Ah, emo. Has there been any other musical genre that has inspired so much love, ire, apathy, and agony in the last five years? Has there been any other term in the musical world that has led to furious debates over whether it is a proper genre, style, scene, or just simply a catch-all adjective for journalists, labels, and those looking to cash in on a ready-made fanbase? Or perhaps the most important question is, “Does anyone care?”
Deep Elm certainly does. Ever since 1997’s issue of the first volume in the Emo Diaries series, the label has been promoting emo hard and fast. Many of the bands that have made the cut onto one of the discs in this series have also released albums on Deep Elm. And in five years they’ve cranked out releases in the series as fast as possible, keeping emo a hot topic and exposing listeners to more and more bands that wrap themselves in the emo flag.
In answering the emo backlash that has built up against the genre/category/whatever in the last few years, the folks at Deep Elm have included the following in the liner notes to Chapter 6: “Deep Elm does not attempt to define or set limitations for the musical style often referred to as ‘emo,’ as we believe that any combination of songwriting, lyrics and live performance means something different to everyone.” Wow. How’s that for a cop-out? Or is it perhaps the wise approach, the higher road less taken, to a topic that inevitably causes hackles to rise and indie kids to scream invective at each other about how they know emo, and that, sir, is no emo? Of course, Deep Elm’s comments also place them in a precarious position. They steadily produce emo albums, by bands that use emo as a self-descriptive term, and have a lot of stock invested in the Emo Diaries series. By saying that they don’t define it, that in fact just about anything could be called emo, Deep Elm might be opening themselves up to the animosity of both those who declaim emo’s very existence and those who are sure that they know what is and is not emo. The former will use this quote as fodder for their arguments that it doesn’t exist, while the latter might turn against Deep Elm seeing the comment as renouncing their commitment to devoted emo kids.
For the purpose of review, none of this really matters, although it does say something about the tumultuous nature of the scene. But, like Deep Elm says, it’s the music that matters. The first edition in the Emo Diariesseries included such luminaries as Jimmy Eat World, Race Car Riot, and Samiam. Subsequent releases have showcased songs by Appleseed Cast, Pop Unknown, Seven Storey Mountain, Schema, Penfold, Spy Versus Spy, Five Speed, The White Octave, and Slowride, among many others. Some of these bands have achieved moderate success on their own, but, for the most part, this series is built around the idea of showcasing new songs by new artists. As with the other discs in the series, all the songs on The Silence In My Heart are previously unreleased tracks. And, based on the strength of this disc and past successes, it’s a formula that works well to give promising acts a chance at bigger and better things.
Chapter 6 includes tunes by Southpaw, Lewis, Benton Falls, Stuart, Dear Diary, Barcode, Hangin’ On a Thread, Andherson, Honeysuckle Serontina, Naht, The Dead Red Sea, and The Desert City Soundtrack. In that order (hey, the series gives all artists equal weight, so I’ll give them all a mention). Overall, the biggest surprise about this disc is that it works well as a compilation. It has a fair dose of diversity in sound and texture, the songs are arranged in an order that doesn’t get boring, and most of the songs here stand on their own strengths and weaknesses. But fear not, this disc is par for the emo course at heart. Most of the vocals are nasally whined and/or screamed, guitars rule the day, and this is an all-male cast. Even with bands having as geographically diverse homes as England, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, and all over the United Sates, they all manage to sound like geeky, mid-western US, late-teen boys. And they’re all so, so, so emotionally torn and wounded in their sensitive souls.
As individual tracks go, there are certainly some highlights. Southpaw kicks off the collection with “Hub”, a pop-rock song that fits right into the Jimmy Eat World/Get Up Kids emo (or is it?) tradition. Displaying a hubris in the chorus line, “I’m a major player in the heart of this whole damn scene / I’m the hub, not the cog”, Southpaw actually manages to be less weepy and self-effacing than the typical emo fare. Benton Falls’ warbling “Tell Him” is strangely beautiful due in large part to the song’s strained, but captivating, vocals. On “Kent”, Barcode opts for a rock/pop formula that could just as well be the Gin Blossoms were it not for the whined vocals, but turns out one of the most consistent songs on the disc. Andherson’s contribution, the uber-catchy “Wellspent”, might be among the best that emo has to offer, being both full of sad, poetic lyrics and punchy, upbeat guitars. And after repeated listenings, Honeysuckle Serontina’s “Stoopid” consistently wound up getting stuck in my head with its great riffs and passionate, not-whiny singing.
And then there are the moments that strain even the ears of the most devoted indie rock fan. Dear Diary’s “This Year’s First Snow” features dual vocals that are both so off key and out of synch that it’s a chore to listen to. Thankfully it’s short. Naht’s “Way Not Stand Against You” is both a gem and a lump of coal. These Japanese kids actually incorporate strings into their guitars, to interesting effect, but the painful screeching vocals represent the worst aspects of emo. And then there’s the fact that much of this music is pretty much indistinguishable from other indie rock, or even pop. While Hangin’ On A Thread’s “Flavour” is a decent tune, much like Honeysuckle Serontina’s offering, it’s difficult to say what distinguishes either of these from straight rock. The offerings from Stuart and The Desert City Soundtrack would sound comfortable alongside the recent effete British pop-crop of Coldplay and Travis.
Therein lies the crux of the problem with the latest in the Emo Diariesseries. After all the debates have raged and the dust has settled, there seems to be little reason for calling this a collection of emo songs. Except perhaps for the fact that emo devotees will buy it. It is a semi-famous series by now, almost the Just Say… series of Sire Records fame for the contemporary indie scene. But this isn’t a label sampler. If it were, it wouldn’t have to make claims to being anything in particular. If it weren’t for the fact that unsigned bands and unreleased songs get full treatment here by Deep Elm, there’d be no reason for the label to maintain the series as is. But since these aren’t all Deep Elm bands, and since the majority of them actually show some real promise, this series is still vital in its niche.
Don’t expect to have emo pegged and nailed down, explained or defined, by The Silence In My Heart. Emo could still be the result of the collapse of dividing lines between punks and Goths, a sensitive subdivision of indie rock, or just a fictitious marketing device. But if you’re interested in emo, a fan of emo, or just looking for a sample of underground bands that has some real strength and remains listenable, then this album will do the trick. Perhaps the best praise that could be heaped on this disc is that it wouldn’t have to be called “emo” for it to be worthwhile.