Sundays and holidays

1 - Christmastime is here...

The first entry of this internet-published blog finds me removed from my usual method of composition; instead of the fast and furious typing that produces first drafts I usually post instead of revising, I'm currently scribbling a rough draft into a notebook while sitting on a bed that, 362 or more days a year, isn't mine. It's the holiday season, and I'm at my parents' house, where gaining access to a computer involves sitting in a room where a television is always on and music can't be listened to except through headphones. And as I'm sure many of you understand, that's just the tip of the iceberg where uncomfortable situations and temporary inconveniences are concerned. These days, when it seems like dysfunction is the status quo and my generation waits longer to settle down and start families of their own than any previous generation did (and can you blame us?), there are millions of us out there doing this every year--making the holiday trek "home" from apartments in the nearest major city, and balancing out several days of uncomfortable interaction with the opportunity to score gifts and money from those same people that we still don't know how to talk to or even be around. Many of us are ready for it all to end way before it does. We're ready to get back to our normal lives with people our own age, who are at least fucked up in the same way we are and therefore understandable. We're ready to spend the gift certificates and exchange the clothes we'd never wear and put the whole thing behind us for another year. But right now, we owe it to these people--who share a bond with us that is no less real for all our inability to connect to them--to stick around, to deal with the awkwardness for another day ot two. This knowledge does nothing to appease our discomfort, but it does bring with it a hefty dose of guilt. What better time to discuss the merits of Taking Back Sunday?

2 - The problem

Hipsterism is without a doubt the curse of the modern indie rock scene. This statement is obvious to most and therefore making it is not enough and hasn't been for some time. In the waning days of 2004, this backlash has become de rigeur in enough circles to constitute a mini-trend of its own. The real avantgarde these days, in fact, is in declaring the anti-hipster faction to be "haters". this defends hipsterism from all attacks, valid or not, through the wholesale appropriation of a term that at this point still carries enough associations to hip-hop to keep its cred intact and make it inviolate amongst the suburban middle-class white kids who are having this argument in the first place. [Aside: tune in mid-2006 or so to see "hater" join former linguistic comrades "bling-bling" and "crunk" in the category labeled "terms true hip-hop kids wouldn't be caught dead using anymore."]

The entire previous paragraph talks around the subject, though. This is because I'm allowing the subject to dictate terms of discussion. The point that must be made here can be made only by tunneling several layers under the surface and upending the entire pro-hipster/anti-hipster dichotomy. The real point here has to do with the way hipsterism, and its attendant emotional (or lack thereof) stance, irony, undermines trust.

Indie kids have been convoluting their discourse with layer upon layer of irony for so long that it's no longer possible to discern the true feelings of anyone within that culture where pretty much anything is concerned. Hipsterism is a very trendy phenomenon--every year that passes brings some new craze that sweeps the entire hipster nation. Suddenly everyone concerned is dancing in clubs to the new Sean Paul single, or proudly claiming allegiance to early 80s new wave bands that we've all been calling cheesy for at least 15 years, or flocking to shows by experimental noise bands like Lightning Bolt and Wolf Eyes and it's all so fucking suspect that the non-hipster contingent of the entire "rock" (loosely termed) musical underground collectively recoils. It's just common sense to realize that no sudden ubiquitous trend is made up entirely of sincere converts to some exciting new musical discovery. A decent amount of people involved in any trend, most likely the majority of them, are just trying to stay cool within the bounds of the society they've adopted. This is basic sociology--it's human nature to react this way, and if we're really honest we'll all admit to having done it at one time or another. The problem were it specifically relates to hipsters comes when you look at just how quickly trends become ubiquitous in that culture. Irony's pervasive hold on that culture frees people within it to move with the trends with impunity. After all, if they aren't into whatever trend is big at that moment, they can go along with it anyway and claim irony if they're called out. For a while, it was still easy to tell who stood on which side of that particular divide, but those days are long gone. The problem of divining the truth on a case-by-case basis has only gotten more difficult with the advent of the hipsters who loudly proclaim their sincerity. These are typically the smartest of the lot, and therefore the ones most likely to be involved in music journalism. And they are all utterly untrustworthy. How can anyone take the word of someone who JUST HAPPENS to be totally into every new trend that comes down the pike, while JUST HAPPENING to grow tired of every few-years-old fad that's grown stale in the eyes of the easily jaded? The British music press has been untrustworthy in this way for at least a decade, but to see it invade American music journalism is a reprehensible development. It's easy at this point to just get cynical, assume everyone involved is still listening to the same old typical indie rock they admitted they loved five years ago, and ignore them completely whenever they step outside of those narrow subgenres. Yet you can't say anything about the whole situation for fear of being labeled a "hater" and having your opinion instantly invalidated. So the wary non-hipster majority is cowed into submission, and most of us are left with no choice but to view standard indie-rock journalism with skepticism while combing the broad spectrum of information for a source we can trust.

