In the past year, many independent record labels have been battling a phenomenon we like to call "emo-profiling." This sinister cousin of racial profiling involves the assumption by the record buying public and the media that, because a couple of bands on a label sing nothing but breakup songs or wear their thrift store shirts one size too small, the imprint is, by default, emo. Not the worst pigeonhole to be stuck in, but it causes resentment nonetheless smart journalists learn quickly to avoid using the term in interviews. The Promise Ring not so long ago left its home of many years, Jade Tree, precisely because it was regarded as the quintessential emo label (perhaps not realizing that they were largely the cause of this stereotype).
So what's a label to do when it loses one of its best-selling bands over the emo issue? Perhaps shake up the roster, get a face-lift and find a spectacular new outfit that doesn't fit the mold.
That's exactly what Jade Tree did after it lost the Promise Ring and when magazines as prominent as Time began accusing the label of running an emo duchy. Jade Tree has been home to several important artists who have shaped what the emo moniker means the Promise Ring, Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Jets to Brazil so the reputation isn't completely without basis. In 2002, however, Jade Tree has released a number of albums well outside the sound it helped define. There have been records by hardcore bands Strike Anywhere and the Explosion, instrumental weirdness from Euphone and noise rock from Girls Against Boys. But when a label really needs a new look, nothing's more effective than adding a fresh (and pretty) face to the ranks. To that end, Jade Tree signed the band Denali, whose startlingly attractive 21-year-old vocalist, guitarist and pianist Maura Davis should shatter the label's dour-boy reputation for good.
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Davis is the creative center of the Richmond, Virginia-based group, which is rounded out by guitarist Cam DiNunzio, drummer Jonathan Fuller, and Davis' brother Keeley on bass. Denali's three supporting members wrap a blanket of meandering black-and-blue melancholia around Davis' sultry vocals, which alternately recall Billie Holiday, Björk and Portishead's Beth Gibbons. It's Davis' uncommonly broad vocal range that sets Denali apart from typical Jade Trade fare no one's going to accuse this band of perpetrating a Promise Ring redux.
When asked to trace the origins of her unorthodox singing style, Davis starts with her upbringing. She says that, although growing up in Lynchburg, a town of 70,000 located two hours west of Richmond, limited her access to new types of music, her parents saved her from total isolation. "I grew up in a musical family," she says in a silvery Southern lilt. "[Keeley and my] parents met in a band we've been surrounded by music all our lives."
Davis first dabbled in music in her teenage years. "I took voice lessons through high school so that I didn't have to do sports," she explains. But Lynchburg wasn't the most supportive place for aspiring musicians with contemporary tastes, even one with a voice as smooth as bourbon. "I really wanted to be in a rock band for real, but after Keeley left, there wasn't really anybody in Lynchburg who wanted to do that type of thing. None of my peers were really into that. So I chose to study classical 'cause that seemed like the only other outlet I could get."
Davis followed her love of classical to the music department at UNC-Greensboro in North Carolina, where she trained in opera. After a year of intensely exercising her voice, she decided that operatics weren't in her future. "I don't know if you have to gain weight for that," she says, "but I just didn't really see myself doing it."
She left Greensboro for the considerably more hip rock climate of Richmond, where she planned to start the band she had been imagining. She remembers, "In the back of my head it was like, 'I'm gonna move to Richmond, I'm gonna start a band with my brother, and it better work out.'"
Davis predicted her future more accurately than she could have imagined. After her relocation, Keeley joined her to help flesh out the songs she was writing on her Rhodes piano, and soon Fuller and DiNunzio signed up. Taking their name from an Alaskan mountain, the four became Denali, and so far, things have indeed been working out. On the strength of only a few shows and a five-song demo, industry heads began to buzz about the band. "It seems like it caught on pretty fast, early in the game," Davis acknowledges. "At that point we were just looking for a label, but we had no idea [where to start] because we didn't know what kind of label we would fit well on."
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A friend suggested they send the demo to Tim Owen, co-owner of Jade Tree. Denali quickly got its response: Sorry, the label wasn't taking on any new bands. However, Owen made it to a Denali show in Philadelphia and was obviously smitten by Davis' talents, although Davis is blasé about how eager he actually was. "I don't know if he was there to see us," she says. "But we ended up talking [with him], and over the course of six months...the final negotiations were made. It was pretty amazing that it just happened so easily. I guess maybe it was luck."
Last summer, after securing the contract with its new label, Denali went into Sound of Music studios in Richmond to record with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, Richmond's most widely known rock export. When Linkous' schedule opened up, Denali would go in and chip away at songs. During this time they hammered out "Relief" and "Time Away," two standouts from the group's self-titled debut. Due to financial constraints Linkous' talents don't come cheap the band recorded the remainder of Denali with another Sparklehorse member, Alan Weatherhead. And the Sparklehorse influence is omnipresent on the album, especially in the subtle atmospheric touches in the mixing. On "Relief," for instance, soft, minor-key extended tones and occasional appliance-like bleeps ride over a slothful breakbeat that wanes and waxes under Davis' ethereal vocals. Likewise, "Prozac" relies on molasses metronomics and deliberately soft notes to complement her varyingly tremolo and breathy singing.
The album fits its arctic moniker perfectly. The tracks are glacial, impressive in their scope but delicate upon closer inspection, with beats slowed to a crawl but inevitably plodding. The sound is not stunningly original the Björk and Portishead references will no doubt be repeated en masse by critics but given a little time, Davis' similarities to other female vocalists will most likely disappear. Already Denali is a fresh diversion from the legions of weepy boy-rockers crowding the record bins.
It's open to question whether Denali's sound diverges enough from the emo boilerplate to free Jade Tree from the stereotype it incubated. Although the band does deal in sad songs, it falls well outside the accepted definition of emo as male-dominated music marked by loud-soft dynamics, punky outbursts and journal-scribbling lyrics. Nevertheless, Denali will probably be mentioned in the same breath as other sappy emo mopes simply because it's on Jade Tree. While Denali may not be able to shirk the emo tag, the band just might be able to expand the genre's definition.