Saturday, June 22, 2013

album review: 'in defense of the genre' by say anything (RETRO REVIEW)

I have to be honest, it's not often I do real 'retro reviews', and there's a very good reason for that. As much as I could go on and on about certain acts and how much I like their material, I feel that without the appropriate context/situation, there's isn't much of a point for me to talk about these acts. It'd be rather self-indulgent, and while I don't exactly have a huge problem with that, I'd prefer to actually talk about something that is relevant to the conversation today.

Now that's not saying I won't do retrospective reviews - far from it, actually. In fact, I think I can definitively nail down three reasons why I would do a retro review of an album or a movie: it relates to a current subject in a direct manner that allows me to fuse the review with an essay; it's something I didn't get a chance to cover earlier in the year and I want to cover it so I'm prepared when year-end rolls around; and finally, on request (and even then it's iffy, because there are some acts I will refuse to touch on principle).

And even with that, I haven't written that many retrospective reviews. There were the Nolan-Batman retrospectives (here and here), the reviews of James Blake and Tegan & Sara earlier this year (the latter of which I remember most for my essay on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope), and the two reviews I've written on request: that of Avenged Sevenfold's self-titled album and that of an album by The Beards. Completely unsurprisingly, the two albums I reviewed on request were not even close to good, which makes sense in a twisted sort of way. After all, the Internet likes to give critics shit to review so we can fly into highly entertaining rages.

I want you all to understand that to clarify that when I got the request to review In Defense of the Genre, the collaborator-studded album by Say Anything, I stepped in with high hopes but extremely low expectations. As a band with no real pop success to speak of - albeit some measure of critical acclaim, but that can mean anything these days - I had actually never heard any of this band's material before beginning this review. Keep in mind that when I started listening to the pop-punk and emo music of the 2000s, I jumped onto the bandwagon in 2007, which was in the peak of mainstream success but not critical acclaim (as I've said before, I spent the majority of the mid-2000s listening to power and symphonic metal). I might have been listening to Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco and the occasional MCR or Jimmy Eat World track, but I certainly wasn't familiar with the more underground segments of the genre, so I was very unfamiliar with Say Anything. So as usual, I opted to examine the albums leading up to In Defense Of The Genre so I might have an idea about what Say Anything was like. What I did I think?

Well, I have mixed feelings. Say Anything burst into the indie scene with Baseball, an album that the band has never really been proud of and have refused to play tracks from for a long time. On the one hand, I definitely understand why: if we're looking for albums that embodied the teenage emo aesthetic, Baseball would immediately jump to the top of that list. With the haphazard production, sloppy but occasionally excellent guitar work, and raw anger and petulance in Max Bemis' vocals, Baseball would be indistinguishable from a dozen other emo bands of the time, but what impressed me was the genuine emotion in Bemis' delivery and the sharper-than-average songwriting. The band had a certain degree of wit around them that I can definitely see elevated them over their peers - within their genre, of course. And that's where the biggest problem with Baseball comes up - it's painfully high school when it comes to subject matter, filled with all of the associated drama from that period. And while I definitely can see why disaffected teenagers would love the raw, unbridled anger in Say Anything, anyone with an ounce of perspective would find Baseball more than a little juvenile. 

But on the other hand, I will give credit where it's due - Say Anything definitely captured that spirit with their opening album, and while the band might have lacked nuance, they made up for it with passion. So unsurprisingly, they got signed and released their second album ...Is A Real Boy, which managed the impossible: not only did the band preserve their sound and wit, they actually got better. In fact, ...Is A Real Boy really nailed down in my mind what Say Anything did well, namely they fused intelligently biting lyrics with real passion. I'm not reminded of any of the traditional L.A. emo bands but instead of The Barenaked Ladies, both in the acrid dark humour of the lyrics and the simplistic yet extraordinarily catchy melodies (plus, they reference Nick Cave multiple times, which is automatic bonus points from me). 

