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Keeping up with indie rock’s ever-changing landscape is no small task, but at the very least you think you’d be able to keep up with a single indie rock label. Not so if that label happens to be Deep Elm. One of the prime purveyors of emo and other emotionally focused post-punk styles, if anything Deep Elm might eventually sag under the weight of their own catalogue. They seem to be on a major roll, releasing about three of four noteworthy discs every season. Even if certain bands, like Slowride and The Appleseed Cast, are certain to have better albums than others, Deep Elm manages to have a stable of talented, capable bands at its disposal, each waiting to put out some fresh music.
So what’s an indie loving music junkie to do? Why pick up the label sampler, of course! Sound Spirit Fury Fire is the latest collection of singles culled from Deep Elm’s recent past. The last sampler came out in January of 2000, so there’s definitely fresh material here, although it comes from many of the same players that pervious volumes highlighted. Along with Slowride and The Appleseed Cast, there’s Brandston, Seven Storey, Cross My Heart, Planes Mistaken for Stars, Pop Unknown, Starmarket, Five Eight and Camber. No. 3 brings us new faces as well, such as Benton Falls, David Singer, The White Octave, The Dead Red Sea, Hundred Hands, Red Animal War, and Last Days of April. If you’ve had a twitch in your side to check out any of these bands based on a friend’s recommendation or a show you’ve seen, this is the place to check out one of their select songs in a friendly setting.
To Deep Elm’s credit, this sampler has the trademark level of quality that all of their collections have come to be known for. There are only a handful of tracks that stumble on this collection, which is impressive for a nineteen song disc. Red Animal War’s “Hope” plays into every one of the stereotypes that haunt any use of the word “emo”, from the impassioned-but-strained vocals to the mopey punk rock guitars, but has such a positive message it’s almost anomalous. The White Octave’s “Call the Kiss” is just short of being unbearable for it’s horribly off-key, Robert Smith-like vocals descending into raw screaming, maudlin lyrics, and boring melody. And while Five Eight‘s “Off Season” is a well-played, intricate song, its effectiveness is undercut by lines like a character in the song saying “What kind of vacation is this?” after being dumped from a boat, lines that produce an unintentional humor and make the song hard to take seriously.
However, Sound Spirit Fury Fire plays to Deep Elm’s strengths for the most part. There are two offerings from The Appleseed Cast, whose Low Level Owl, volumes one and two, are among the best albums Deep Elm has ever produced. “Steps and Numbers” is filled with hooky melodies, a catchy and singable chorus, and some excellent changes that make the song truly exceptional. The other song from the band, “Fishing the Sky”, is from its previous Mare Vitalis release, and while still a good song in its own right, winds up showing how far The Appleseed Cast have come in their more recent work. “Rockets and Jets”, from the soon-to-be-released disc As I Survive the Suicide Bomber, makes a new Slowride record seem like an event to be anticipated. Benton Falls’ “Fighting Starlight” is an excellent slice of their strong debut of the same name. And both Last Days of April (“Will the Violins Be Playing?”) and Brandston (“Leaving Ohio”) make a great case for the spirit of pop being alive and well in indie rock.
If there’s a detriment to Sound Spirit Fury Fire it’s that it reveals what many have already claimed to be true: there is a definite “Deep Elm sound”. If you didn’t know any better, it would be easy to mistake this album from a release from a single band. It’s big, full guitar rock, vocals with a certain whine, heavy melodies, and more or less miserable lyrical content. It really takes a couple of close listenings to pick out the characteristics that make each act unique. So it’s bands like Planes Mistaken for Stars, Seven Storey, and David Singer that help break up the overall indie rock monotony that this album could otherwise sink into.
Planes Mistaken for Stars and Seven Storey are some of the heavier acts under Deep Elm’s wing. Planes might go well under the “screamo” category if it was in any way useful, but they’re more or less like the rest of their Deep Elm bretheren except for a more furiously punk sound and a lot more screaming. Seven Storey are one of the most interesting diversions on Deep Elm. Previously Seven Storey Mountain, they really sound like a great long lost metal act with a better sense of melody than metal ever had and a more compelling voice in Lance Lammers than just about any other band on Deep Elm.
But it’s David Singer that should grab the most attention. Deep Elm seems to have taken a gamble on indie pop, chosing one artist to slip into an otherwise rock heavy grouping, and for his part Singer steals the show. There are two tracks by Singer, breaking up the emo for a bit of high-melody pop at different points in the album. “Madonna Complex” is an undeniably sweet song whose mellow acoustic vibe make Singer’s comparisons to Elliot Smith obvious. But even better is “The Cost of Living”, the title track from Singer’s debut album. A lighthearted, symphonic track with wonderfully crafted lyrics sounding like E or Michael Penn, “The Cost of Living” makes you think your CD player has skipped and you’re listening to a Parasol or Hidden Agenda sampler. If Deep Elm needs any encouragement to continue to build up indie pop along with their rock acts, let this be it. More!
Sound Spirit Fury Fire is worth it just to be up on some of the best acts from one of the most celebrated labels in indie rock. It’s also just a great collection of songs that sound great together. You can pick your favorites and check out their whole albums, or you can just stick to this collection as a good disc in and of itself. Whatever the case, it seems that Deep Elm’s commitment to quality and quantity will ensure that there will be another sampler on the way shortly. Here’s your chance not to get left out of the loop now.