Miller High Lite: It's a conspiracy by the Man?

Recently in a poll conducted by VIBE magazine, Eminem was voted the Best Rapper Alive beating out the likes of Jay-Z, Mos Def, and everyone who just got recognized on the Hip Hop Honors. Em not only won, but by a 61%-39% margin. It wasn't even close. Everything I read about it sounded as if people were stunned that this was the case. Not only that, but it really seemed to be racially motivated amazement. This poses a strange conundrum...can a white boy really hold this title?

The roots of rap music, or hip hop depending on what you want to call it, date pretty far back. Whether you're talking about the oral histories passed down from African tribe to tribe, or the social commentaries rhythmically spoken over back beats in the early 70s, hip hop has been predominately a way for African Americans to express themselves, pass down tradition, and empower their listeners and peers to make a difference. Groups like Public Enemy and KRS One called out to make changes in their communities and in the country as a whole. They spoke of the abilities everyone had to make a difference. It was also a way for these musicians to speak of the hardships that they faced growin up in a society that looked down upon them.

In the 80s a new message began to immerge. It was one of sex, violence, and drugs. The genre known as "Gangsta Rap" was born. Artists like NWA wrote about gang violence, abusing alcohol, and treating women as objects. Artists like 2 Live Crew took the later even further and rhymed almost entirely about promiscuity and sexual deviance. The messages had changed from empowerment to excess and glorifying a life of illegality.

The 90s than ushered in a time of straight decadence. Violence was replaced with money, money, and more money. It was all about living a lifestyle. More cars, more money, and more women. The one with the most toys ruled the roost. The issues discussed in the 70s and 80s were still around, just not nearly as visible in the forefront of the genre. Rap music changed and morphed and grew just like any other style.

So then, where does the white man fit into this music born of social exile and struggle. Historically the white man has always stolen from so-called "black music" to make themselves stars. Rock-n-Roll was amped up blues. The whole Elvis thing is an entire post of it's own, but it's a great example of that. The things is though, we're not stealing the music and making something different persay, we're just making the same kind of music. So the real question is, is it a mockery of what made Hip Hop so special to have white boys doing it?

Now over time there has definitely been attempts at rap music by white boys that have left much to be desired. The whole Vanilla Ice debacle really put a stain on the possibilities of white rappers. He was such a farce and really made it look like we were mocking the struggles of those who had paved the way for Hip Hop. There have been highlights though over the years that began to show a unity of races and a general acceptance of white man's involvement. Enter the "cross-over". The two biggest cross-overs being of course Anthrax/Public Enemy and Aerosmith/Run DMC. These musical ballets showed the correlation of Rock music and Rap music and showed the two could exist harmoniously together. The other big step into this realm was The Beasti Boys. Three jewish, white kids from New York who took their punk roots and slowly turned them into one of the biggest and most respected hip hop careers of all time. They set precedences for sampling with Paul's Boutique and just generally made some of the most inventive music to hit the scene.

So now what? Guys like Beastie Boys and House of Pain came along and said hey, we can do this too. The genre said, yes, you can. Now the door was open. Well, one of the things that happened was an eruption of what has generally referred to as Rip Rock, for lack of a better term. This is what artists like Limp Bizkit, Korn, 311, and Rage Against The Machine kind of fell into. It was again the mix of rock music with lyrics rapped over it. But yet again, this is a topic for a different post. The other thing that happened though was one of the most respected producers and MCs of our time, Dr. Dre, stumbled across this little white kid from Detroit by the name of Marshal. He fell in love and put his reputation on the line by saying this kid is the next big thing.

Was Em really that different from those who came before him though? Born into poverty, abused by his mother and his peers, struggled with drugs, and struggled with relationships. He found something he loved in Hip Hop and used it to release all his angst and emotions and did so with much more intellect and speed than a lot of those making millions doing the same thing. He was innovative and still is. He has an industry hard hitter in Dre behind him. He has his group D12 to give him street cred. And to top it all off he still has baby-mama drama. All of these things aside, he's one of the top-selling artists of over the last 10 years in any genre. He has a succesful clothing line. And he's done what no one else has done before him and that's make a legitimate name for white rappers. You simply can't deny him his place in the history of Hip Hop.

But is he the "Best Alive"? I don't know, I couldn't say. But could he be? Why not? Does him being white really make that much of a difference? It shouldn't.


Waxed: Marah's If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry

A few years back, I got myself into this interesting little relationship with a girl from Pittsburgh that ended up being not so little. One of the best things about this tryst was her passion for music. Even though we didn’t have the exact same tastes, her passion for music was the closest I have ever seen anyone come to my own.

It was a good deal for building a relationship. We made each other mixtapes like crazy, and it became a big game to find something new, special, and mind-blowing to show to the other person. Released on October 18th, 2005, Marah’s If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry was one such album I discovered on this quest for finding the perfect songs to share with my lover.

