Deep Elm Records, whose mail I have been getting since Independent Clauses first started in 2003, has done something entirely unprecedented with its 200+ releases: made them all pay-what-you-want. All of them. This is simply mind-boggling. 200 releases spanning almost 20 years? It’s a treasure trove of everything from raging hardcore to emo to post-rock to post-punk to dance-rock to garage-rock to indie-pop to folk-pop. If it has a guitar in it, Deep Elm has probably put it out. In honor of their 200th, as well as their generosity, here’s a list of my Top Ten Favorite Deep Elm Releases.
10. So Close to Life – Moonlit Sailor. “Hope” is one of my favorite songs of all time, although not my favorite Deep Elm song (that one comes later). A great post-rock album.
9. This is Indie Rock, Vol. 2. The second compilation that I deeply loved from Deep Elm, and they do have a ton of them to keep up with. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Deep Elm–they go all out for their artists, and that makes them one of the best in the business.
8. Sunshine in a Shot Glass – 500 Miles to Memphis. This album literally does everything I want a country-punk album to do. It could be a blueprint.
7. Why Aren’t I Home? – Athletics. I used to run to this album at a really low point in my life. The dramatic tensions between beautiful and crushing, artsy and muscly, longing and being… This was a wonderful soundtrack to those days.
6. We’ve Been Here Forever – Merkabah. Churning, roiling emo-rock: a blast from their early ’00s past displaced into the early ’10s. This album will have your fists in the air and your throat hoarse.
4. Nuet – Dorena. Deep Elm has gone on a serious post-rock bender as of late. Although Lights and Motion is deservedly soaking up tons of press, Dorena’s latest album just blows my mind.
3. There Should Be More Dancing – Free Diamonds. Way on the other end of the spectrum, this spazzy dance-rock masterpiece has some of the most impressively frantic (yet hooky!) bass lines I have ever heard.
2. Mare Vitalis – The Appleseed Cast. Not entirely because it contains the literally perfect song “Fishing the Sky,” but seriously. An art-rock epic capped off by what is, for my money, the best song Deep Elm has released.
1. Deep Elm: Too Young to Die – Various. The one that started it all for me; I’ve listened to this comp backwards and forwards more times than I can remember. Absolute gold.
I had a strange life of music in the early 2000s; my listening habits tied together the fringes of the pop-punk, emo, pop-rock and acoustic scenes. Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good covers the general sound, but I listened to stuff that never made it to the radar. So my nostalgia is not for any particular band, but a sound, and City Reign has churning, yearning, melodic yelp of a sound.
Because I was (and still am) obsessed with Appleseed Cast’s “Fishing the Sky,” Deep Elm Records was a staple of my listening in the early 2000s. They’re offering their whole catalog of releases for $5 each for the rest of the year. Top picks: Too Young to Die sampler, There Should Be More Dancing by Free Diamonds, Mare Vitalis by Appleseed Cast, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING by 500 Miles to Memphis. But there are literally dozens of gems in their catalog, so you should just go nuts.
Autumn Owls’ video for “Byways of the Lifeless” caused me to realize that by the mid-2000s, most videos stopped having their credits in the bottom left corner at the beginning. The fact that this one does was a blast from the past in the best way. Also, the hectic sense of motion is reminiscent of early 2000s videos.
By the Sword is a logical, if unexpected, follow-up to Free Diamonds’ debut There Should Be More Dancing. Where the debut was the sound of hyperactive party dancing, By the Sword is the sound of that same party mellowing out as the night goes on. Where There Should Be More Dancing is the adrenaline-fueled euphoria of doing 80 out of town on the beginning of the road trip, the follow-up is the calmer but no less exciting state of enjoying the long drive with friends.
This is not to say that the members of Free Diamonds have abandoned the complicated rhythms, incredible bass riffing and hyperactive chipmunk vocals that are their trademark. In fact, opener “Backpack Escape Plan” starts off with all the makings of a quintessential Free Diamonds song, until a harmonica enters the mix in the chorus. It fits surprisingly well, and aside from the jarring transitions, “Backpack Escape Plan” provides a pretty fit opener.
“Hugs and Kisses” follows, and it more properly establishes the tone of By the Sword. The snare-heavy beat follows the quick bass work, but it’s the acoustic guitar strum and burbling effects pedal that give the song away as definitely not a member of the There Should Be More Dancing canon. If it wasn’t obvious then, the girl lead singer REALLY proves it. But when lead singer Scott Anderson comes in during the chorus chanting “We’re all hugs and kisses/now there’s no hugs and kisses anymore!” it’s as jubilant as anything previously done. In fact, it may be the most infectious song melodically that the Diamonds have ever put together. The laid-back groove opens the door for the more ominous than party-hearty vibe of “Flamingo!” – “Flamingo!” segues nicely back into the vocoder-laden “Cobracabana.” “Midnight Rainbow” lays on the island vibe and actually emphasizes the lyrics (as in, they’re actually understandable for once!). And the album plows on and on, with every song revealing something new about Free Diamonds’ sound.
