Annabel / Dowsing
by Chad Jewett
How does one sustain a renaissance? In some ways, this seems to be the unvoiced question layered into the grooves of the new split from emo-pop experts Annabel and Dowsing, even if both bands might balk at the idea that any of that baggage is theirs to heft. And they’d be correct. But one still gets the sense that, for those invested in how emo and post-hardcore might find a way to turn its newfound energy into innovation, there’s a lot to be excited about in the expansive approach to melody, structure, and ideas that make Annabel and Dowsing so essential. Two years on, Youth In Youth and I Don’t Even Care Anymore are swiftly bronzing into contemporary classics because of their flexible relationship to punk history and a wider present. Both bands (hailing from Kent, Ohio and Chicago respectively) have been around for years, buoys of charming, humble indie rock consistency that have floated through the ups and downs of emo’s recent rediscoveries and renewals, bobbing atop new waves without altering course. Their sounds are adjacent to much of what we still find compelling from post-hardcore’s mid-to-late-90s golden age (for Annabel, consider Saves The Day, Moneen, or The Execution of All Things; for Dowsing, think of early Get Up Kids or 30° Everywhere), except that Annabel and Dowsing may have an even better instinct for figuring out what intangible sensations those records evoke and less of an allegiance to the more terrestrial concerns of how they sound.
So Split presents a way forward by continuing both bands’ trajectories of retro-futurism. For Annabel, whose layered, polyphonic aesthetic has gone under-appreciated (perhaps for being so easily liked, as silly as that sounds), there is fresh air in a newfound taste for momentum. If much of Youth In Youth roiled and bounced, their two songs here mainly jog. “Always,” the EP’s opening track, is a radiant two-and-a-half minutes of reedy, middle American strums. The song presents the sort of crisp dispatch of luminous, earnest major chords, that, somehow or another, evoke the wide, sunburst expanse of the Midwest, shimmering like wide lakes of rye or corn. If much of emo’s renaissance involves rediscovering a genre, Annabel has moved on to metabolizing it, capturing the intangible aura of say, “Close To Home” or “Forget Me,” by turning music into geography without ever saying as much. Like many of the post-hardcore records we find ourselves returning to, Annabel has found a gift for shaping a sense of place out of everyday tools. Ben Hendricks voice remains bell-clear, a lovely tenor that is warmly elastic, capable of conversation and exclamation, asides and fireworks. The band’s stereo-panned aesthetic (a holdover of the beautifully arranged Youth In Youth), a balancing of streamlined indie guitars in one ear and the ornate sparkling of Great Lakes-region post-hardcore in the other, continues here as “Always” variably gallops and tangles, a gently wind-swept pop surface.
“Forever,” a re-working of Youth In Youth’s closing (and finest) track, “Our Days Were Numbered,” further emphasizes Annabel’s new taste for aerodynamics. Where the song, in its former iteration, variably trickled and stomped, it now races in giddy forward motion, foregoing the original version’s echoes of “Only In Dreams” for something more like Millencolin or The Thermals. In the hands of a lesser band, one would be tempted to read either irony or apathy in this sort of caffeinated redux, but Annabel’s chief gift is their knack for radiance, and in this new, hyperspace mode, the song is nevertheless beautifully translucent, a rapid surface along which melodies still spark and glow. Indeed, the song’s original, poignant sing-song is maintained, even as the refrain of “I want to be with you” is shouted in hay-wire distortion beneath a chant of “Forever.” If anything, Annabel continue to display the flexibility of their approach, finding new ways to assemble layers (the arraying of sound strata might be their true signature) by economically condensing whole sections of the song into a sort of hardcore call-and-response. One might even be tempted to find humor in a band like Annabel, a group perhaps taken for granted for being so precise and thoughtful where other bands have been embraced for a sort of faux chaotic-ness, trying on this sort of punk whirlwind, as if to play dress-up in the version of post-hardcore the band generally eschews for more subtle, impressionist structures. Regardless, Annabel’s half of the split finds the band gleaning joy from elbowing at the edges of their deliberately-appointed sound, looking for new ways to build upon the achievements of Youth In Youth. It’s a sense of wonder that is contagious.
Dowsing’s two songs are similarly playful, similarly focused on the sort of manageable risks for which these sorts of small-scale releases provide open space to play around. “Fistful of Hot Wheels” adds some sinew and heft to the twee-esque jangle of I Don’t Even Care Anymore, even as the band’s sound maintains the Technicolor brightness of stained glass. Dowsing’s rhythm section lends the song a bouncing pulse that adds welcome groove to the band’s more recognizable rock-steady glimmering, the aural equivalent of tossing pebbles into a stream. Hints of Something To Write Home About and The Anniversary remain, mainly because “Fistful of Hot Wheels” is laced with curling synthesizers and clear, clean guitars. Indeed, Dowsing underlines the affection they have for this era of emo in the song’s narrative: “I retreat into my room, put records on to get me through / It was Perfecting Loneliness, it was Peregrine that fooled me to think that you still love me” — as cogent an expression of why we’re still talking about this music and these records as you’re likely to find. But Dowsing also adds ebullience to those touchstones in keeping the song airy and economic, in limiting “Hot Wheels” to under two minutes and moving from section to section with spry alacrity, never repeating, always building, so that the end of the song arrives like a hard-won conclusion. Indeed, Dowsing has frequently found itself in the odd position of managing to repeatedly connect despite seeming so idiosyncratic and unassuming. They are a band that continues to charm and captivate despite never making much of a fuss, nor anything resembling a grand gesture.
“World’s Finest Chocolate” is even more athletic, even more barbed, a further complication of the placid surfaces that defined the band’s last two full-lengths. Singer Erik Czaja forgoes the conversational hum that has helped distinguish the type-B good humor of Dowsing for a prickly shout, unfurling atop a current of curling, jagged guitars and a murmuring harmony courtesy of Into It. Over It.’s Evan Weiss. If Split finds Annabel playing with its easy likability, then the short EP offers a chance for Dowsing to go even further in furrowing its calm, worn-in sound. Where “Forever” feels like Annabel laughing with us, I’m not sure how to place the bitter tones that line the margins of “World’s Finest Chocolate.” More legible is the fact that Dowsing seem to want something that takes up more space than the blithe, buoyant passages of I Don’t Even Care Anymore, an aesthetic with a few more sharp edges, some added oblique angles.
Ultimately, what remains thrilling about both Annabel and Dowsing, and thus, by extension, their new split, is their shared gift for blending the transcendent with the every-day. Indeed, as both band’s most recent full-lengths proved, these bands are two of renaissance emo’s leading lights because they so often find transcendence in the every-day. Split is a glimpse at two bands trying to find new hallways and back doors in familiar houses, testing out just what might be built from the ordinary materials that make up emo and post-hardcore and punk and guitar pop. It’s a pleasure watching them figure it out.