David Bowie – Changes
Turn and face the strange (ch-ch-changes)
Oh, look out you rock ‘n’ rollers
Turn and face the strange (Ch-ch-changes)
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older…
[I don’t spend a lot of time talking about “the scene” over here; if anything, this blog is usually an outlet for me to write about my other musical interests, since most of what I write about at PropertyOfZack and on my personal blog involves that corner of the music world. But last weekend, in the process of sending in comments on my Pazz & Jop Poll* entries last week, I somehow stumbled my way into a 1,200 word “state of the scene” report, and it seems like a shame to let that go to waste, especially as it fits so well into the end-of-year stuff I’m doing right now. I don’t expect the Voice will be much interested in this, but perhaps you will be!]
Brand New’s Daisy may not be their best album, nor their most popular, but it is slowly proving to be their most influential. The 2009 album’s innovative interpretation and integration of early-90s grunge, alt-rock and second wave emo has provided the blueprint for a bevy of artists at post-hardcore and emo’s creative tip (Sainthood Reps, Balance & Composure), including two of 2012’s most intriguing releases: Title Fight’s wide-ranging Floral Green and Basement (UK)’s brilliant swan song Colourmeinkindness.
Of course, Brand New don’t get all the credit for this; Daisy’s release presaged a larger movement in the punk/pop-punk/emo/post-hardcore/“scene” world, away from the brighter, more pop-oriented sounds that dominated the scene’s “neon” phase in 2008-2010 and back towards grimier, less-cleanly produced sounds, heavy in signifiers of authenticity. That transition took root firmly in 2011, and in 2012 it bore some excellent fruit: Dads’ American Radass (This Is Important), Pentimento’s Pentimento, The Menzingers’ On The Impossible Past, Joyce Manor’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, Misser’s Everyday I Tell Myself I’m Going To Be A Better Person, Such Gold’s Misadventures, Code Orange Kids’ Love Is Love // Return To Dust, as well as reunion albums by Further Seems Forever (Penny Black), The Early November (In Currents), The Jealous Sound (A Gentle Reminder) and Hot Water Music (Exister) which were as good, if not better, than anything those bands released during their initial runs.
But if this era has been a boon for a new breed of pop-punk and emo acts, and for labels like No Sleep, Run For Cover, Topshelf, Rise and Pure Noise, it’s been far less kind to many of the acts that dominated the “scene” as recently as four or five years ago, and who now find themselves in an impossible position. In 2012, these bands found themselves being rejected as too soft and un-serious by the punk and rock communities that had formed the core of their support. As always, they were too “commercial” and suburban-mall-teen-girl for the indie community (though, of course, the commercial prospects for “indie”-sounding bands in 2012 are far greater than for “scene”/power-pop/pop-punk acts, and though the most successful, or even moderately successful, indie rock bands are in fact frequently signed to medium-to-large labels, with fruitful publishing deals and cream-of-the-crop PR, holdover “scene” bands are at this point more likely to be flying solo, DIY either by choice or by lack of any remaining alternative, and getting it all wrong on their own). Likewise, they’ve been rejected, or at least ignored, by a poptimist community that might theoretically be open to their pop songcraft and accessible sounds but seems to have written off the genre as too guitar-heavy (and, probably fairly, as too white-male-dominated).
As a result, a number of excellent albums befell the same fate that struck Patrick Stump’s critically-beloved (if polarizing), commercially ignored Soul Punk in 2011. Kenneth Vasoli (The Starting Line, Person L), disguised his own presence in Vacationer for as long as he could, but despite touring with indie darlings The Naked And Famous and Now, Now (whose exceptional Threads lives up to every column inch of hype the Chris Walla-backed trio received in 2012), the breezy, buoyant Gone never seemed to catch the indie ears that adore bands like Beach House and Washed Out. The Maine, having negotiated the independent release of 2011’s Pioneer after label WMG refused to issue the album, followed suit in 2012 with the stellar Good Love EP, to the thrill of their core fans and the attention of no one else. Similarly, William Beckett (late of The Academy Is…) issued a trio of EPs (Walk The Talk, Winds Will Change and What Will Be) that found his songwriting growing by leaps and bounds, to little notice. All fared better than This Providence; kept on the shelf for nearly two years by Fueled By Ramen, in 2012 the band finally broke free of the label and released the refreshingly retro Brier EP, only to discover that even their core fanbase had wilted away in the intervening years. (When your following is largely teenaged, a two year absence might as well be a death sentence).
