Music News

Four Flavors of Emo

Emo — the all-purpose label given to bands that, well... there really is no conventional way to define the emo sound. It's attitude, countenance, and clothing style. And the four bands coming to Ray's Downtown this Sunday — Kansas' Koufax, New Jersey's ActionReaction and the Finals, and Illinois' the Forecast — exemplify the different ways to interpret the term. Some do it more successfully than others, as we'll soon explain. But first, let's offer a little context.

In the words of noted pop culture observer W. Axl Rose, "Where do we go, where do we go now?" Rock critics and fans alike are always pondering where music's going, happily indulging in the "What's Next?" parlor game. Of course, in the Internet Age, trendspotting has become easier — sounds from all corners of the Earth are discovered and dissected practically the day after they're recorded, making it highly unlikely that a new style or genre could sneak up and slay the prevailing zeitgeist overnight, as grunge did to hair-metal or punk did to prog rock.

Recent musical movements (nü-metal, garage-rock revivalism) seem to roll in more gradually, though their lifespans generally follow the customary pattern — they make an initial splash, invade the mainstream for a little while, then die off as fanbases grow up or change their tastes; as fresh ideas devolve into cliché; as artists leading the charge grow complacent in the wake of their fame and fortune; and as hordes of Johnny-come-latelies rush in to get a piece of the action, oversaturating the scene and choking it with pale imitations.

Emo, or at least the genre's current form — with its jagged, crunchy guitar textures lifted from hardcore-punk and refashioned into good ol' pop hooks; its predominantly wounded-heart lyrics melodramatically whispered, yelped, or screamed; its shifting dynamics underscoring vulnerability and amplifying anger — appears to be nearing that end-phase after several years of dominating radio, MTV, and magazine covers. Leading acts like Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights, and Taking Back Sunday still enjoy solid record sales by sticking to their successful formulas, but how much longer can that last?

Some musicians immersed in these movements, whether by choice or circumstance, are smart enough to heed the writing on the wall and attempt to evolve their sound, lest they be rendered obsolete — even dopey Kid Rock, aware that rap-metal was hurtling toward irrelevancy, bought his career a couple of more years by embracing outlaw country music and Southern rock. Likewise, emo poster boy (and punching bag) Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional steered his group's latest disc, Dusk and Summer, away from the usual emo sonics and Gen-Y anguish and toward a more mature, trad-rock vibe (hell, the album features a guest spot from Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz). Which brings us to ActionReaction, a band fronted by Carrabba's former bandmate, Jason Gleason.

ActionReaction — not to be confused with New York's Action Action — is emo only by pedigree. Gleason's time in Further Seems Forever (Carrabba's pre-Dashboard group) puts ActionReaction squarely in the emo camp. But it's a more toned-down, indie-pop-oriented brand of emo. This is a band that takes its time in the studio. Whether that translates well to the stage is up to the audience... well, it probably helps to be familiar with the songs beforehand — don't expect to be doing much dancing. That's something you're more likely to get from Koufax.

Koufax started life in 1999 as a guitar-driven outfit incorporating pianos and synths in the vein of its heroes, now-defunct Kansas City emo stalwarts the Get Up Kids. After the Kids' decade-long run ended, the rhythm section of brothers Rob and Ryan Pope migrated to Koufax in time to record the quintet's third full-length, 2005's Hard Times Are in Fashion (Doghouse). While Koufax's prior two albums dabbled in new-wavey synth pop and 1970s-style yacht rock, those elements are pushed to the fore on the indie-poppish Hard Times — bouncy piano lines, snappy jazzy rhythms, and jangly six strings dominate, with only the occasional guitar slash linking the band to its emo past.

Singer Robert Suchan, who once offered a nasal semi-whine all too common to emo acts, has restructured his vocals into a cross between the Cure's Robert Smith and the Strokes' Julian Casablancas (which is actually more appealing than that might suggest). His lyrics are less solipsistic too, with the bulk of Hard Times aiming its frustrations at political and social concerns. "Always in denial about a president evidently cheating through that awful smile," he sings in "Back and Forth." "We're asleep through schooling because the books, they weren't worth reading," he admonishes in "Why Bother at All." If Suchan's assault on "ugly Americans" more obsessed with money, easy celebrity, and substance abuse than making the world a better place comes off as overly didactic at times, it sure beats listening to yet more clumsily articulated personal drama.

It's the words that pour out of the mouths of singers Matt Reilly and Jason Sazer that mar the Finals' otherwise likeable debut full-length, Plan Your Getaway (Immortal). Rather than run screaming altogether from anything resembling emo, this youngish quintet takes its inspiration from such mid/late-'90s practitioners as Jimmy Eat World and Braid; Getaway is packed with anthemic, hard-charging guitar melodies, yearning midsong breakdowns, sweet vocal harmonies, and a few synth fillips, all proffered with a mature, Everydude kind of attitude (e.g., no annoying histrionics).

Ah, but the lyrics. It doesn't get any more emo-cliché than "Raining in My Heart": "Raining, we do not belong/Shaming, me for holding on/Blaming, you for what went wrong." And then there's "Something to You," one of the weakest calls for self-improvement you'll ever hear: "This song won't really change anything... I understand that my words don't mean shit." Sounds like the pep talk Devil Rays coaches deliver each year to ensure another losing season.

The Forecast, however, has devised an absolutely winning move by melding the big power-punk hooks of Hey Mercedes, the Promise Ring, and Jawbreaker to whiskey-soaked alt-country scruffiness and rip-roarin' Southern-rock 'tude on their second album, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Victory). Call 'em the Giddy-Up Kids if you like — the quartet's combination of twang and crunch on "A Fist Fight for Our Fathers," "It's a Long Drive," and "Every Gun Makes Its Own Tomb" is far more fresh and engaging than the agreeable-if-pedestrian emo-guitar catharsis found on last year's Late Night Conversation, and the songwriting overall is particularly sharp and evocative without being cloying. Not even a guest appearance by labelmate Mark Thomas Kluepfel of Action Action on closer "Welcome Home" can ruin the vibe.

And the band's made even more distinctive, unrivaled even, by the male-female vocal interplay among gritty-voiced singer/guitarists Matt Webb and Dustin Addis and powerful singer/bassist Shannon Burns; the three exchange verses and harmonize throughout, with Burns taking the lead on "Fist Fight" — when was the last time you heard that on an emo album? Burns' increased vocal load is highly welcome, a huge reason why Gunmen is better than Conversation, and it certainly serves as a reminder that the dearth of women in the emo arena, past and present, is nothing short of pathetic. But if the Forecast is indicative of where emo is going, then the future looks exceptionally bright.

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Michael Alan Goldberg