enterprise that took so much from you is a powerful statement; PUP echo it with their unrelenting, energetic emo-punk. “Pine Point” sours some of the record’s powerful should-be closer, “Familiar Patterns,” but the effect of half an hour of such power isn’t lost — if you don’t want to get rowdy with the riff-raff after listening to Dream Is Over, consider your life and if you’ve acquiesced to things that compromise your dreams. Their dreams may be over, but that’s not stopping PUP.
RIYL: Beach Slang, Joyce Manor, Jeff Rosenstock, Four Year Strong
Essential Tracks: “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” “DVP,” “My Life is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier,” “Familiar Patterns”
The Hotelier – Goodness
What’s left at the end of the breakdown? It’s a question that haunts so many indie rock bands’ catalogues, especially ones that dart away from that question by piling more and more catharsis onto their formula. You’ll see below, but it’s one of the main problems I have with Car Seat Headrest’s album Teens of Denial; there’s little recognition of the after effects.
Modern Baseball would have you believe that what comes after is a choice between the things that support you (the fans) or the things that kill you (drugs, alcohol). PUP might suggest that the only thing left to do after the breakdown is to progressively buy in further; accept the nature of the constant struggle between the dream and its requisite failure, shout about it, rinse, repeat.
But what art forms other than books and excellent TV (Mad Men) tend to forget about is the life that continues during and after it, as if nothing happened. There’s a balancing effect that such lows can bring to people who appreciate the love in their lives. Nothing is forever, nothing bad, nothing good. All balances out, composing itself into a consistency that’s tough for cathartic art forms (movies, albums, performance art) to replicate.
Christian Holden, lead singer of The Hotelier, sets the task of portraying that consistency, the beauty of living within it, in front of him for the band’s third record, Goodness. After pulling out all of the emotive, cathartic stops on the powerful Home, Like Noplace is There in 2014, yelping about suicide, gender dysphoria, police brutality and romantic foibles, Goodness is largely an experiment in maintaining balance, evoking complex feelings on death, love and protection while eschewing traditionally fraught “emo” topics.
Saying that a record eschews fraught topics, then noting that it opens with a nearly minute long spoken word poem seems hypocritical, and maybe it is a little. The Hotelier are definitely still the band they were when they lost all composure on Noplace standout “Life in Drag.” Yet it takes until “Settle The Scar,” part of the record’s stunning middle third, for The Hotelier to get to a vicious guitar breakdown. Instead, the band opts for math-y emo riffs reminiscent of alt-rock and American Football, maintaining a steady pace as Holden waxes poetic over the consistent beat.
It’s a refreshing change of pace from bands often told to keep doing the (overly emotive) things that got them to the dance. The Hotelier musically zig when their compatriots are zagging, not necessarily qualitatively leaving their friends behind, just forging their own path. “Goodness, Part 2,” “Piano Player” and “Two Deliverances” each have their own unique aesthetic charms, yet each establishes a pace not of release, but of inwardly-focused mindfulness.
Which makes Holden the unquestionable star of Goodness. His vocal delivery recalls Michael Stipe in his calm moments, Davey Havok of AFI in his histrionics. His lyrics, song to song, are laser-focused on small interactions magnified to grand scales, negative and positive orbiting each other at equal speeds. “Opening Mail for My Grandmother” could be a sorrowful meditation on death, or a joyous remembrance of family; instead, it’s a simple ballad on being there for someone you love. Perhaps there are more dramatic feelings to be inferred; Holden’s not focused on them — “your sunrise apartment and incredible view / of birds that keep chirping / “I’m coming for you.” “Soft Animal” is a one-sided conversation between Holden and a small deer. It’s a rare moment of catharsis: “Make me believe all my selves align,” “make me feel like I don’t have to die.” What emotional connections Holden might sew into his songs aren’t laid bare for the audience to keep with him; better to form your own bond, Holden his. It’s no wonder Holden has encouraged fans to not read the reviews.
The Hotelier’s meteoric rise to emo standard-bearer feels very much of a piece with Brand New. Both groups released early pop-punk records neither are incredibly proud of. Both groups released banner-waving sophomore records that (in The Hotelier’s case) are rapidly becoming calling cards for the best parts of the scene they represent. Then, in a moment when it might feel like they could take over the world, Brand New released The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, a divisive and naval-gazing third record that would further tie them to their fans, but limit that relationship to outsiders. Goodness sometimes feels limiting in that way, like it requires a foreknowledge of The Hotelier’s journey to get here. But that would disregard the arm-stretching ambition of Goodness, and its potential power as an Album of the Year candidate.
Here is a band consciously darting away from everything that might guarantee themselves a place in emo’s pantheon, towards hurdles that many bands have tripped up on over countless decades. But perhaps that’s the power of this, the fourth wave of emo, and The Hotelier. They understand the stakes of pushing forward, of creating a pop ballad like album closer “End of Reel,” of crafting three album palate cleansers centered around a nursery rhyme about the moon. This is bigger than emo. Bigger than the music itself. Goodness is an account of the beauty and tragedy of life at its sometimes mundane. The Hotelier certainly don’t mean to make such a grand statement on behalf of their genre; they’ve commented at length about the complexity of even being a part of emo.
Which is probably the best evidence to date of emo’s ascendance to Indie Rock’s throne sitter. Goodness belongs side-by-side with Noplace, TWiaBP’s Harmlessness, and the other emo releases this decade as evidence that yeah, emo is here. And it’s made Indie Rock great again.
RIYL: American Football, early R.E.M., The Walkmen
Essential Tracks: “Goodness, Part 2,” “Settle The Scar,” “Fear of Good,” “End of Reel”
Other Albums to Check Out
Pity Sex – White Hot Moon: If I had had more time, we would’ve gotten a full review of this incredible album, which beautifully blends Jesus & Mary Chain-pop shoegaze with twee and emo. “Bonhomie” is an early contender for song of the year.
Dowsing – Okay: Another casualty of this absolutely stacked May (even though both this and Pity Sex came out on the last day of April… sue me). Of all the developments of emo toward taking an expansive, tent-like approach to accepting new genres, Dowsing does traditional, pre-third wave Long Island-style emo, filled with time changes, inveterate shouting, and cacophonous breakdowns. “Wasted on Hate” is not to miss.
The So So Glos – Kamikaze: Rowdy Brooklyn DIY punks (Shea Stadium, Glass House 4Ever) tense up and take a stumble backwards, managing their increasingly odd sonic ambition (“Sunny Side,” “Fool on the Street”) with the safety of just off radio ready pop-punk (“A.D.D. Life”). Powerful in spurts, unbalanced elsewhere.
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial: 24-year-old indie-rocker Will Toledo waxes misanthropic about his life being simultaneously over and not over. Combines the tense, propulsive pace of mid-period The Strokes, disaffection of early Interpol, and the droll, burnt delivery of early LCD Soundsystem into a fuzzed out indie cornucopia, constantly building to the same “woah, oh ahhhhh” grand finales. If you’re into that, you’re in for a treat.