Emo-tional Rescue

New releases help to sharpen the definition of indie rock's most controversial subgenre

"Our question posed to the media, labels, and fans is, 'What does emo mean?' Was Christie Front Drive emo or just dark and sad pop-rock? Is Jimmy Eat World emo or is it just good pop-rock with a punk edge? Is the Promise Ring emo or happy-go-lucky pop? Was Quicksand emo, or were they a metal band? Are we emo or just straightforward aggressive rock? Was Journey emo? How can anyone confine such a broad band of musical styles to just one title?"

The preceding series of questions was recently posed by local band Seven Storey Mountain, in a letter accompanying a copy of the compilation A Million Miles Away: The Emo Diaries Chapter Two, which features an SSM track. One gets the feeling that the members of Seven Storey Mountain are hardly the only people out there looking for answers to these questions. In fact, CMJ recently devoted a fairly lengthy feature to its own search for an accurate definition.

At the moment there is no more controversial subgenre in the cavernous world of postpunk indie rock than that which is "emo." Bands cringe when hearing or reading descriptions of themselves that include the term, yet it seems to be the hippest and most omnipresent of the late-millennial underground rock stylings.

The term itself would seem to be obvious, emo being an abbreviation of emotional. The obvious and most repeated response from malcontents tends to go like this: Isn't all music emotional?, so the term must be defined beyond that simplicity.

It's generally agreed that the description was first applied in the mid-'80s to Washington, D.C., bands Embrace (Ian MacKaye's post-Minor Threat and pre-Fugazi band) and Rites of Spring (Fugazi's Guy Picciotto's former outfit). These bands shared a sound that was basically a slower, more emotional version of hard-core, with vocals leaning more toward whining than aggressive screaming. Of course, hard-core was also emotional--the difference was that these "emo" bands were focusing on troubledness and vulnerability rather than anger. Also, concentration was being focused on complexity and musicianship rather than the raw, simplistic modes of hard-core.

Most of the D.C./Dischord scene since the mid-'80s, including Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, and Lungfish, has been considered emo. But emo is a many-faceted stone, with many factions owing little or nothing to one another except for an intensity of expression and the will to inspire vehemence in the audience. In the early '90s, San Diego was birthplace to a new breed of "emo" bands, characterized by the band Heroin and the label Gravity Records. Politicized, flailing and screaming, the music was thrashing and imbued with anguish. Other bands like Clikitat Ikatowi, Still Life, and Universal Order of Armageddon in San Diego and elsewhere also fit this mold.

Around 1993, in the badlands of suburban Chicago, another mutation was growing in the form of a band called Cap'n Jazz. This form of "emo" was melodic but discordant, filled with math-rock complexity and schizophrenic, sometimes unintelligible vocals. Cap'n Jazz's blend of melody and complexity became the blueprint for what is now most commonly referred to as "emo," bands whose focus owes more to pop melodies than hard-core, with start/stop timing and multitudinous volume changes. To a lesser and more commercial degree, Sunny Day Real Estate was pioneering a similar but more accessible and less arty "emo" sound around the same time.

The mid- to late '90s brought the sound that is most commonly referred to by the emo name, the melodic, pop-oriented rock songs of Christie Front Drive, Mineral, Boys Life, the Promise Ring, Braid, Texas Is the Reason, the Get Up Kids, Jejune, and the Valley's own Jimmy Eat World. The popularity of these bands is warranted; the combination of hooky vocals with complicated instrumentation and a flair for heart-wrenching emotionality is an obvious recipe for the adoration of today's youth.

Although the physical style adopted by emo kids is somewhat less than appealing (sweater vests, Spock haircuts, horn-rim glasses, corduroy pants and black dress shoes), the disdain for the term among some musicians seems unwarranted. The obvious explanation for the backlash is a rebellion against the popularity of the genre and disassociation with the, ahem, sissiness of the emo-boy scene. Yeah, it's a broad term, but the fact is that the kids know what the hell you're talking about when you call a band emo (although they may ask you to qualify it by inquiring, "Is it like San Diego emo or D.C. emo?").

Which all brings us to A Million Miles Away: The Emo Diaries Chapter Two, the follow-up document to What's Mine Is Yours released by New York's Deep Elm Records. Deep Elm doesn't attempt to define emo, which is why this comp works so well.

The songs are of the melodic variety; some serene, some dynamic. Austin's Pop Unknown, which features Mineral's former drummer, opens the recording with its stellar track "Writing It Down for You," a brilliant pop song that starts with a haunting organ solo. Appleseed Cast follows with "Max," a dark, intensely dynamic rocker that stands out from most of the other tracks on the comp. Tempe's Seven Storey Mountain offers "Incomplete," a brooding, passionate song with a chorus that is reminiscent of lighters-in-the-air arena rock.

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