Every insurgency has its counter, as anyone in the CIA will tell you. Thus emo has its backlash in the adherents to the gospel of quiet is the new loud. The slogan comes from The Kings of Convenience album of the same name. The sound is a kind of Simon and Garfunkel for the new millennium, although in Spokane’s case I think the epithet that suits is “Galaxie 500 on lithium”.
I’m not really saying that Rick Alverson wrote and produced this record in order to involve himself in a seriously minor ripple on the vast cultural ocean. But part of the critic’s job is to categorize, right? And in this past year I’ve heard my share of pensive, whispered stuff. It’s nice. The Proud Graduates is especially nice.
Before taking on his current Magnetic Fields-esque persona, Alverson fronted the Virginia band Drunk, which I have never heard (though now I really want to). From the web page it looks pretty punk rock, with guitars and white tee shirts and short hair but also an accordion, and some rather intelligent lyrics. Indeed, I occasionally heard chord structures and gentle progressions that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a record by, say, Seam or Galaxie 500, whose dreamy ethos has already been evoked by way of comparison. The difference is, everything comes out all wavy and distended: those tight three-chord structures have come apart like a paper bag in the rain. The Proud Graduates is the second Spokane release; the first is called Leisure and Other Songs. On this album Alverson’s joined by the winsome Courtney Bowles, whose vocal accents brighten all but a few tracks. I would say that both vocalists, both Alverson and Bowles, are equal part players with the cello, violin and guitars; one of the simplest but most striking aspects of this album is the way the cello and violin extend and interact with the vocal refrains.
Occasionally, Alverson has added ambient sound effects. On “Disappointed Athlete”, the sounds of passing cars on wet pavement wash swooshingly behind mournful violin. The album itself starts with a kind of lo-fi buzz — a soft, reassuring hum (think vacuum tubes), not an industrial whine. And “Other Rooms” incorporates the sounds of children at a playground. Their isolated shrieks and, in particular, one kid’s almost growling rage make for a ghoulish backdrop.
“Ill from Asking” combines a sort of mandolin acoustic strum with hushed musing about the “hundred things I’m meant / To do and yet / I find myself sitting”. This was by far my favorite song on the album. It exemplifies the merits of extremely sparse orchestration, and even of something called lyricism.
I guess all of this overwrought description isn’t doing much to convince you that this isn’t emo — since those guys wrote the book on overwrought. And this certainly isn’t the sort of record you’d put on to get up and out in the morning — unless languid desolation is a real motivator for you. Emo and this sort of quiet stuff are two sides of the same coin I think. They both try to capture emotion in a new way. The emo strategy is what I’d call antironic, a challenge to the sarcasm of our jaded age. Spokane is more critique than challenge: an under-the-radar stab at the tender heart that still beats under the old dame’s freckled breast.