Joie De Vivre / Prawn
by Chad Jewett
It’s presumably a lot of work to appear guileless. It also happens to be emo’s bread and butter. For a genre that no one can define and a sound that used to only get tagged post facto, the reality is that, like the aloof retro of boom-bap hip hop, or the Stax/Motown worship of someone like Raphael Saadiq, emo has way more of an iconography than it does any aural reality. Or at least it did. Like Saadiq, who was able to churn a decade of Hitsville diversity down into major key, Miracles-heavy hi-fi butter, bands who find themselves making emo and post-hardcore music today are swiftly figuring out which ingredients are essential, and which can be left out. It might be that we actually do know it when we hear it now: the sounds are warm, the guitars spindle, the patterns are algebraic. But the full web of what speaks to us about this music and its larger aesthetic arena has a hell of a lot more to do with iconography than anyone has ever really noted.
This might be why Split, the opaquely titled 7” EP from emo archaeologists Joie De Vivre and Prawn, not only sounds profoundly historical, but looks that way too. The guilelessness comes in when we consider that for decades, both now and then, bands and listeners have agreed upon an aesthetics and visual code without ever saying as much. Take a second to look at the cover of Split and see what I mean: the out of focus foosball table – an everyday object given significance through an impressionist re-framing. That is a Rosetta stone emo image. Nothing made to mean something; a humble object implying meaning by being turned into art. It’s apt because post-hardcore’s highest premium has been on investing and overinvesting in the everyday until it appears epic, because perhaps it is. Emo’s humanism (with all the limited world-view baggage of that word) lies in refusing to discriminate between the details that mean a lot and the details that mean very little. Which is why a record can have a picture of a foosball table. Because who knows? Memories soak into everything; every object is not only congealed labor, but also congealed emotion. I have memories that hang over foosball tables. You do too.
But you can also see the tradition through which Prawn and Joie De Vivre want you to hear this music. There are albums from Braid (a framed picture, and an ancient projector), and The Promise Ring (a weathered boardwalk), Texas Is The Reason (an old end-table) and Jimmy Eat World (some snow-covered benches, and a cigarette machine), the Get Up Kids (a group of passing runners or a black-and-white photo of a gawky basketball squad), Mineral (more snow covered benches) and American Football (a fading house’s second story). All of them sort-of look like Split. In fact, and perhaps perfectly, I’m racking my brain, knowing there are other examples I’m forgetting that look even more like Split. More often than not these photos are blurred or out of focus; they’re barely glimpsed. It’s a double-mirror phenomenon when I’m trying to remember images that are there to evoke barely remembered moments. Even if they might not put it that way, there’s no way these two bands don’t have some sense of this.
So while it may seem like Joie De Vivre and Prawn are evoking the charm of the everyday, and indeed, calling a split “Split” is certainly drawing our attention to the object as much as the content, they’re also evoking a lot of meaning contained therein. Not only is clarifying their record as a thing to be collected and held and stored an especially apt way of understanding indie music fandom, it’s also a way of drawing attention to the physicality of a 7”, a thing you’ll spend almost as much time drawing out of its sleeve, dusting off, and, after eight or ten minutes, flipping, as you will listening to it. The funny trick of the audio/visual pairing presented by Nothing Feels Good or Bleed American, or, as Joie De Vivre and Prawn would have it, Split, is that just as those covers remind you that the everyday objects that surround you are simply waiting to erupt memories, so it goes for the object displaying that object. It’s why there’s such a nostalgia trip surrounding this stuff. It’s just good fortune that those 1995-2002 bands decided to make today’s nostalgia literal, back then. Like those albums, Split is designed to evoke the same sort of always-recurring remembrance as a dusty old trophy or a snapshot of a photo finish. Especially if we’re calling it “emo.”
So it’s comforting when Joie De Vivre essentially gives us three angles of the same picture. It’s honest, even. The guitars trickle cleanly in dusty major keys, horns punctuate in long, melancholy calls. None of it is challenging, but it’s all wholly pleasant. “Martin Park” begins like it’s finishing another record’s last sentence. The first line begins with “And.” There are American Football and Mineral and Get Up Kids touchstones, but I’m increasingly wondering if new bands committing to old sounds is such a terrible thing; that might just be how traditions are formed. When the trumpet comes in you’re glad for it, and that might be enough. “Tenspopet” is a slightly quicker variation on the theme, and begins with memories of “coming home from college,” which is pretty apt. “Good Morning Mr. Franklin” is remarkably steady in its middle-ranges – of speed, volume, timbre – to the point where you could almost call it oddly brave. It’s certainly resolute. College years are mentioned again, because the primacy of memories is really the only thing we can agree on in this music. There’s almost the zen-like, rock-steady quality of American Analog Set in the way the song lives and dies in it’s trebly arpeggio and two-part harmony, never making a fuss to be much else. By feeling lived in, and being unassuming, and hitting all its marks, Joie De Vivre reveals its canny grasp of all the tiny emotional triggers of a blurry glimpse of living room nostalgia.
Prawn’s seems to be drawing on a slightly different tradition. There’s a forlorn drawl on “Why You Always Leave A Note” and “Fracture” that gives new context to the songs’ clean, Nothing Feels Good jog. Both songs come to evoke Brand New or Rilo Kiley, bands that could coax symphonies out of light touches. Indeed, the back half of “Why You Always Leave A Note” (a song I enjoy very much and have written about elsewhere) with its rills of Telecaster pizzicato, recalls Blake Sennett’s approach to The Execution Of All Things – moments in which the guitar is approached with imagination and a sense of sound-as-decor. The same goes for the upward arcs of “Fracture” which recalls the melancholy delicacy of golden age Saddle Creek and Barsuk, a mini-era in which anthems were wrung out of bands whose foremost charm was that they were so utterly “type B” and self-effacing. I keep considering then rejecting words like “exact” and “subtle” – Prawn ultimately sounds, to put it simply, like a band of safecrackers; a group that handles their music like something breakable. Even though their take on emo and indie pop is less literal than their Split partners, Prawn is also trading in the kind of aesthetic specificity that offers a fuzzy picture of an old foosball table and recognizes that we all know exactly what that image is there for. They get the poignancy in the fact of a picture at once zoomed in and out of focus. It’s what they do. That’s what they sound like. Ultimately, Split is just another object for your living room, a flat surface to collect dust, but also a circle that’ll go around and around, absorbing not just age, but whatever you feel like putting into it. And next time, when the album cover is a picture of an aged ship-in-a-bottle, or a grass-stained baseball, you’ll remember an old Joie De Vivre and Prawn record.