Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Defense of In Defense of the Genre

One of my favorite films of all time is Cameron Crowe's 1989 directorial debut Say Anything, so when I heard of Max Bemis' band of the same name I felt obliged to check it out. I picked up their 2004/2006 re-released album ...Is a Real Boy and took a bit to get used to it. On the first listen I didn't really like the instrumentation or Bemis' delivery, but after a short while epic tracks like "Alive With the Glory of Love" won me over. The album plays like a musical, which makes sense because it was initially conceived in that way. I liked being able to track the character Bemis created through the entire album, and the sense he created of singing as a character instead of himself made the emo/alt-rock/musical combination work despite an overly long album.

Now, the band has released its follow-up In Defense of the Genre. In case it wasn't just blatantly obvious enough, the genre under attack is emo. Say Anything is, much like other great bands, under the umbrella of hate that has become the genre of emo. I personally enjoy a lot of emo music, and not in the Fueled By Ramen or Decaydance Records type of way. Instead of shortening and concentrating his argument, Bemis decided to go all out on a double album stretching 89 minutes and incorporating guests on almost every track, including Hayley Williams of Paramore and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance.

When I heard the news that this would be a double album, my expectations immediately flatlined. Max Bemis is a charismatic, arrogant musician, and a lot of times those type of personalities let their creativity get the better of them and release a sprawling album that clearly needed an editor to cut out the crappy tracks. When I put the album on for the first time, I wan't really expecting much, and that's probably why I was so blown away.

The chugging power chords are there, the ironic and cutting lyrics are there, and the guest stars add a little necessary spice to the whole ordeal. How does this 89 minute epic work so well? For me, the answer really comes down to the fact that Bemis challenges what we thought of the seemingly obvious title. Yes, there are some emo songs on the album, but the musicality switches genres from track to track, the guests do different types of backing over the course of the album, and what genre Bemis is defending starts to become unclear about halfway through the first disc.

The first four tracks switch genres easily, even including the show tune tinged "This is Why" that echoes the structure of their last album. Hayley Williams does the best guest work on the album on "The Church Channel" and second disc closer "Plea". Bemis did let his imagination run wild, and his musical creations easily swing across genre lines, but his lyrical content does tend to stick to the same subjects: difficulty with women and hatred for the music industry. He does sound more grown up, more coherent, and more in control of his voice this time around, and that added self confidence empowers the tracks with strong vocals that were somewhat lacking in some tracks on ...Is a Real Boy.

Bemis obviously felt what a lot of emo musicians have felt over the past few years: critical and popular backlash against their music for a changing fan base and the arrival of corporate packaged entries into the genre. In response, Bemis has created a crowning acheivement for the genre to aspire to be; an almagam of all the genres emo can draw upon, can be influenced by, and can look up to. The album is a beacon of hope for a now-maligned section of music, a transcendent album that defies genre specifications while at the same time staying loyal to an idealistic vision for what the genre can be with a little more care and attention to detail.

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