Keeping Track: “The Shape of Jazz (June) to Come”: 10 Essential Experimental Emo Records
by Chad Jewett
1.) Two Knights – A Lot of Bad Things Happened, But We’re Still Here (2013)
If the renaissance of emo’s early, Cap’n Jazz guise has dominated its contemporary aesthetic, then no band has pushed the genre’s mathematics, rhythmic bravery, and conceptual density quite like Texas duo Two Knights. Pairing looping streams of clean guitar cursive with drums that are almost purely abstract in their sideways motion, A Lot of Bad Things Happened, But We’re Still Here plays like a jazz album. Lasting only seventeen minutes, the record is essentially a collage of odd-keyed arpeggios and blast beats punctuated by the soul-scraping confessions of Parker Lawson (songs like “I’m You’re Dad, You’re My Dad” come complete with missives like “Used to be so much closer, but I’m just too unbearable to be around”, also reorienting emo’s less savory, “blame-first” past). Miles De Bruin’s savant drumming basically sounds like a rhythmic response, a second voice reduced to algebraic patterns. By seeing how far they could push the twinkle-obsessed styles of modern emo, Two Knights turned the genre’s history into one giant collection of finger paints, then asked everyone else to figure out what they’d drawn. A Lot of Bad Things Happened is exactly as colorful as that sounds, and exactly as joyous in its own baffled sense of self.
2.) The Appleseed Cast – Low Level Owl Volumes 1 & 2 (2001)
Following in the wake of Mare Vitalis and The End of the Ring Wars, two expansive but more-or-less recognizable emo LPs, no one quite expected what The Appleseed Cast had on offer in its two-part Low Level Owl project. Digging into the more spacious moments of those earlier records with gusto, Low Level Owl drew Kid A comparisons upon release, likely due as much to the album’s baffled reception as to its post-rock bravery. Songs like “On Reflection” maintained the band’s lovely sense of upward-arcing melody, but the band pushed their own comfort zones in four dimensions until the pristine guitar rills one would associate with emo are instead made to sound like abstracted beams of light. Elsewhere, lyrics and melodies drop away for long instrumental passages of mood and ambience, as if The Appleseed Cast were experimenting with the basic rules of communication – How can we say something without saying it? Indeed, the album’s most beautiful moment comes on the instrumental motorik of “Bird of Paradise,” a music-box interlude of major key daydreaming, underlining the ways in which The Appleseed Cast could find poignancy in the farthest reaches of the studio and their own sound.
3.) Pele – Elephant (1999)
Though strictly an instrumental band, Pele’s association with several of emo’s godfathers (Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Joan of Arc, et al.) meant that their math-like, arpeggio-heavy sound would be associated with post-hardcore by default. Elephant, the band’s finest album hones in on the bright, cycling aesthetic of emo’s Chicago wing so exactly that you find yourself forgetting that the only voices on display are coming from cleanly trickling guitars and perpetually excited and excitable drums. The lack of vocals meant Pele had plenty of room to stretch out and experiment, and the chief joy of Elephant is finding all the accents and flair added to the band’s gently jazz-like post-rock aesthetic. Case-in-point: the album’s opener, “Gymnastics (Pam),” a gentle interlude of major-key snowfall that sounds not unlike Braid, until the whole thing de-familiarizes itself with coils of plunking banjo and vibraphone, until the whole thing snowballs into a fugue of intellectual indie pointillism. The rest of Elephant follows suit – delicately mathematic mood music that captivates both with addition and subtraction.
4.) The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Whenever, If Ever (2013)
Given the sheer pop-craft instincts on display on Whenever, If Ever, the debut full-length from the Connecticut post-emo collective The World Is A Beautiful Place…, it can be easy to lose sight of how expansive and exploratory the record actually is. But folded in between bubbling keyboard lopes and VFW-destined sing alongs are long interludes of spacious atmosphere and pensive quiet. Songs either sprawl or connect from smaller pieces like links in a chain, making for an album that sounds more like one discrete New England symphony than a collection of songs. “Picture Of A Tree That Doesn’t Look Okay,” quite possibly the band’s best song, manages all of the above in under five minutes, a swift triptych through Codeine-like slow-core, sparkling post-hardcore builds, and the kind of crescendo hook that the Arcade Fire would sell their Talking Heads Incorporated stock to have. That Whenever If, Ever never feels like anything other than the product of a smart band’s natural curiosity, joyously rendered, bodes well for a group of musicians that is still pushing itself, having recently teased a spoken-world collaborative album. Don’t be surprised when that one ends up being a pop album (perhaps despite itself) too.
5.) The Jazz June – Better Off Without Air (2002)
Early Jazz June releases like The Boom, The Motion and The Music play like slightly more pop-oriented, vaguely more direct versions of the sort of brain-y Midwestern emo you’d associate with Braid or Horse Latitudes-era Promise Ring. Which is to say that no one saw a record like Better Off Without Air, the band’s last proper album, coming. Utterly unwilling to concern itself with strictures of genre, familiar song structure, or the unspoken rules of how albums work, Better Off Without Air moves from icy post-hardcore algebra to synth-laden daydream spaces to wide-open alt-country, sometimes over the course of the same song. The album begins with the jagged bounce of “Drugs and Models,” erring more on the side of Domestica than Every Night Fireworks, heavy on glass-like slices of brittle guitar and obliquely-angled rhythmic interplay. If The Jazz June were concerned about the unfamiliarity of their new, more idiosyncratic sound, they certainly didn’t betray those worries with the following track, “Hate/Bass,” a two-minute passage of bit-crushed keyboards and deconstructed beat-work. If anything, the album’s more familiar moments are crowded into its back half (with the exception of the Fugazi-esque jam of album closer “The Submarine Song”), arriving like old friends rather than safe respites. It’s an album that gives you no choice but to invest. The Jazz June seems utterly confident in piling challenge upon challenge and Better Off Without Air is never less than thrilling in its sheer “no-rules” audacity. Indeed, on songs like “Red Bank Blues” and “Over and Over” the band’s ability to melt post-hardcore angularity into post-rock spaciousness or country-esque rustle, all while maintaining its gorgeous sense of melody and song narrative, simply signaled that The Jazz June had found a way to bend their sound to any shape they saw fit.
Check back here next week for Part 2.