Many friends of mine, seeking reprieve from this entire morass, have turned their attention to subgenres that seem immune to the vagaries of the whole hipster thing. However, the longer this whole thing plays out, the more styles of music come into line for co-option. Hip-hop (both mainstream dance-oriented and underground conscious variations) , extreme noise, top 40 radio pop and r&b, and electronic music of all types have all been absorbed into the hipster paradigm. Metal appears to be next on the list, and the real casualty amongst all of this is the ability of the consumer to take someone at face value when they say, "The new record by [insert band name here] is good." The more styles that hipsters feel they have to endorse, the more trends that such a recommendation could be slave to, and the less anyone can trust any of it. So where, in 2005, are we going to look for sincerity? Where are we going to find anyone willing to go out on a limb and talk to us about things that aren't already being shoved down our throat by every hipster we know?

3 - Leprosy as a solution

At a time like this, when a real breath of fresh air is needed by all concerned, one surefire untouchable remains amongst the hipster elite. And for lack of a better word, I'll use the term that has been foisted upon it and call it "emo" (hereafter to appear without quotation marks). With the exception of Spin's Andy Greenwald, who takes a sociological approach to the genre while hardly ever making it apparent whether he actually digs the music or not, no one is really even willing to discuss this stuff. The hipsters who laud top 40 r&b and hip-hop singles often use the popularity argument against those who'd attempt to question their debatably ironic championing. It's the post-millenial version of "50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong." Meanwhile, bands like New Found Glory and Hawthorne Heights are all over MTV2 and Fuse, and Taking Back Sunday's "Where You Want To Be," the (eventual) subject of this review, debuts at #3 on the Billboard charts, to the collective yawns of music journalism. There is more here than meets the eye.

Of course, I am not self-aggrandizing enough to think that I alone can turn this tide, or even represent myself as a lone voice of sincerity crying out against a tide, etc. etc. More than anything, I'm just tired of my voice being unrepresented. I'm tired of the hipsterization of indie-rock discourse drawing lines of acceptability in music tastes, and feeling like I should keep certain enjoyments a secret. I'm going public as of right now: I love emo and I don't care who knows it.

4 - Biography (mine)

For me, it's often the case that a band's transitional albums will hook me more than the records they make when they are still fully what they began as or have fully turned into what they eventually became. This is just a specific manifestation of a more universal tendency of my musical tastes: I'm most drawn to music that mixes together multiple things. I like melody mixed with loud noise, speed mixed with crushing slowness, experimental noise mixed with conventional song structures, and raw freakouts mixed with calmer, more straightforward passages. I contain multitudes, and I like it better when music does the same.

Sometimes I wonder whether or not this tendency within myself has anything to do with my own mental state. 11 years ago i was diagnosed with bipolar/manic depressive disorder, and have chosen not to take medicine for this situation. I felt I could learn healthier behavior patterns and find ways to deal with the disorder without pills. And for the most part, I have. However, I do still have to deal with intense highs and lows as far as my emotions on a daily basis are concerned. I probably always will.

I often say that I have my good days and my bad days where such things are concerned, but lately, not only with my coming back to my parents' house for a few days but also some other things I won't detail here, the good and bad days have become increasingly skewed towards emotional upheaval. On bad days lately I've been crying at the drop of a hat, over insignificant things like scenes in a book I'm reading or the words to crappy mainstream country songs my parents are listening to. A recent good day constitutes NOT feeling like i'm going to vomit from embarrassment or paranoia. I guess in the end it's no wonder I relate so well to Taking Back Sunday, and to emo in general.

Then again, while my experience undoubtedly differs on levels of degree from something a normal person my age would go through, am I really so far off from any other person? In Andy Greenwald's book "Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo," Greenwald puts forth the theory that emo's resonance among the teenage demographic in particular has to do with how much more intently teenagers feel all of the emotional shocks that day to day life throws at them. Greenwald thinks that, as we get older, we become more inured to those shocks due to repetition and to wisdom gained through experience. But I have to wonder: is the reason the raw-nerve reactions of our teenage years eventually fade away really due to an accumulation of wisdom, or is it just pure self-consciousness? Could it be that the real reason we cease to react so severely just be that we've realized it is considered gauche by most people, and now we're just embarrassed? Could it be that the emotional shocks of day-to-day life still affect us just as harshly, and all that's changed is that we've gotten better at hiding it? Sure, the truth is somewhere in between most of the time, and it's probably a different amount of each answer for every person, but in a time when divorce rates are at an all-time high and almost everyone I know is struggling with one form or another of chemical dependency (whether they'll admit it or not), I can't imagine that I'm the only one way past my teenage years who still feels like they're riding an emotional rollercoaster.