It’s been interesting, if disheartening, to see how these bands have adapted (or at least attempted to adapt) to a newly-hostile climate. The genre’s biggest lights, blink-182 and All Time Low, took advantage of large core audiences built (in part) by major label dollars during the “scene”’s heyday and released strong albums (the Dogs Eating Dogs EP and Don’t Panic, respectively) on their own. Similarly, Motion City Soundtrack followed up the best album of their career with the new best album of their career, the independently-recorded, Epitaph-released Go. But for most, continued success on their own unwavering terms simply wasn’t an option. Sparks The Rescue released a self-titled EP that garnered the best reviews of their career, but ended the year shedding three of their five members, primarily for economic reasons; Detroit power-poppers Every Avenue packed it in entirely, openly declaring that they were splitting not out of any interpersonal enmity but because they could no longer afford to be a band. One outlet that has become increasingly popular is NBC’s The Voice; following the success of Dia Frampton (Meg And Dia) and Juliet Simms (Automatic Loveletter) in the first two seasons, 2012 saw not only victory for the Pete Wentz-cosigned Cassadee Pope (formerly of Warped Tour vets Hey Monday) but also a strong run by Joe Kirkland of pop-punks-turned-balladeers Artist Vs. Poet.
Perhaps most intriguingly, established acts like The Summer Set have decamped for Nashville, where they’ve been joined (spiritually, and often literally) by a number of new acts (Bonaventure, The Tower And The Fool, American Authors, all of whom issued significant releases in 2012) risen from the wreckage of pop-punk past – whether these bands are motivated by a love of Tom Petty and pop country borne of childhood radio consumption, or are merely grasping for the patina of authenticity that the Americana label confers, is something of an open question. A Rocket To The Moon, who already had something of a country-pop thread running through their strain of pop-rock, have found their full-length held over until 2013, but the early-look EP That Old Feeling is encouraging. Of course, none of this takes into account that Nashville has been notoriously insular and unwelcoming to those from outside the establishment; even bringing their best, all these acts may be swimming upstream.
Ultimately, these changes might well be a good thing, change and struggle typically breed creativity. Of course, that’s assuming all the breeders don’t die off (or, like, quit the creative side of the biz to go work for music publishers or management firms or something) The upheaval in the “scene” hasn’t stanched the flow of great music in 2012; it just, as ever, takes a little bit of work to find.
*This is the first year I’ve submitted to Pazz & Jop, and I’m hoping that in the future more of the folks writing about / analyzing / thinking critically about “the scene” will do so as well. Pazz & Jop was conceived as an extremely broad critics poll (hence the name), with writers specializing in every (sub)genre from indie to pop to metal to hip hop to r&b to electronic dance submitting, and yet there’s been almost no participation from (and, thus, almost no visibility for) the pop-punk/emo/post-hardcore/etc. world. I think that lack of participation does a disservice to both the readers – who remain in the dark on what has been an exciting and vital music scene for quite some time – and to the artists whose work merits attention. I’m not saying I expect The Menzingers to win the albums poll or anything, or even that they should. But, for example, in 2011, Balance & Composure’s Separation was a top 10 pick on virtually every site that documents the scene, a consensus-building album that successfully crossed the scene’s many sub-genre divides, and yet it failed to receive a single vote in P&J. That’s just silly, and everyone deserves better.