Keeping Track: The 10 Essential Vagrant Records Releases
by Chad Jewett
For a solid half-decade, mall-dependent, allowance-limited kids had a sure thing in Vagrant Records, a So-Cal based indie label that had a remarkable hit-streak running from roughly 1998 through 2004, and including some of the most beloved emo, punk, and indie-rock records of the era. Here is our list of the label’s ten most essential releases:
10.) Moneen – Are We Really Happy With Who We Are Right Now? (2003)
Released in an all-time great year for emo and post-hardcore music (Deja Entendu, Ugly Organ, In Reverie, War All The Time, Transatlanticism, Lusitania … the list really does go on) Moneen’s second album and Vagrant debut, Are We Really Happy With Who We Are Right Now?, got a tad lost in the shuffle, but is overdue for rediscovery. The album’s knotty, vaguely math-ish take on the pop-first Vagrant sound was a breath of fresh, more expansive air, just as catchy as more straightforward label-mates, but with novel, thorny ideas about rhythm, song structure, and interweaving harmonies that made Are We Really Happy… feel like a square meal where other pop-emo records eventually started tasting like junk food. Take for example the album’s title track, a four minute jaunt resplendent with all the octave chords and mall-sized hooks you’d expect on a Get Up Kids record, but with a tricky, maze-like structure and random jabs of post-hardcore angularity, making each easy hook feel like something earned, both by the band and the listener. If Vagrant’s discography was never all that complex, Moneen offered its golden age a slightly more abstract, refreshingly thoughtful new look.
9.) The Get Up Kids – Eudora (2001)
Technically a collection of B-sides, covers, and scattered leftovers, The Get Up Kids’ 2001 compilation Eudora was nevertheless a defining document of Vagrant’s 1998 to 2004 high water years. Considering that there was probably a copy of the album floating in around in the used sedan of most of your high school friends, rendering that pastel green cover indelible, Eudora is also something of a sentimental favorite for a certain time and musical place. Like any odds-and-ends collection there are a few clunkers (I’d prefer the version of reality where The Get Up Kids never covered Motley Crue) and redundancies (there are six “alternate versions” of tracks housed elsewhere, though the differences are frequently interesting enough), but the band’s plucky cover of The Cure’s “Close To Me” and the terrific “Up On The Roof” were as good as anything the band came up with for Red Letter Day or Something To Write Home About. Pairing the band’s earlier sugar-rush emo with the wider pallets to come on On A Wire, Eudora is also a fascinating mile marker for a band that never stopped growing or working on its sound. Over a decade later, Eudora plays like an idiosyncratic fan favorite.
8.) Saves The Day – Ups and Downs: Early Recordings and B-Sides (2004)
If Eudora makes the cut (which it should), then any record whose starting five includes “Ups and Downs,” “Sell My Old Clothes, I’m Off To Heaven,” and “A Drag In D Flat” ought to be a shoe-in. Throw in the fact that Saves The Day’s Ups and Downs: Early Recordings and B-Sides also includes the mixtape fodder of their early acoustic EP, I’m Sorry I’m Leaving, and the case could be made that the collection is practically a 90’s emo Rosetta Stone. The album’s opening three tracks play like a reverse timeline of Saves The Day’s maturation from the Lifetime-by-way-of-Superchunk buoyancy of “A Drag In D Flat” (and its attendant album, Through Being Cool) to the more thoughtful, impressionist indie rock of Stay What You Are, rendered in startling assuredness on “Ups and Downs,” the band’s finest non-album moment. The covers here are less embarrassing than some of The Get Up Kids’ choices (The Descendents and The Clash versus a song written by Nikki Sixx), and the album-closing live rendition of way too many people’s favorite Saves The Day tune, “Jessie & My Whetstone” serves as a charming souvenir for a generation of kids who made it through high school with the calming influence of Chris Conley’s self-deprecating neo-Romanticism.
7.) Alkaline Trio – From Here To Infirmary (2001)
Outside of a passing similarity to The Lawrence Arms and a considerable likeness to Jawbreaker and Samiam, nothing sounded quite like Alkaline Trio’s greatest album, 2001’s From Here To Infirmary. Leavening jet-black verses of sharp, minor-key punk with bright, skyscraping choruses, then repeating that formula again and again, Infirmary was the infectious sound of a band figuring itself out and hitting its marks effortlessly. “Private Eye” sets the band’s chosen mode of macabre-pop verses (“You’re Dead” and “Bloodied Up” are indicative of the album’s chief concerns) and candy-apple hooks with startling precision. The rest of the record follows suit, the tag team of Matt Skiba and Dan Andriano each taking their turn at vaguely cartoonish Halloween emo. Things only settle ever so slightly for album-closer “Crawl,” a redux of a Vagrant compilation track that adds stirring slabs of brightened piano over Andriano’s vaguely bizarre poetics, lending an oddly anthemic quality to an everyday thought like “I don’t know who your boyfriend is.” In a way, that final moment is From Here To Infirmary in a nutshell, an accidental masterpiece from three punk everymen who backed their way into one of the best pop-punk records of the 2000s.