I reviewed it in February 2006 on my Xanga blog, now just a repository of old memories. We had just seen the band in concert, and the two of us were incredibly blown away. It was in this really quiet, small townie bar in Columbus, Ohio. Fuck if it wasn’t the loudest show I have ever been to, maybe outside of Sunny Day Real Estate. I always felt bad about this show; confession: we sat in chairs for most of the show. By we, I mean most of the entire audience, us included. The bad grew visibly annoyed throughout the set until, towards the end of their performance, they broke down, and pretty much walked off the stage and started pulling people up, motioning along the small bar floor for us all to stand. We obliged (we being her and I) and a few more people did as well, and they returned and finished their set. It’s a sad story to relate – my gal and I had been walking all day, and that’s our best excuse – because they seriously rocked hard. I mean, HARD.

Anyway, I reviewed If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry in February 2006, and compared it to some of the greatest rock and roll albums ever: Exile On Main Street, The White Album, and Highway 61 Revisited. Here, damn near two and half years later and three years after its release, I can say with some meager authority that this blog and my history as a rock and roll, uh, historian, that this album deserves to be placed alongside those bastions of the rock pantheon. It’s an old dinosaur of an album, in all of the best ways.

The album has this little theme running through it – a little musical interlude that opens and “closes” the album (that is, besides the hidden track that really closes the album). It also blossoms into it’s own song, “Sooner or Later,” which is what I call the theme – the “Sooner or Later theme,” which I will now paraphrase from now on out at the “SoLt.” It is one of the most catchy pieces of music you’ll ever hear, and it is even sweeter in its song form.

There has always been something about this album that resonates with me. This is a heart album, a chest album – full of emotion and feeling. It is, for me, forever linked to that period of my life, that of the interesting little relationship that wasn’t so little. Maybe that’s why I put it on such a high pedestal. Honestly, I have played the album for several other people, including people who I think know their way around music, and I am always astonished when they don’t proclaim it the best fucking thing they’ve heard in years (or even months or weeks). I view it as nothing short of spectacular.

“So What if We’re Outta Tune (W/The Rest of the World)” was one of those tunes that made it on one of those mix CDs. With lines like, “ooh, lover, I only sing for you,” I found it wonderfully romantic. And, it is. It’s one of those “we’re all alone but we’re together” type of songs. Musically, it pairs a sweet finger-picked guitar with a gentle banjo, and adds little flourishes here and there, like finger snaps and swelling background vocals.

But I digress. The album kicks off with the “SoLt,” then kicks into high gear with “The Closer.” Yes, I do consider it pure genius to name the opening song on your album “The Closer,” but this track is more than just a name. And yes, I do mean kicks into high gear. Frantic guitar and drums meet spit-fire vocals and silly nonsensical lyrics. You immediately are infected with… fun. “Barbeque chips like me, I spot the jelly inside your Crispy Crème!” and “Put a Mississippi pickle in your Brooklyn Buns for free, says me!” are just some of the fun lyrics in the song, which also includes a phone call conversation, between David Bielanko and someone – does it matter who it is? This song is simply infectious, and rocks hard.

The feeling of fun continues on “The Hustle,” the second track. It continues the loud, brash, bar-band assault of the opener, ending in an angular, melodic slash-n-burn guitar solo that – no joke – turns into a disco rave up. As the bass pounds out the 2 a.m. plus dance beats, the guitar continues its caterwaul and crawls to a jolting thump. The song also illustrates David’s street-wise poet lyrics. “I heard a rumor that time, is really just a light in a box in your mind,” he sings, and I’m not sure what the means, but damn I want it. His alternately sung/spit/shouted vocal delivery carries each tune, even as the music gets catchier and catchier. His voice is the thread that sews it all up, though the music contributions of Serge Bielanko (Dave’s brother, who also plays guitar, sings, writes, and plays multiple other instruments), guitarist Adam Garbinski, drummer Dave Peterson, and bass-man/keyboardist Kirk Henderson can not be understated.

The album really begins to represent itself, though, on the third track, “City of Dreams.” Not much on this album brings to mind summer. It, to me, is a squarely fall/winter album. Again, this perception may be wrapped up in my own wintry biography surrounding the album, but objectivity be damned; this is a winter album. “City of Dreams” is light, almost jaunty, and uplifting. It always reminds me of walking in Columbus, with my girl, bundled up and holding hands, walking from downtown into the section nearby the university. Perhaps that’s why the wintery feel of this album begins with this song. “City of dreams, you don’t know what it means… to only dream about it, I know, I know…” It may not mean much at first, but this song, like so many on this album, pulls at the heartstrings, and again, as elsewhere, the interplay of the music, vocals, and lyrics on “City of Dreams” is perfectly complimentary.