Not to be missed are the galloping and impassioned “A Herd of Elephants,” the laser-guided precision of “Jealous Panther” and the deceptively great “The Little Keyboard Song.” The album does get less interesting towards the second half, but all is redeemed by closer “My Boxing Days are Over.” In true “you-can’t-tell-us-what-we-can’t-do” Free Diamonds style, it’s a folk song. It’s a pretty great folk song, too. “My Boxing Days…” also clears something up – I’ve never been able to pin any comparisons on the vocal stylings of Scott Anderson, but when he slows down he sounds a tad like Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes. So now we have it: Free Diamonds is the Violent Femmes, triple-speed. Just kidding.
With By the Sword, the members of Free Diamonds prove that they do not comprise a one-trick pony. And even though this album is definitely calmer than its predecessor, its difference is what makes it succeed. By the Sword doesn’t try to repeat the sugar-rush that was; it gathers the best parts of that sound and adds in new elements. It will make you dance because of the grooves the band creates, and that’s totally awesome. Just as awesome as There Should Be More Dancing. And that makes Free Diamonds really fantastic.
Band Name: Free Diamonds
Album Name: There Should Be More Dancing
Best Element: Ridiculously catchy, fun, and memorable
Label Name: Deep Elm Records (www.deepelm.com)
Band E-mail: booking’freediamonds.co.uk
I am that one guy at shows who stands right up to the front of the venue and dances around like crazy. When everyone else is sitting around staring at the band as they plead for some motion, I’m the one spazzing out up front. I’m a dancer- and bunches of bands have commended various audiences to be more like me. People ask me why I do it, and I usually give some reply like “There should be more dancing in the world” or “things are better when you dance.”
So when I got an album titled [u]There Should Be More Dancing[/u], you can guess how fast that album got slapped in my CD player. And you know what? Free Diamonds does believe that there should be more dancing- because this is a spazzy, bass-heavy, dance-or-else party of an album.
And when I said bass-heavy, I mean bass-heavy. This threesome is propelled by the bass guitar- from the punked-out chorus riff of “List of Everyone” to the grooving lead riff of “Blind Boys” to the funktastic “Like Giraffes” to the unclassifiable distorted bass charge of “J.P.L.D.”, the bass player owns this album. That’s not to say that the guitars don’t contribute- they definitely do, as they take the lead on songs like “Modern Day Pirates” and “Land of Giants”- but even when the guitar leads, the bass contribution pushes to much more than it could’ve been on its own. And that’s fantastic, because the bassist is amazing, and the more lines we can get out of him, the better.
The aforementioned guitars act almost like ska guitars, serving up clipped chords in a bright guitar tone. The guitar tone is very wiry and frenetic, lending even more wild passion to the sound. The drums act like a referee, holding the huge bass noise and the bright guitar tone at arm’s length, so that they never kill each other- just flirt with the idea of self-destruction. They’re permanently on the edge of coming apart, but they never do- just one more feather in their cap.
The vocals are completely nuts. There’s two vocalists here, although their vocal tones are so close to each other that I can’t tell them apart. The sound I hear is a freaked-out yelp of a voice- a wild, bizarre, manic voice that lends even more energy to the sound. The vocalists hardly ever sing slowly- the voice sounds much better spitting out syllables rapid-fire. The melodies are what make this album, though- whether they be vocal or bass, the melodies here are incredibly catchy and memorable. And when I say it’s incredibly catchy, I mean it- I’ve been singing Free Diamonds lines for weeks.
The lyrics which they spit out are a strange brew- sometimes deep, sometimes intentionally silly, often name-checking themselves (not unlike a rap band would), they’re just as wild and out there as Free Diamonds themselves.
The best song here is undeniably the 2:00 freak-out that is “Lovers Die Young”. Sounding almost like the soundtrack to a Carnival commercial, the bass player outdoes himself, delivering a ridiculously fast, complex, cool-sounding bass line for the vocalist to lay his vocals over. The guitars throw in some interjections here and there, but mostly it’s just the bass player, the drummer, and the vocalist going at it for two straight minutes, ending up in a repeated call of “Lovers die young!! Lovers die young!!” When it’s that passionate, I’m inclined to believe it while I’m dancing my feet off.
I could go through and list every cool riff and melody in this album, but it would take forever and you wouldn’t be getting the full experience. Every song is a brilliantly composed bass-heavy, dance-inspiring freak-out. I can’t listen to this album without wanting to dance, and I’m pretty sure no one else can either. This ain’t conventional dance-rock- it’s about seven times better than that. At least. Do yourself a favor and get some Free Diamonds. Because as they say, “What Part of Free Diamonds Don’t You Understand?”
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.