But what I find most fascinating about ...Is A Real Boy is the theme - while Say Anything could have chosen to focus inwardly about Max Bemis' own neuroses (and he did have them, as he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, actively abused drugs, and was eventually checked into a mental institution), they instead directed their attentions at their genre. Of course, they were an emo band so most of the songs were written from the perspective of the band, but they still had a much stronger tendency to focus outwardly. In short, much of their material was targeted at the music industry and the toxic culture surrounding it, and they had the smart songwriting to disguise their words behind some surprisingly intricate metaphors. And when they weren't attacking the industry, they were writing very literate, occasionally high-concept material like 'Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat' (one of the major highlights of the album, a nuanced discussion of human complacency), 'Every Man Has A Molly' (the nasty aftermath of airing dirty laundry through music - take notes, Taylor Swift), 'I Want To Know Your Plans' (probably the closest thing to an honest love song Say Anything ever wrote), and 'Admit It!!!' (my other favourite track, a brutally articulate spoken-word-filled diatribe against hipsters that's eons harsher than anything I will ever write).

So it isn't surprising in the slightest is that Say Anything very quickly built some major artistic clout in the industry, particularly around the L.A. emo scene, and combined with Bemis' growing reputation as a mad genius, it's not a surprise he managed to rope in twenty-three guest vocalists for his newest project and the topic of my review today. In Bemis' own words, the album had a twofold purpose: an autobiographical exploration of his mental breakdown and recovery; and a tribute to the other emo bands and genre Say Anything liked. Do they succeed?

Well, yes and no, and it's one of the many things that make In Defense Of The Genre both a messy, messy album, but something kind of special regardless. And while I'm not quite sure it's as good as ...Is A Real Boy, it's pretty damn solid all the same.

Let me begin with the primary conceit of the album, because it's central to why the album both works and doesn't work. As I stated above, the album has a twofold purpose, and the way Max Bemis chooses to incorporate that purpose has a certain elegance to it: he uses his mental breakdown and recovery as the 'story' of the album, and chooses to celebrate his genre by using his guest musicians to define the instrumentation and aesthetic style. Simple enough, and it definitely gives the rest of Say Anything to display some impressive variety in their compositions, which they definitely do. And really, this is where I have to give some serious credit to the band: between the more theatrical keyboard-driven pop punk to the grittier garage-inspired rock, from the more electronic and structured industrial metal to the breakdown-filled arrhythmic metalcore, Say Anything do an impressive job replicating their sound and fusing it to their more rhythmic, hook-driven rock.

Now there's an immediate problem that should become apparent to everyone, namely that it would be exceptionally difficult to order the album to have the stylistic changes flow well into each other. And indeed, that might have been a problem - if anybody had actually attempted to do this. Instead, the style shifts between track to track, and given the incoherent narrative through-line, there isn't really a good excuse for it either. You very quickly have to resign yourself to the fact that the style will mutate between one of the various aesthetics within emo, almost without warning. In short, we aren't getting an epic, multi-part story here with each singer playing a unique role - instead, we're diving into Max Bemis' psychoses with each of the additional singers adding their own unique voice and style to the mix.

And you know, that can work - not every compilation has to be of the same level of ambition as Ayreon. But at the same time, it does feel a bit like Max Bemis isn't getting the most out of his collaborators (which include Hayley Williams of Paramore and Gerard Way of MCR), and it's hard not to think that with a little more ambition and forethought, In Defense Of The Genre could have been something truly glorious. But this wishful thinking obscures a real problem with this album - namely that while Bemis is attempting to celebrate (and arguably elevate) the entire genre of emo by fusing it with his story and his stronger-than-average writing. And sure, while his overly-wordy, gratuitous and sarcastically anger is a good fit for most emo music, it tends to require a stronger, more hook-driven musical structure, and when matched with harsh or dirty vocals or sudden tempo switches or breakdown-driven riffs, it doesn't hold up as well. And sure, Max Bemis doesn't embarrass himself attempting to emulate other styles, but it's clear where his strengths are, and it's definitely where giving his guest stars more of a focus could have helped the album. But then again, considering the vocal quality of some of the guest stars (Chris Conley from Saves The Day stands out here in the worst possible way), maybe it was better Bemis always takes the lead.