It doesn’t end there, that wintery feel, but it goes on the back-burner for another barn-burner of a song: “Fat Boy.” This song is akin to the first two. Reckless fun and silliness ensue, along with some tasty slide guitar and hand claps. There sound’s like there’s some harmonica going to town in there, too. It feels like you’ve stumbled into the greatest bar party ever. Opening with a request to cut the current noise the band is making and a 1-2-3 count-off, and ending with a wonderful rave-up, crash-landing-type ending, the song fits neatly within the fun and joyous spirit of the album. Which may be better described as musical salvation. Some music makes you happy, some sad, some sorrowful and depressed, and others angry. This album, as a whole, is the kind of save-your-soul rock and roll that bands only dream about writing and playing. The emotions contained are myriad, but overall the hopeful feel of the entire album lends it this messianic quality.

The listener is next greeted with “Sooner or Later,” big brother to the “SoLt,” an another acoustic song. “Don’t expect much these days buddy, a couple of beers and life is so funny,” singer Dave Bielanko sings. “You’ll be coming back sooner or later, and we’ll be waiting for you.” The stick drumming, slide guitar, hoots and hollers throughout the tune add to its already considerable charm. It sounds like something that old friends and bandmates would play on a tour bus late at night, or at someone’s place after the show – the places where drunken fun and honest music just ooze out. It is also roots music at its finest. Marah is one of those all-American bands, whose music encompasses a wide variety of influences and tends to get labeled as Americana or Roots Rock or even Alternative Country.

That brings us back to “So What If We’re Outta Tune,” where something magical happens. When compact discs were invented, someone figured out you could put sound on the album in negative seconds. The trend tended to die off quickly I though. But Marah resurrects it here, before this song, to embedded a pump/church organ piece that introduces “So What…” quite well. Again, not enough can be said about this song. It serves as the middle of the album, and as the centerpiece as well. That feeling of being hard-up, but at least you have your sweetheart, and the continued feeling of it being a lonely, cold song, vividly bring to mind winter.

“The Demon of White Sadness” begins with another one of those “hidden track,” negative seconds pieces – this time a harmony-vocal chorus piece. It’s striking and a great addition to the most lyrically tough songs on the album. The “demon” sounds like a drug dealer at first, and maybe later the drugs themselves. The song lends Dave’s lyrics a wonderful romanticism that can only be understood by those having either been addicted to a drug themselves, or to the family of those who have been through it. The music, while not acoustic, still has that wistful winter sound, and that’s part of what lends the song its romantic vibe. Great piano throughout the track, too.

Serge makes his singing debut on the album with “The Dishwasher’s Dream.” “Dream” is squarely in the Dylan singer-songwriter tradition, with chugging, driving acoustic guitars, rollicking piano, brushed drums and harmonica, and lyrics that tell a story about, well, a dishwasher and a nightmare he and his lover share. “I recall to a time when hope was our friend, instead of this bitch that we hate,” Serge sings as the Dishwasher, speaking to his love. The song is quite descriptive. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, crossing the border from West Virginia into Pennsylvania, in the middle of a snow-storm, as I drove out to see my baby. Again, the personal connect to winter exists for me because of all the little anecdotal stories that I remember when listening to If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, but the current of sad hope that this album floats on is too close to comfort to not feel like the cycle of death and rebirth that takes hold in winter.

“We should not be living this life like this,” Dave bellows in “Poor People,” another street-poet story, an increasingly poignant one. The current economic crisis makes this song ring truer than ever before. The bad ass music – a return to the jovial bar band noise of earlier tunes on the album – picks you up and begins the comfortable, cycle towards then end of this magnificent album, the lead guitar licks becoming cyclical themselves. The little jam at the end of the song adds to the friendly, in-on-the-secret-of-the-best-barband-in-town-sound of the whole record.

If you needed any more proof that this is a winter album, the largest nail in that coffin comes in the next tract, “Walt Whitman Bridge,” a personal favorite track that always picks me up. Despite the hard luck situation of the song’s protagonist, there’s a sincere hope when Dave sings, “Far away from these winter streets, on a cloudless day, your memory blows away from me.” Talk of coffee and cigarettes are just some of the graphic detail of life for the down-and-out character. The band magnificent weaves a tapestry around Dave’s voice and acoustic guitar, with piano, steel guitar, and cascading electric guitar adding substance to another perfect storytelling song. This is a song you should really listen to, over and over, to soak up every little nuance, because they are all perfect and perfectly wonderful.

Now, if you needed even more proof that this is a winter album, AND a story-tellers album, “The Apartment” should put all the women and children to bed for you. Case closed. A road song that could only be written by a musician on tour, missing his lover, “The Apartment” is heartbreaking in its sadness and amazing warm in its heartfelt love. Not to mention those bad ass mariachi horns! “I hear your name in the pumping of gas,” Serge sings (this being his second, and last, lead vocal spot on the album). “Tonight I just want to come back to our apartment in the city.” More of the rootsy instrumentation makes this tune shine. If you’re not a fan of this band by the end of this album, you must be a musical idiot, because there aren’t many bands left, American or otherwise, who can cover so much musical and emotional territory as this band.