6.) The Anniversary – Designing For A Nervous Breakdown (2000)
Flirting with cult-classic status at this point, Designing For A Nervous Breakdown mixed indie-rock sing-along exuberance with trickles of clean emo guitars in a way that almost uncannily anticipates what catchy post-hardcore sounds like in 2014. Featuring the lovely alto of Adrianne Verhoeven in an era when Vagrant Records and (a lot of) emo in general was painfully male, both in actuality and perspective, Designing For A Nervous Breakdown took the Moog-fizz of The Get Up Kids and applied it to a wider range of sounds, concepts, and emotional ideas. Highlights include the ebullient album-opener, “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” (fourteen year old bonus points for the Carson McCullers reference), and the sugar-rush of “Emma Discovery,” both of which moved as athletically as Vagrant’s most stereotypically “punk” signees, but with a greater sense of whimsy and tune-craft. “Hart Crane” (another great Modernist name-drop) goes full-on Rentals in its synth pop curlicues, all set in a gorgeously ephemeral major key day dream. The Anniversary are one of the sole emo-reunion holdouts, and given how perfect Nervous Breakdown was for the generation showing up to these shows, I can only assume there are plenty of fingers crossed.
5.) Hot Rod Circuit – Sorry About Tomorrow (2002)
Vagrant had a lot of luck with college towns, snagging Saves The Day out of Princeton, The Anniversary from Jayhawk country in Lawrence, Kansas, and Hot Rod Circuit from Auburn, Alabama (home of Auburn University), and New Haven, Connecticut (home to Yale University). Landing somewhere along the spectrum of the previous two bands while leaning even a bit more towards the mid-tempo indie rock of Superchunk or Archers of Loaf, Hot Rod Circuit’s debut Vagrant release, 2002’s Sorry About Tomorrow approached the mall-ready emo pop of their label peers with an eye towards slower tempos and more complex harmonic ideas. For every obvious MTV2 candidate like “The Pharmacist” (a two minute pop-punk fireworks display that still sounds great over a decade later) there were prickly, methodical slow-burners like “Consumed By Laziness” and “At Nature’s Mercy,” songs that never sacrificed melody, but also opted for surrounding their readily-available hooks with expansive verses and interludes of minor-key mood music. Sorry About Tomorrow is the rare record that is at once a compact dispatch of easily-consumed mall punk doubling as an idea-rich sleeper. Seemingly not content to be either a pop-punk band or an idiosyncratic indie cult favorite, Hot Rod Circuit willed themselves, and Sorry About Tomorrow, into being both.
4.) Hey Mercedes – Every Night Fireworks (2001)
Hey Mercedes essentially operated as a platform for Bob Nanna’s growing tendency toward tunefulness — a pop streak already apparent on Frame & Canvas — with Braid’s rhythm section lending their light touch to songs pitched towards sheer melodic connection. Every Night Fireworks, Hey Mercedes’ debut album, stands as one of the two most underrated Vagrant releases ever (we’ll get to the other one in a minute): an utterly infectious, whip-smart string of pop songs that stretched explosive hooks over the same wiry post-hardcore mathematics that made Braid VFW legends. If Frame & Canvas’s most tangled moments felt like music-theory gems, then Every Night Fireworks whittled each of those left turns into highlights to be drummed out on your lap, whiling away summer evenings in a friend’s car. The album doesn’t even come close to a lull, perfectly hitting its marks, from the giddy sprint of album opener “The Frowning Of A Lifetime” to the pure-Nanna wordplay of “Eleven to Your Seven” (“I spent the last three months in mental traction”) to the airy shimmers of album-closer “Let’s Go Blue.” Every Night Fireworks is overdue for an American Football style rediscovery, the kind of all-of-a-sudden consensus that launches two hundred bands, all pretending they don’t have “Our Weekend Starts On Wednesday” in mind every second. Just know I’ll be first in line for the vinyl-reissue. Blue-and-white starburst please.
3.) The Get Up Kids – On A Wire (2002)
If history and legacy were non-factors, I would have On A Wire as number two, no doubt about it. Getting points both for sheer audacity (one has to imagine The Get Up Kids had some sense of the temper tantrums that would ensue – and very much did — after fans didn’t get another forty minutes of “Ten Minutes”) and for the sheer beauty of the alt-country inflected twilight emo of the album, On A Wire was an utterly remarkable record that sounds even better thirteen years later. When it wasn’t busy breaking new ground on the Neko Case-spookiness of “Walking On A Wire” and “Let The Reigns Go Loose” or the Lambchop-lite rumination of “Overdue,” The Get Up Kids were giving a dusty, middle-American makeover to their earlier heart-stung indie pop. “Stay Gone” and “Wish You Were Here” are just as hook-rich as “Action & Action,” but with the added benefit of a world-weary wryness that would always make the most sense for the band’s slightly more sardonic worldview. Throw into the bargain the absolute miracle of a song that is “Campfire Kansas,” a lo-fi acoustic diorama of a day spent in the woods, and you realize just how undeniable On A Wire actually is. That its down moments were often dire in their gloominess (“Overdue” starts the album with some Fevers & Mirrors level sadness) didn’t help The Get Up Kids, and the upbeat recovery of Guilt Show revealed that the album’s poisonous fan-reception arguably made the band blink, On A Wire still stands as one of Vagrant’s most sophisticated and rewarding releases. Imagine what we might have gotten had fans freaked out just a little less?
