Keeping Track: “The Shape of Jazz (June) to Come”: 10 Essential Experimental Emo Records, Part 2
by Chad Jewett
(For Part 1 of our list, head over here.)
6.) Foxing – The Albatross (2013)
Concepts like “experimentalism” tend to presume abrasion and difficulty, but in the hands of St. Louis post-rock quintet Foxing, emo avant-garde seems to come as easy as breathing. Bathing genre experimentation, tone-poem instrumental passages, and fugue-like swells and valleys in a pristine sheet of rustic moodiness, The Albatross plays like an every-man symphony (albeit one with some hardcore modernism poetry), a suite whose more complex passages tend to feel like moments of shading around the more obvious pleasures of sylvan-pop numbers like “Den Mother” and the Tallest Man On Earth-like “Quietus.” Songs bleed into one another (you’d have to watch your iPhone to tell where album opener “Bloodhound” ends and “Inuit” begins) and harmonic ideas seem to repeat in new forms, making for a particularly cyclical forty-minute listen (agreeably apt for this album’s nature mythologies). “Bloodhound” pairs water-color pianos with far-off noises and swelling harmonies in ways that feel almost absurdly advanced for kids who aren’t old enough to call their colleges “alma-maters” yet. Even more welcome are the ways in which songs like “The Medic” find room for rhythm in emo’s trickling straight-forwardness, fusing the curlicue guitars of American Football to quiet-storm R&B in ways that make your other records feel just a bit boring by comparison. The Albatross is so bafflingly assured that even interlude passages like “Pent Up In A Blind” feel absolutely essential, even if all we’re hearing are forty seconds of reversed bell tones. Foxing is that rare band that makes gleeful experimentation as fun for the person dropping the twelve bucks as it was for the five people who made the record.
7.) Moss Icon – Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly
Recorded in the late 80s, but not seeing the light of day until a very lucky posthumous release in 1994 (and later packaged with the rest of the band’s output in the absolutely essential, reunion-accompanied Complete Discography), Moss Icon’s Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly plays like an intersection of Ian MacKaye’s emo-godfathering Embrace and post-rock heroes Slint, combining the furious expressionism of the former with the spoken-word narratives and prickly guitars of the latter. Case-in-point: “Happy (Unbounded Glory),” a five-and-a-half minute slow drive through acidic hardcore and long, spacious interludes of free-form poetry (along with harrowing quakes of deep, mournful feedback echoes). While the pairing of D.C. emo-core explosiveness with painterly slowcore dirges would anticipate everything from Sunny Day Real Estate to the more haunted moments of Jawbreaker’s Bivouac to late-career Thursday, Moss Icon further expanded that collision by pushing song lengths and thematic constructs to their limits. “Lyburnum – Wit’s End (Liberation Fly)” crosses the 11-minute mark, and spends that extra time as an open field of spindly post-hardcore for Jonathan Vance’s free-form monologues (“Lord, I’m at wits end / On a road with selfish people in bad time and tide / A cross of swords and a wreath of dead buildings in a pit archive / Constitution will power play and man down dumb has tried”), dispatches of self-immolation and abstract poetics that recall Rites of Spring as they anticipate At The Drive-In.
8.) Fairweather – Lusitania (2003)
Like The Albatross, Fairweather’s swan song (at least back then – a new, self-titled album is slated for early April) doesn’t feel like it’s all that difficult or challenging (a credit to the band’s way with a pop song), until you listen to it in the context of 2003, and that decade’s quickly calcifying emo sounds. While still an almost absurdly pleasurable listen, Lusitania also plays like one of the finest examples of “studio-as-instrument” experimentation in emo’s brief history (other candidates include Christie Front Drive’s Stereo and The Gloria Record’s Start Here). The result: songs like album-starter “Derivative Opener” which pair gloaming squalls of white noise with lancing beams of pristine guitar and free-form harmonies, immediately literalizing the ways in which Fairweather would run their hook-heavy melodicism through a new-found investment in (relative) avant-garde production and freed song-structure. The song is an absolute earworm, even as you realize it isn’t so much a “song” as it is a slow-blooming sound collage set to steadily throbbing post-punk drums. The album has its fair share of committedly pop-smart barnburners (“Lusitania” could have snuck on Stay What You Are or Hot Rod Circuit’s Sorry About Tomorrow and no one other than Chris Conley would have noticed), but the expansiveness of “Derivative Opener” remains a theme. Thus a barbed pop-punk jog like “The Treachery of Images” serves as both an example of mid-2000-emo’s focus on all-things-catchy, but also a sneakily complex five minute mini-suite that spends its middle section in a gloomily ebullient post-rock cool-down. Lusitania manages that movement again and again, letting undeniable hooks and thoughtful passages complicate and elevate one another.
9.) Sunny Day Real Estate – LP2 (1996)
No one saw Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary coming. Like fellow 1994 all-timer Weezer/”The Blue Album,” it was both a breath of fresh air and a forehead slapper: “How had no one thought of this yet?”. So perhaps fittingly, just as Weezer’s follow-up, Pinkerton, was a willfully difficult journey into the self that was largely inscrutable at the time (despite being just as catchy and twice as smart as Weezer), Sunny Day’s LP2 plays like Diary in a hall of mirrors. Guitars still fall in sheets, melodies still unfold like stubborn knots, but the song structure that buoyed the barbed introversion of “In Circles” or “Seven” has largely been abandoned in favor of prog-rock concepts of “movements” over “verses” and “choruses.” Though songs like “Theo B” still sound like the mid-90s emo universe to which Sunny Day was ostensibly the Big Bang, the album’s center of gravity is a lot closer to tracks like “J’Nuh” a ponderous olio of spindly guitars and short, loud bursts over which Jeremy Egnick would deliver lines like “Call the clerk, remind me Tuesday / One pumpkin knife to pry out our hands on plastic wounds” in a falsetto whose un-guardedness pushed the emotional openness of Diary to painful extremes. The album is never less than beautiful, and the rewards that accompany its endless complications might even make it a slightly more revelatory album than its predecessor, but two decades have barely smoothed its oblique angles, its thorny difficulties.
10.) Joan of Arc – How Memory Works (1998)
Given how far afield Tim Kinsella has taken the abstract art-project commonly known as “Joan of Arc,” How Memory Works, the band’s second album, feels positively pop-oriented by comparison. But in the context of 1998, following the scatterbrain pop ethic of the then (and now) defunct Cap’n Jazz, the committedly art-damaged aesthetic of How Memory Works feels like a brave leap forward. While the basement shouts and spangling guitars of “Gin & Platonic” feel generally like only slightly more mature glosses on Cap’n Jazz’s soda-fizz emo goofery (indeed, a title like “Gin & Platonic” itself recalls the dumb jokes that seemed to define how Cap’n Jazz spend 99% of its time), they arrive after abstract dispatches like “Honestly Now” (the album’s opening track), a fifty second knot of atonal keyboard dots that quickly devolves into an electronic blizzard. One even gets a hint of Kinsella’s ever-expanding prankishness on “A Pale Orange,” a song that begins like a gentler, almost American Football-like take on Chicago emo pensiveness, before very swiftly sliding away into wobbly electronic swoons. That constant pivoting makes How Memory Works feel like a particularly pleasurable shell game, one that leaves the listener ever unsure of when a down-the-middle emo stomper like “A Name” might morph into the free-range sonic canyon of “Osmosis Doesn’t Work.”