Out & About

Though D.C.'s Rites of Spring is often cited as the ground zero of emo proper, Baltimore's Lungfish--and lyricist-vocalist Daniel Higgs--provides the verbal altar to which the genre aspires. On its 1989 debut, Necklace of Heads, Lungfish sets the powerful wordplay bar high, and it'll be an eon before another song-poet strings three words together that vibrate with a resonance half as jittery as "everlasting perpetual gestating" in "Parthenogenesis."

Higgs acolytes took his example as a call to be fruitful and multiply. By 1995, they had. Chief among them was Seattle's Juno, a band that was lumped with the Promise Ring, Joan of Arc, Braid et al., though its sound shared very little with them. Juno shirks emo's latter-day thump and skiffle and prefers to bow dutifully at the altar of guitar transcendentalism. This quintet reaches for its own stately pleasure dome by weaving a hypnotic pulse of three guitars into a driving rhythm section, over which vocalist Arlie Carstens yearns his affective, if only sometimes effective, lyrical twists. It was that recipe that gave its 1999 debut, This is the Way It Goes and Goes and Goes, a certain je ne sais quoi, though if you called it "overrated," you'd get no arguments here.

A funny thing happened on the way to debut adulation, however: Carstens broke his neck while snowboarding. (OK, maybe it wasn't that funny.) Whether it was the near-death experience or the tedium of traction, Carstens has a new metaphysical bone to pick. Juno's latest, 2001's A Future Lived in Past Tense, is a mighty step forward, even if it's a little full of itself. As reflective as Goes was impulsive, Future bears all the marks of a band finally realizing that "maturity" ain't just a word that comes after "modern" on Grandma's monthly magazine. While songs like "Covered with Hair" throb with the band's basic blueprint, others--such as "The Trail of Your Blood in Snow" and "We Slept in Rented Rooms"--reveal a more sophisticated group dynamic. Sure, you wish that Juno's song titles didn't sound like discarded Raymond Carver short stories, but an ever bigger nuisance are the epic running times. Some songs stretch well past the five-minute mark for no discernible reason. It makes you suspect that Juno wanted Future to be seared with great importance, when maybe what it should've settled for was confident competence.

At least Juno doesn't need to hang itself on dead poets. Madison's Rainer Maria formed after the fall of Ezra Pound (pretentious? Nah) and banks on the interplay of dueling vocalists, bassist Caithlin DeMarrais and guitarist Kyle Fischer. It gently melds emo's loud-soft spirit with a sharp songwriter sense, but all that angst starts to feel brittle rather quickly. It is not that the band needs to alter its motives--few acts have mined emo's pop potential quite as well. It's simply that Rainer Maria needs to decide where it wants to take its listeners after they've arrived at sensitive and pretty.

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Bret Mccabe