2.) The Get Up Kids – Something To Write Home About (1999)
With history and merch sales on its side (I still see that robot-cupid logo everywhere), one can’t really deny the sheer force of Something To Write Home About. Whittling the gut-wrenched punk poetry of Braid and Jawbreaker into three minute bursts of radio-ready pop nirvana, Something To Write Home About simply figured out the formula first, and didn’t quit until it had an album that etched itself on the brains of every kid who passed mall afternoons reading Alternative Press on those god-awful Barnes & Noble benches. The opening salvo of “Holiday” and “Action & Action” played like an emo version of “Like A Rolling Stone” — to paraphrase the Boss, it kicked open the door of punk kids’ minds, pairing uncanny energy with heart-on-sleeve adolescence in a way that still sounds startlingly complete. If you were a teenager in 1965, it was that snare hit. If you were a teenager in the late 90s, it was that pick-slide, a bolt of lightning that announced the breathless charge of “Holiday” like manna from the gods. The song sounds so absolute in its wide-open shouts and tireless sprint that it’s almost hard to imagine the band having anything left in the tank for the next eleven songs. When the whole thing boils down to a Promise Ring-esque murmur in the song’s second minute you can almost imagine the foreheads slapped at the brilliant idea of being THAT loud and THAT quiet. Bands tend to break up after figuring things out as completely as The Get Up Kids did here. Instead, they spend the course of Something To Write Home About figuring out a dozen ways of approaching the punk love song, sometimes cooling down in the steady-footed middle reaches of “I’m A Loner Dottie, A Rebel…” and “Red Letter Day”, sometimes going aggressively maudlin on “Valentine” and “I’ll Catch You.” But as a forty-six minute whole, Something To Write Home About now reads like a how-to manual, a beginner’s guide to emo, written in the right place, at the right time.
1.) Saves The Day – Stay What You Are (2001)
With each passing year it becomes harder and harder to fully quantify the revelation that was Saves The Day’s 2001 Vagrant debut, Stay What You Are. That nothing sounded quite like it before was proof of its innovation; that nothing has sounded like it since (though Annabel and The Hotelier are currently continuing this album’s legacy of melody-rich insightfulness) is proof of its serendipity. Despite having a hallowed place in a thousand harshly-used touring vans, nothing has really come close to the bronzed American romanticism and Whitman-esque ecstatic youth of Stay What You Are. Blooming around that single, sun-dappled opening note that begins the album (and its finest moment), “At Your Funeral,” can still quiet a room, even if it’s only for the split second before every voice mimics Chris Conley’s boy-ish falsetto: “This song will become the anthem of your underground…”. Simultaneously expanding and condensing the ultra-melodic East Coast emo-core of Through Being Cool and lacquering it with new levels of thick, reedy guitar pop (with help of Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf), Stay What You Are has the good fortune of offering eleven essential punk songs that also sound absolutely radiant. The almost alt-country rich twin-guitar sound of guitarists Dave Soloway and Ted Alexander shimmers like the album cover’s gilded wheatfield over the tenacious, scene-stealing low-end of Eben D’Amico (probably the greatest punk rock bassist ever) and Bryan Newman. Essentially a triptych through archetypal moments of American youth and its attendant changes, the album breezes through pop-punk bounce (“A Certain Tragedy,” “Jukebox Breakdown”) to jagged post-hardcore electricity (“As Your Ghost Takes Flight,” “All I’m Losing Is Me”), to gently-unfurling missives of mythic acceptance (“This Is Not An Exit”) before landing on the startling night-scape of “Firefly,” the album’s quickest, most heart-in-throat moment. After an album that feels like the slow-going travails of becoming the person you’ll spend the rest of your life being, Stay What You Are somehow predicts the half-nostalgic meaning it would go on to carry by taking one last glimpse at teen melodrama, yelps of long walks home sparking along the surface of one last hyper-sweetened Lifetime ode. Then, all of a sudden, the song spreads out like the night sky under which it transpires, Conley dropping earlier anxieties for sweet earnestness: “To me you are the light from a light bulb breaks sometimes…”. That little grammatical tick is perfect (there should be a “that” after “bulb”, but listen again; there isn’t): a final moment of youthful energy overtaking our best efforts. That mixture of Young American joyousness and tired contemplation have rendered Stay What You Are indelible, an album that has soundtrack a thousand late drives and just as many languorous afternoons. “This song will become the anthem of your underground.” They weren’t wrong…
The Elected – Bury Me In My Rings
Hey Mercedes – Loses Control
The New Amsterdams – Never You Mind