The album ends with “The End,” appropriately, which at first seems like it’s just a return to the “SoLt.” That in and of itself would’ve been a fine end to this amazing album, but it isn’t the end. A few seconds after it fades out, the closing song creeps in, pumping guitar and volume swells. The lyrics are my favorite from the album… hell, the whole song is my favorite thing about this album. It combines everything perfectly. This song will get you all worked up. “Maybe its this time, when we’ll make somebody smile,” and “Ever since I saw your face, I have been a star in space, shining down on your street.” It’s so perfect… the brilliant lead guitar work, the harmony vocals, the driving rhythm section. Fuck. This band breaks my heart. And it breaks my heart that you aren’t listening to them. So go buy this album – right now. Put it on, in your car or at home with a glass of red wine or a nice heavy beer, smoke a cigarette, and relive every great romantic and meaningful moment of your life.

Yeah, they’re kind of like that.

PS – if you need more proof, damnit, go read Heather’s excellent post about these guys, over on the I Am Fuel, You Are Friends music blog. She’s smart and knows her shit (aside from the occasional Wilco hiccup, but I will forgive that because, you know, the blatant Pearl Jam worship) and has lead me to so much wonderful music in the past few years. If I can’t set you straight on Marah with a 2,500 word count review of If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, well, maybe you’ll listen to her.

Marah post from January 2006

I Am Fuel, You Are Friends general site


Waxed: Say Anything's ... Is A Real Boy

“Eat… sleep, fuck, and flee… in four words, that’s me.”

These lines, which come courtesy of Say Anything songwriter/mad ringleader Max Bemis, have pretty much been lodged in my brain since the moment I heard them. They seem to perfectly capture the “generation millennium” attitude towards relationships, and life in general.

These lines are preceded by this missive: “Shit! Nothing makes sense, so I won’t think about it. I’ll go with the ignorance.” Insert the “eat, sleep, fuck and flee” line here, and wrap it up with: “I am full of indifference.” There is a stanza custom made for a generation of fuck-and-fleers, a spoiled generation raised with anything – information, communication, money, cell phones, video games, drugs and alcohol - they ever wanted at the tips of their fingers. I know, because I am one of them (born 1980, graduated high school in ’99, college in 2003).

I still remember the first time I heard Say Anything’s …Is A Real Boy, in my buddy Rob’s car. Listening to anything in the car with Rob is an exercise in patience that ends in futility. Rob constantly changes songs, and CDs (and later iPod tracks – one of the reasons I hate iPods, they make it too easy to NOT listen). If you make it completely through one whole tune, with no skipping ahead to a guitar solo, rewinding to hear some Iron Maiden-esque scream, or skipping ahead to a complete new song or album, you’d consider yourself lucky.

As such, with my first exposure to Say Anything coming in this way… all I heard was “fuck” and “shit” and a lot of bad words. Now, I can swear like a sailor, and sometimes (often?) do – but I’ve always held that music shouldn’t need to be vulgar to make a point. A little here and there for color is wonderful, but when every other word is something you’d get your mouth washed out with soap for saying, it’s a little out of hand. And, based on my lightening quick, skip ahead/behind, RVC introduction to Say Anything, I dismissed Max Bemis as just another whiny emo punk who needed a mouth full of Dawn liquid dish detergent.

And then I heard it again, a few years later. And I heard the line, “Eat… sleep, fuck and flee… in four words that’s me.” And I was hooked.

If I may be a little metaphysically critical of my writing here, one of the weaknesses that I have noticed in my latest writings on music has been a tendency to not explore as deeply the lyrics of the music I am reviewing. I thought of this last night, as I listened to the album I (sort of) reviewed yesterday. When I thought, “hey, I’d like to focus a review on lyrics; what would be a good album to review based on lyics?,” I quickly came up with Say Anything’s debut.

And the record begins with a song of rebellion.

Say Anything – which, at the point of this recording, is really just Bemis playing most everything, and a friend on drums – kick things off with the heavy, punky “Belt.” The song spans quite a few genres, musically speaking. But it’s the cathartic chorus that really jumps out and grabs you, with the shouted, “Hey, this is something I have to do for myself!” The song IS a song of rebellion. “I ignored the sheep and shepherds on the way,” Bemis snarls/speaks. His sarcastic, spitting delivery propels the song through inventive verses and chorus until the song’s coda, “what’s say you and all your friends step up to my friends in the alley tonight?”