5 - Biography (Taking Back Sunday's)

Taking Back Sunday's first album, "Tell All Your Friends", had been out for over a year when I first discovered them in early 2004. I had heard their name plenty of times, but no one I'd asked about them seemed to think they were all that great, so I didn't investigate them any further until I read the chapter about them in Andy Greenwald's book. Reading it, I couldn't help but feel a connection to the band, specifically to the two members interviewed: primary vocalist Adam Lazzara and guitarist/second vocalist John Nolan. It seemed like the two of them didn't care about making money as long as they didn't have to get day jobs. They were best friends who shared a crappy apartment, hung out every day, and wrote songs together. They considered it an honor to get to play their music on a regular basis to halls full of kids, and Adam explained how he made a point of passing the mic as much as possible so everyone would get a chance to sing along. They just seemed like such sincere guys with good hearts that I was blown away. I immediately obtained a copy of "Tell All Your Friends", and found myself enjoying it every bit as much as I'd hoped I would. The way they mixed catchy riffs with heartfelt lyrics and threw in hardcore-influenced song structures was a perfect recipe for an album I loved, and I kept it in regular rotation for months.

However, all was not as it seemed where Taking Back Sunday was concerned. In the summer of 2004, not long before their second album was to be released, I learned that Adam Lazzara and John Nolan had had a falling out so severe that Nolan had quit the group. This shocked me, considering the interview I'd read only months before. The very things that had initially drawn me to the band--its sincerity and cameraderie--had been called into question. I couldn't imagine how their second album could possibly be anywhere near as good without Adam and John working together. Apparently bassist Shaun Cooper shared my feelings--he informed Adam that the band was "a sinking ship" without John and followed him out the door soon after. I later heard that the whole thing had happened due to Adam's engagement to John's sister being broken up in dramatic fashion when Adam allegedly cheated on her while on Taking Back Sunday tour. For the record, I can't prove any of that, but if it's true it certainly indicates that the emotional traumas of day to day life didn't stop having a big effect on the members of Taking Back Sunday when they stopped being teenagers.

Lazzara, guitarist Ed Reyes, and drummer Mark O'Connell were left to pick up the pieces, and did so by hiring Matt Rubano on bass and Fred Mascherino, formerly of Breaking Pangaea, to fill the all-important guitarist/second vocalist slot. It was this lineup that wrote and recorded Taking Back Sunday's followup to "Tell All Your Friends." "Where You Want To Be" was released in July 2004, and I bought it the week it came out.

6 - So pace the stairs to your apartment...

I wasn't sure how I felt about the album at first. It was different from "Tell All Your Friends" in several ways, which initially made me skeptical. There was a little less emphasis on pop, and more of the hardcore song structures were showing up than ever before. Also, the album had a less uniform sound, with more stylistic shifts being used and more risks being taken. I especially didn't know how I felt about the album's centerpiece, "New American Classic", which was a full-on acoustic ballad complete with strings. However, despite my initial skepticism, I found myself drawn more and more often to put it on, and soon enough I was won over. Despite its differences from its predecessor, "Where You Want To Be" was an excellent album, and perhaps was even better than their first record.

When I bought the album, I was living in a pretty awkward situation. Some friends of mine were going to get an apartment with me, but my lease ended three months before theirs did. One of them had some friends who had a room available in their house for those three months, so he arranged for me to move in with them. I didn't know any of them before I moved in, and although I got along well with two of the three of them, I really didn't mesh well with the third person. I also wasn't very comfortable with the way there were always tons of people over (usually drinking lots of beer) or the way all of the common areas of the house were perpetually trashed. By a month or so into my stay there, I was spending all my time either in my room or out of the house. I wasn't really hanging out with anyone when I would leave the house either, so I was almost constantly alone and pretty depressed about it. I tried to take solace in talking to people on the internet, but it was hollow comfort. I was lonely.

The first song on "Where You Want To Be" is called "Set Phasers To Stun", and its lyrics hit very close to home for me at that time. As best as I can tell, the song is about someone who has alienated him or herself from everyone they know and hates their loneliness but has no idea what to do to fix things. The chorus goes, "So pace the stairs to your apartment, like that's where you want to be," and I saw myself in its biting, sarcastic portrayal of a lonely person. But the lyrics are only part of the picture--the music is just as important to the effect of the song. By the final chorus, the song has built to a crescendo, with Adam and Fred running roughshod over each other's vocal parts. Finally both of their voices come together and the music slams into a brief heavy riff that's almost a mosh part and definitely owes more to hardcore than any emo/pop songwriting conventions.

