The other day while I was driving, Cursive’s “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand” from The Ugly Organ (2003) started playing through my speakers. The musicality and themes of the album always drew me to it, especially the punk rock ethos and the cello. As I listened, I started to think back to all the bands I listened to from the mid-90s through the early 2000s. I immersed myself in the second-wave emo scene, diving into bands from Deep Elm, Crack Records, Caufield, Saddle Creek, and more. As I reflected on this period, I thought I would write a post looking at some of favorite albums and songs from this moment. Like most lists, this is not exhaustive, but it is a list of artists and albums that had a major impact on my musical tastes and songwriting.
Sunny Day Real Estate—LP2
Back in 199 Sunny Day Real Estate (SDRE) released Diary, and I remember sitting up late one night watching MTV’s 120 Minutes when the video for “Seven” came on the screen. The opening riff, mixed in with the visuals of the band in live action and cartoon form, immediately drew me in. Then, Jeremy Enigk’s vocals solidified the deal. Soon after, I ran out and bought the cassette in Sub Pop black, and I devoured it. I dove online looking for guitar tabs so I could learn to play Enigk and Dan Hoerner’s parts.
By the time SDRE released LP2 the following year, they had broken up. The album became, in a way, a farewell to a band that had only just started. (They would reform later and put out more albums.) The song “8” even appeared on the Batman Returns soundtrack. Multiple aspects make LP2 amazing, but for me, the enigmatic nature of Enigk’s lyrics and the ways his vocals layer on top of the instruments create a sonic landscape that has been hard to top in any manner.
Over the years, I oscillate between favorite songs on the album. For the longest time, I ranked “Rodeo Jones” or “Waffle” as my favorites, but now, I think “Iscarabaid” has solidified its place at the top of the list. Plain and simple, what makes “Iscarabaid” is the music and the polyphonic aspects throughout the song. The vocal interplay during the verses, even without being able to decipher the lyrics, creates a feeling of being lulled into a sleep. Enigk sings the verse as other vocals swell underneath him. The move to the chorus, in the typical second-wave emo structure of soft verse and loud choruses, breaks the lull, but the vocal interplay continues. These moments and tone shifts make “Iscarabaid” a song that moves from emotion to emotion, drawing the listener in then shattering that illusion.
Someone gave me a cassette tape with Mineral’s debut The Power of Failing (1997) on one side and Christie Front Drive’s Anthology (1999) on the other. During that summer, I wore out that tape on my drives. “Slower,” “Parking Lot,” “Dolorosa,” and “Five, Eight, and Ten” are all standouts from that first album, but EndSerenading, like SDRE’s LP2, is a masterpiece. Like SDRE, Mineral broke up around the time of their second album. For me, I think I connect with EndSerenading more than The Power of Failing because of the lyrical themes and the specific moment in my life that I discovered the band and album.
Multiple songs stick out to me from EndSerenading, but one resonates the most. In 1999, my grandfather passed away, and “Aletter” always makes me think about him. Chris Simpson’s lyrics read like a letter to a loved one who has passed away. He begins by describing a photo of the man and a woman coming home from a vacation on the seas, seeing places and times that he, as the speaker, will never see. He then moves on int the second verse describing memories of throwing paper airplanes at the man and sitting on his lap. He ends by singing about reading and rereading a birthday card he received when he was a kid. These images all make me think of my grandfather who lived a life before I was born and who lived a life alongside me after I arrived on stage. “Aletter” creates these links between past and present through Simpson’s reflections.
The Juliana Theory—Understand This is a Dream (1999)
Where do I even start with this album and band? They were my college band. I do not even remember the amount of times my wife and friends drove multiple hours from our college town to other states just to see them play. We went to Houston, New Orleans, and Vino’s in Little Rock. That show at Vino’s was my introduction to Glassjaw too, and that was probably one of the best shows I have ever attended. I could have placed Emotion is Dead here instead of The Juliana Theory’s debut, but for me, Understand This is a Dream will always have a nostalgic place in my mind.
It’s hard, as with most of these albums, to choose a favorite song. I remember playing “August in Bethany” with a band I played in while in college, and I recall Brett Detar telling us the story, when we saw them perform one time, about “For Evangeline.” That anguished scream gets me every time. “The Closet Thing,” though must be my pick for my favorite song on the album. The song plays on all the emo tropes both musically and lyrically, presenting the guy longing for the girl. Again, the song connects with me nostalgically because it was the song that my wife and I both enjoyed the most from Understand This is a Dream, so it became, for all intents and purposes, our song.
Dear Ephesus—Consolation of Pianissimo (1997)
Dear Ephesus may be a band that you haven’t heard of before, but trust me when I say Consolation of Pianissimo and The Absent Sounds of Me (1998) are worth checking out. “The Flight of Peter Pan” sticks out from Consolation because of the ways it presents a dichotomy between the longing to remain young, youthful, and innocent and the inevitability of growing up. The pre-chorus plays this aspect up with a dual vocal, one singing about flying around Neverland and needing to grow up and the screaming, “I won’t grow up” layered above it. These juxtapositions play into the tensions within the lyrics of the inevitability of growing up.
The Anniversary—Your Majesty (2002)
From the outset, the differences between this album and The Anniversary’s debut, Designing and Nervous Breakdown (2002) are obvious. I can put this album on in the background, or in the car, and it’ll just soothe me. The opening song, “Sweet Marie,” is still my favorite. The opening drum, the piano, the bass runs, the vocals All of it coalesces in a perfect 3:34 song, a song that sounds primed for radio. What Seriously, what I like about this song is the interplay of everything. They all meld together to make perfection. Other standouts on the album are “Crooked Crown,” “The Ghost of the River,” and “The Death of the King.”
What second-wave emo albums or songs are your favorites? Let me know in the comments below.