The inventive music – an amalgam of so many styles, from punk to 50’s surf rock, continues to impress on “Woe,” but again the lyrics stand out. “All the words in my mouth, that the scene deemed unworthy of letting out, banded together to form a makeshift militia and burrowed bloodily through my tongue and my teeth.” You get the distinct impression that Max Bemis is one VERY damaged individual – picked on, picked at, angry and ready to explode.

One of the best things about the musical mood swings of Say Anything is the flat-out bad-ass rock that accompanies lyrics that beg you to sing along. If you’re not screaming along to every chorus and coda, then you’ve never felt down and out, left out, heart-broken, depressed of left behind. This is music to go to emotional and sexual war to.

You can pull great, dagger-like one liners from any song on this album. “The Writhing South” provides us this gem: “Across the room, across the room, I hope to watch you writhe again.” Bemis seems like the type of guy who wants to get laid, needs to get laid, gets laid, and hates the girls he has sex with. Hate isn’t even the best word. Loathe is more appropriate. But, in a refreshing twist from the “woe is me” self loathing of most modern “emo” bands, Bemis’ loathing is pointed at others – sexual conquests, sexual rejects, authority figures, fake scenesters, et al.

It’s also readily apparent, from the end of “The Writhing South” and into the mock ‘50’s beginning of “Alive with the Glory of Love,” that Bemis doesn’t take himself too seriously. In fact, it is so apparent that he does has a sense of humor that sometimes it is hard to separate what is a scathing attack on something or someone from a tongue-in-cheek joke. However, you might be having so much fun reveling in it all that you won’t give a fuck.

“Alive…” shows off the band’s considerable chops, and Bemis’ melodies really jump out. It should be noted that the guitar playing on this album is fucking incredible. The whole of the music, actually, is quite striking. If you’ve only heard of or seen Say Anything at your local Hot Topic or from trendy teens wearing trendy teen t-shirts, then you’ve missed out on the genius of Say Anything: that they managed to infect the modern music post-emo scene with music that only barely resembles the flavor-of-the-day nature of that scene. I guarantee that 90% of the bands that the Hot Topic kids worship can’t play half as good as Bemis, or write music as driving, catchy, and intoxicating as this.

My favorite song on the record has been, since I bought it and first heard this song, “Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat.” “The feline war” is on in this one, as Bemis spins a tale that is strange but so relatable. The protagonist is who he is – observer, toiling away. “These are my days, this is how they stay,” he says. “I watch this guy dude each night, same table,” Bemis rattles on. “He feeds me quotes, that lonely goat… I will not stop him when he rambles, I’m becoming one myself.” The twisted tale doesn’t just end there – between friends needing sex for healing and getting high, we get this scathing review of life: “As I look back at countless crossroads and the middle where I stay, right up the beaten path to boredom where the fakest fucks get laid by the faux-finest finds; It’s been that way and god damn you, how you stay with every scrummy crummy hour of the scrummy, crummy day.”

“The Futile” arrives and delivers our favorite observation on modern relationships, full of fucking and fleeing and whining and growing old and, of course, how futile it all is. “Spidersong” takes a predatory twist on the modern dating scene, making it seem like sex is so wanted and apparently so close, only to reveal that our hero is “too stoned to leave my bed. I’ll write this song to win your kiss but stay asleep instead.”

This album is nothing if not desperate. Song after song peals away layers of self-consciousness, fear of death, desire for lustful sex, fear of rejection, and more. It doesn’t approach this with as much self-loathing as you’d think, though, as I said earlier. At times, there’s an air of casual, “this is the way it is” acceptance. At other times, it’s fueled by anger and lust. The lyrics also share more with the lyrics of grunge-era rock and roll, filled with stories of struggle but of little to no surrender. And, when there is surrender, you get the sense it was done in order to hurt someone else.

Let me put it another way: …Is A Real Boy is the ultimate hate-fuck album.

Don’t believe me? Take one listen to “Every Man has a Molly.” It is fucking brilliant. It’s the sound of an ended relationship – all in your head, the way things get twisted, the way you hurt yourself thinking. “Molly Connolly just broke up with me over the revealing nature of the songs,” Bemis sings. “I can’t stop thinking about what she did wrong to me,” the song gleefully exclaims in the end. “I can’t figure out just what I did wrong. I’ll kill myself thinking about the things that you did to me.”

It is disturbed, but sometimes so gleefully disturbed that you don’t know whether to sing along and dance, or cry and shut it off. Thankfully, the music becomes so infectious that you forget that the lyrics of “Slowly, Through a Vector” are so graphic that they’re distasteful. You soon will also be singing “I watch them cut, I watch them touch.”