So let's talk about the songwriting, which is usually the best part of Say Anything's material. Unfortunately, in the mimicry of the instrumental style of some of his collaborators, we also see a change in songwriting focus that arguably is something of a misstep for Max Bemis. See, in ...Is A Real Boy, the targets and focus of the songwriting may have gone through Say Anything's myopic filter, but they had a certain directness and clear wit that stood out. On In Defense Of The Genre, however, Bemis seems to have subscribed to the emo lyrical 'style', which contains more than its fair share of cliched faux-gothic imagery. And while with knowledge of the album's theme of Bemis' breakdown and recovery one can expect a more inwardly-focused effort, there are points on this album that feel like they subscribe to the more juvenile and self-obsessed elements of the emo genre. Furthermore, too many of the songs are bogged down in 'hate-hate' relationship drama that with the usage of more 'conventional' emo imagery just come across as utterly ridiculous and impossible to take seriously.

Maybe this would all be more excusable if the album had more of a coherent narrative, but outside of some vague thematic leads between songs, In Defense Of The Genre can be pretty tough to follow. The first disk seems to encapsulate Bemis' initial autobiographical intent: his psyche collapses in upon itself during his tour, he abuses drugs, he gets put in a mental institution, and eventually recovers and finds love, in the end gaining the forgiveness of his bandmates. But then the second disk comes and things get significantly more confusing, beginning 'The Truth Is, You Should Lie With Me' and continuing through the next few songs (mostly because it's hard to nail down whose perspective the songs are being sung from, the guy's or the girl's - I originally thought there was something of a gay theme here, but Bemis is apparently straight). Either way, whatever relationship that exists on this disk explosively blows apart a cacophony of swearing, cheating, and regret. And while I'll admit Bemis captures the emotions of a breakup better than Jimmy Eat World ever will, it's where the large number of collaborators feels a bit out of place - since they're never called upon to play one of the roles in the relationship, it cuts away from the more intimate emotions associated with the breakup. Indeed, when Bemis flies solo on two of the last three songs of the album, he manages a reasonably satisfying conclusion. With the lack of focus, it doesn't quite reach the heights of the first disk, but it's still an admirable effort.

This all links back to one of the main themes of the album, which can be summed up directly in the title. Max Bemis is trying to defend emo music of all types by marrying it to the best elements of his music - but even in the cases where it works, he doesn't really have any standards of quality in his selections across the emo genre. Some of his collaborators, in particular, aren't at his level, and the disparity of talent really does show. And skipping over the question of whether or not some parts of the emo genre should be saved (I'd argue that's hit-and-miss), it also raises the question whether or not the elements that don't quite work as well with Bemis' style as others and are thus weaker for it should be disregarded. By inclusion on the album, Bemis seems to be arguing that they all should be preserved, but frankly, there's a reason why culture tends to remember the best and forget the worst, and I'm not sure Bemis makes a strong enough case here for that.

So in the end, while I don't think In Defense Of The Genre is as strong or as memorable as ...Is A Real Boy, it's definitely an intriguing and worthwhile album, if only for the startlingly comprehensive cross-section of emo styles and musical aesthetics sampled and well-executed. Where it falls short is in the focus and a bit in the songwriting - in the embracing of the cliches, some of the wit and insight fell by the wayside, and that was unfortunate. I can definitely say that of the records recommended that I've reviewed, In Defense Of The Genre is definitely the one I can see myself most revisiting in the future and Say Anything one of the best bands to come of the emo genre.

As for Say Anything, they continued on to release a self-titled album in 2009 and an attempt at a 'punk' record in 2012, but by then the pop-punk boom had faded and the emo trend had completely collapsed. I wouldn't say either of those albums are bad, but they definitely suffer from a dilution of Say Anything's sound into something more palatable to a wider audience (plus they forgot the lesson that bands start punk and expand outwards, not the other way around). Also, Max Bemis' embrace of Christianity definitely started to leak into his lyrics, and not for the better...

But I think that's a good topic for next time. Stay tuned, folks!

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