The next song is wryly titled "Bonus Mosh Pt. II", and if "Set Phasers To Stun" hints at a more pronounced hardcore influence than was seen on TBS's first album, this song leaves no room for doubt. The chorus rides on a stomping 3/4 riff that is indeed a mosh part (as the title hints), and as the drummer hammers on his kick pedal and bashes the hell out of his cymbals, both vocalists get into the spirit of things. They nearly scream the lines of the chorus: "When it's love, make it hurt." There's no attempt made here to disguise the emotions fueling the lyrics--this is not that kind of music. When the song reaches its bridge, the riffs get even heavier, and the song doesn't end so much as shake apart, the final chorus devolving into a blast of feedback and amplifier hum.

On the heels of that dramatic ending, we get "A Decade Under The Influence", which begins with a relatively clean melody. This is the first single from the album, and it was a good choice--seeing the video on MTV2 in the weeks leading up to the album's release had been enough reason for me to put aside my skepticism and purchase it. As the song gets going, Adam sings, "You're skin and bones, I'm a nervous wreck," while Fred repeats "I've got a bad feeling about this..." underneath. The song's lyrics describe the dissolution of a relationship from the perspective of the one who doesn't want it to end but sees things rapidly spiraling out of control. the first half of the song is catchy and melodic, the upbeat hooks belying the sadness and frustration of the lyrics. However, as the second chorus moves into the bridge, this whole charade falls away. Adam is nearly screaming his lyrics as the music veers quickly back and forth between a 6/8 mosh riff and a driving 4/4 beat. After only three repetitions, the music drops into a quiet, melodic interlude, but this doesn't last long. Things move toward a crescendo, but unlike in "Set Phasers To Stun", it doesn't resolve the tension with any sort of tempo change--it just keeps building.

One problem with a lot of bands who are getting popular right now in the emo subgenre is the evident need they feel to inject screaming into their songs. Perhaps it's done to court the burgeoning metalcore audience, but it's almost always a terrible fit. Suddenly someone cuts loose with a demonic roar out of nowhere in the middle of a pop song and it totally kills the mood. It's so obvious that they're just pre-empting charges of wimpiness and you'd usually rather that they hadn't bothered. Thankfully, Taking Back Sunday avoid this pitfall completely. They don't do it by neutering their heavier riffs, either. If they scream in a song, it's only because they're singing so hard that they end up pushing their voices to that point. This is why the ending to "A Decade Under the Influence" works so well, when from most other bands working in this style it would sound forced. As the band pounds away at the ending riff, hitting it harder with each repetition, both vocalists push themselves to the breaking point. Adam is singing, "I thought it through and my worst brings out the best in you" as Fred reprises his earlier line, "I've got a bad feeling about this," in much more intense fashion. By the time the song ends, Adam has changed his line to something not on the lyric sheet--sounds like "All of you," maybe it's actually "I love you"? Whatever, it works especially well as Fred takes center stage with his screams, his repeated line now devolved to "I've got it bad." As the music crashes to an end, Fred is still screaming, and he continues until he's backed by nothing at all. It's one of the most heart-wrenching things I've ever heard, and it's as viscerally powerful as a punch in the gut.

After these first three songs, it seems like there's nowhere else for Taking Back Sunday to go, but they circumvent this dilemma by dropping back into a ballad. "I Know You Know" is another relationship-dissolution song, and if you listen hard enough you may find yourself wondering how much of it is about John, or his sister, or maybe a bit of both. Really though, that's not important, and thinking about it too much can only lead to ruining the significance that Adam Lazzara's universally understandable lyrics could have in one's own life.

There are other great moments here, such as "Number Five With A Bullet"'s irresistible chorus (again, belying downbeat lyrics), or "New American Classic"'s just-this-side-of-maudlin string orchestration, but I think I've gone on long enough about specifics. In general, although this album has gotten at least some commercial recognition, it's been woefully overlooked by almost everyone who purports to take music seriously. This is an injustice of the first order, and it's time that one of the best albums of the last year got it's due. Check it out, won't you?

7 - Closing time

I hope you enjoyed my inaugural installment. Tomorrow I leave the country for a little over a week, but when I get back, in celebration of my first trip to England, I will discuss the subgenre unfortunately known as "shoegaze." Til then...