This is unrelenting, stream-of-conscious, not fit for the psychologist’s couch but fit for late night conversations with your fucked up friends, nuclear holocaust kind of warfare. The more you listen to the lyrics and embedded yourself in the music and the album as a whole, you realize that you invested not in a good time or good tunes, but in some kind of musical therapy. This is the type of album you don’t want your parents to find or hear. Your Christian friends would piss down their leg, curse you as Satan, and run away after hearing many of these songs. And me… I love it all. The violence, the scars, the loathing, the cathartic release.

“I Want to Know Your Plans” turns in one of the albums softest spots. It is an effecting ballad that reassures you that this mad genius Bemis has a heart, even if it so far has been twisted and black. This song is hopeful, and comes as a breath of fresh air, a moment’s respite right before Bemis loads up his last bullet and pulls the trigger.

In the album’s closing track, “Admit It!!!,” Bemis points the finger at his listeners. Where before he leads his minions through their pains and trials and tribulations, here he asks, “what do you have to say for yourself?” He spits barb after barb at the trendiness of the hipster culture, the emo culture, even his own band and “celebrated.” He takes aim at the geeks that bitch about jocks and make fun of so-called normal people. He unleashes on his primary audience, then rips out a manifesto, before cranking up a sarcastic, damning self-critique. He returns to his declaration of pride in his accomplishments, and leads us through more musical sweetness, and leaves us with one last missive. “When I’m dead, I’ll rest, I’ll rest!”

And like that, the album ends with a song of rebellion, with nothing but ashes left in its wake. It’s a damn fine way to go out, and one helluva ride along the way.


The Rising Tide

Editor's Note: Not so much an album review as a biographical story. Still bad ass, though, so read away...

Sunny Day Real Estate is responsible for me forming my first real band.

It was a cool morning in October (October 24, 2000, to be exact), three friends (Rob, Wes, and Cory) loaded into one of our cars and began the decently-distant trek to the Midwestern Mecca of underage rock and roll: Bogarts in Cincinnati.

In Indiana, you can’t get into any clubs or bars until you are of legal drinking age, but in Ohio, you could get into clubs if you were 18 or older. Bogarts became the place to go to see your favorite bands play. When we heard Sunny Day Real Estate was coming through Cinci, we bought tickets and planned a trip around the Tuesday night show. I remember having an exam the next day, and I knew it would be a long day. Still, the temptation of seeing the legendary SDRE was far too great to pass this up.

I started going to school at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, in the fall of 1999. After arriving on campus, I became involved with two organizations that would both heavily impact my musical journey and overall life: WIUS 1570 AM, the campus radio station, and Campus Crusade for Christ, a Christian fellowship organization. I soon was a deejay at WIUS, and a guitar-player in the praise band at IUCCC.

By my senior year, I would not be involved with either org – 19 credit hours a semester was a reason, disillusionment with my judgmental “brothers and sisters” would be another, and missing the deadline to be on the airwaves yet another – but for the first three years of college, both organizations played a central role in much of what I did on and off campus.

I met Wes and Cory through Rob. Cory was from Rob’s hometown. Wes was the singer in the praise band at IUCCC, and Rob was the fellow who brought me, along with my future ex-fiance, to IUCCC. Rob lived on the same floor as I did in our dorm (Wright Quad – holla, rowdy Rollins!). Soon after my first visit to IUCCC, I got involved with the band, and so began playing music with Wes.

At the same time, I was spending one day a week spinning records on WIUS. I started off with a terrible time slot – 4 to 6 in the morning – that I would love to have back. It was amazing. Later, I was able to get an afternoon time slot. Rob would frequently join me on these winter trips all the across campus to get to the studio, and, frozen, we invaded the airwaves with our brand of rock and roll. Slowly, though, we picked through records that looked interesting or that we have heard about it, and we found more and more interesting music.

Bloomington is a virtual paradise for music lovers – of all kinds. Classical and Jazz have legs there, great legs, thanks to the school of music and the myriad venues available to perform and listen to those types of music. But, there is also a seedy underbelly to Bloomington – a whole slew of record stores, venues, bands, artists, and radio stations that deal in Indie Rock and underground music. This is indie rock as independent rock – small record labels, unheard of bands, local talent, etc. – not the label used to describe a certain style of music, though those kind of bands certainly were around back then.

In this musical paradise, I discovered a slowly-growing form of music that came to be known as “emo.” Now, before you throw up, use profanity, piss on your computer, or take some other drastic action just because of the mere mention of that term, please realize that back then, that term wasn’t loaded like it is today. It described a form of music that sounds nothing like the music, bands, people and culture it is used to describe today.

There are usually two bands that are credited with the creation of the old-term kind of “emo” as a genre of music: Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate.

Sitting in the studios at WIUS, a discovered an odd-looking CD, something with fantastic artwork, including some odd orange-red sunburst thing on black matte background, and full of strange images and neatly scribed lyrics. It was the album How It Feels To Be Something On, by Sunny Day Real Estate. We had this rating system at WIUS, where a song got one to four stars, based on how “good” it was in the eyes/ears of the reviewer, with four being the best. The first song on the record, “Pillars,” had been rated a four. I played that song, and instantly fell in love with the band.

After that first play, SDRE became a staple of my radio shows, with “Pillars,” “How It Feels To Be Something On,” “Every Shining Time You Arrive,” “8,” “In Circles,” “Seven,” and more all becoming favorite tracks. SDRE served as a bridge into several other bands and albums. But nothing really ever came close to matching their sound: churning guitars and chiming melodies, whisper-to-scream-to-angelic vocals, elliptical and poetic lyrics, pounding poly-rhythms. They were (and still are) unlike any other band I had ever heard. They were singular, and singularly amazing.

So when the new album The Rising Tide came out, we all bought it. When the tour was announced and tickets went on sale, we got tickets to the show in Cinci. And we stood three rows of people back from the loudest concert I have ever been to. The volume isn’t even describable… and yet the sound cut through, too. You could hear each instrument, could here the vocals cut through the mix.

The band’s history is well-documented. The break-ups, the line-up shifts, the early singles, the no-shows-in-California stance. Their music grew, changed. What started like a hurricane became tempered with time, but no less forceful, powerful, emotional, and passionate.

With every album, Sunny Day’s passionate fans would both decry and uphold the albums. Each album has its supporters and detractors. It is telling that their albums have been so different, certainly if one compares the last one with the first one. Still, most fans embraced every incarnation of the band and its majestic sound.

Even with this, though, the last album, The Rising Tide, was seen by some as a sell-out, with softer songs, less anger, and the appearance of synthesizers on my songs. It became a point to question what was going on with this album. It was the album that most fans pointed to as their least favorite, at least at first (check out concert reviews from 2000 – fans are still questioning the album and its impact then, proof that it wasn’t seen as an immediate success). This line of thinking was, in a word, wrong.

The first song off of The Rising Tide was quintessential Sunny Day. “Killed By An Angel” had propulsive driving, crashing guitars, and Jeremy Enigk’s trademark vocals. It was merely the first shot of a one-two punch that would open an album that would be the most lush, majestic, and opulent one would create. “One,” the second track, would continue the aggressive nature of the first song, albeit in a more major-key way. Still, the presence of “major 7” chords, long another trademark staple of the Sunny Day sound, were present everywhere on this track.

“Rain Song” was the first quiet, more pop-oriented song. At first listen, it does sound quite distant from this band’s normally loud, thunderous songwriting, but it did fit nicely with what Enigk had done on his first solo album, Return of the Frog King. Still, the song showed a depth of songwriting, a step further from some of the ballads on How It Feels…, and it would serve as a brief interlude between the first two blistering tracks and the next two.

“Disappear” took a disjointed, Eastern-sounding scale riff and built on it a song that ebbed, flowed, built into a tidal wave and broke into a melodic fury that the band rode out for the rest of the song. “Snide” was a song drenched in synths, but one that still exhibited the stomp and thunder of typical old SDRE songs.

“The Ocean,” though, sounds to me like the band’s biggest – and best – leap forward. Here, cascading drums meet melodies that roll and tumble, evoking the song’s namesake. The song again showed a depth in songwriting that wasn’t present on the band’s first albums, one that they had cultivated from How It Feels… to charming effect. Keyboards and strings added much to the album’s overall sound, and are quite evident here.

On The Rising Tide, Sunny Day Real Estate were at their most Led Zeppelin. They combined their previously heavy, raging efforts with both a more acoustic sound and an ear towards the music of other cultures. Like “Disappear,” the song “Fool In The Photograph” sounded distinctly Eastern at times, and even U2-ish in the bridge, marrying melody with atmosphere.

“Tearing In My Heart” continued this album’s use of effecting ballads, which is truly a wonderful thing given how gifted a singer Enigk is. While the entire album showcases drummer William Goldsmith’s percussive genius and guitarist Dan Hoerner’s way with riffs that sound at once both heavy and harmonic, Jeremy Enigk’s voice is the show-stopper here.

“Television” was also another somewhat pop-oriented song, but much more U2- and Police-influenced, and still yet propulsive and driving in the best senses. The lyrics compare sex and love in a dream-like nature that reminds the protagonist of television. To this day, the song remains a perfect metaphor, for such things – the dreamlike nature of deep love and lust, especially over something that you can only touch those dreams. The song builds to an inspired crescendo, and again, here synths add to the climax of this powerful band.

The album ends as strongly as it begins, with arguably the two best tracks. It is as if the band managed to wrap everything about the first nine songs into the last two – each one exhibits traits from the others – the band’s way with melodies that absolutely soar, the uplifting nature of the lyrics across the entire album, the masterful use of percussion, strings and keyboards to color every corner, the anthemic, chiming guitars, the Eastern influences, and that sweet angelic voice that can become so unhinged, so quickly.

“Faces In Disguise” is another building-block track, one that stacks melodies and counter-melodies atop one another, layering its way to an explosive climax with Enigk’s soaring voice as ringleader. As throughout the album, the lyrics remain confessional and conversational, in a personal way. The song approaches a weight and depth that would be even more powerful when played live. It demonstrated the clear, dense sound the band explored from start to finish on this album.

The album wouldn’t be complete without the title track that ends it, though. Here, every sweet detailed trick that was used to color all the songs before is used to great effect, to create a swirling, cathartic blast of joyous noise. Notes clash and crash off each other while Enigk’s vocal lines float effortlessly over the music. “The Rising Tide” is also one of the album’s most dynamic songs, trading in the loud, anthemic quality of the verses for simple piano-and-voice choruses – backwards from the way most songs are arranged. The song is a masterful assassin, throwing killing blows time after time, repeatedly drawing the listener into its world.

The tidal motives throughout the album, as well as the dream references, serve as a wonderful metaphor on how to describe the work. It sounds like an accomplished band setting out to make something that stands on its own, and the band’s experience, the quality of the production, and the masterful songs make the album sound timeless.

It would be a fitting swan song, leaving joy and disappointment, too, that something this grand could be accomplished. Best of all, it sounds nothing like what “emo” sounds like today.

It was to be the soundtrack to fall semester 2000 at Indiana University for me and many of my friends. We all became enchanted with it. And so when Wes, Cory, Rob and I loaded into that car to drive to Cincinnati, we were traveling with baited breath, waiting to final hear and see what this band could do in concert.

The concert was amazing. Just as dynamic live as they were in the studio, the band tore through classic songs and new ones alike with aplomb, joy, and verve. The audience gleefully played along, and the night felt more like a celebration than a concert. It was the church of rock and roll, but of a positive, uplifting sort.

The band played so many good songs, many of the aforementioned of my favorites, some I hadn’t paid much attention to before but now found exciting. And the band seemed to have so much fun playing. Each of us at that show was in the midst of a religious experience – every review I read of the show all pointed to this, how powerful the band was live. It must have also been gratifying to the band that some of the most powerful songs of the night, the real show-stealers, were the ones from the new album. If “Faces In Disguise” and “The Rising Tide” were majestic on the album, they were even more so live. “Disappear” became menacing, “One” was a total affirmation with the entire sound crying “everything and everyone, and in the end we all are one, truth will not be denied.”

Hours later, we made our way home. We walked back to the car in nearly stunned silence. The experience was so breathtaking that it was hard to find the words. Then… we began to talk.

Rob was the odd man out – he didn’t play an instrument or sing, but was our biggest fan and supporter. There, on the ride home, Cory and Wes and I decided to form a band. We would return to IU and recruit a drummer, Frank, and a bassist, Nate. Wes would sing, and Cory and I would play guitar. And we sucked at first, as all bands do.

But there was something amazing about the way we came together. We tried to replicate that majestic sound, that anthemic sound, and of course failed, but we also grew. In a few years, with graduation upon us, and our drummer (who, like Sunny Day’s, was an important, integral part of our sound) moved away, and we became Spinal Tap when it came to bass players, we hung up our rock and roll spurs. The band, called Endolori (which was a French word meaning “sore or tender” – an appropriate emo name then and now), called it quits.

And that was the end of the story.

Until Frank returned from whatever wooded purgatory he had banished his hippie-self to, and made a phone call. Before long, we were practicing in his basement, him and I, and, before long, Wes and Cory were on board again as well. Our friend Chris played bass before he had to move away due to marriage and work. Another friend Mike picked up the reigns of the bassist duties and… Yesterday The Siren was born.

Nowadays, Yesterday The Siren is defunct, but I am proud of what we did for the few years we were together. Wes, Cory and I took upon the seeds that were planted on that fateful October night, and we grew what we could. We never achieved anything I would call majestic, but we damn sure did write a few anthems. And played with as much passion as we saw that night, with joyous and reckless abandon.

If it weren’t for Sunny Day Real Estate, I don’t know if I would’ve ever been motivated enough to really form a band, and to really work at it and push my friends to be the best we could be. By the time Yesterday The Siren rolled around, hard work was our middle name – we all put in as much as we could afford to, with families, work, and other considerations taking our time. We still made rock and roll of an anthemic spirit, the spirit of one of the greatest bands to ever grace the stage.

So, reflecting on that moment almost eight years ago, I am so thankful I had the opportunity to go. And so thankful that music could mean that much to people – to the men in Sunny Day, to my friends that went with me, to the crowd, to the guys in the bands I have played in since.

We were riding the rising tide. And I’ve been riding it ever since.

(all photos credit: deathmuppets@cs.com --- retrieved from "In The Blue" SDRE fan site)