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.
Good Job, Deep Elm
Honorable Mentions: She Bears’ I Found Myself Asleep, The Lions Rampant’s It’s Fun to Do Bad Things
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.
5. If Arsenic Fails … Try Algebra – Pop Unknown. One of the first Deep Elm releases I bought, this emo-rock gem has some strikingly beautiful songs on it.
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.
There’s a whole world of people out there; no one can meet everyone. And it’s impossible to form deep connections with every one of the relatively few people we meet. To make matters worse, there’s no way to guess when and where the next deep connection will be found. But when that deep connection is found, all is forgiven. All the frustration is worth it, because this new person is so great.
If listening to music is like meeting people, then “Hope” by Moonlit Sailor is my new best friend. Moonlit Sailor’s 2009 instrumental post-rock album So Close to Life has many treasures on it, but none compare to the bliss of “Hope.” The song is so gripping that I can guarantee you I’ll still be listening to it in ten years.
Moonlit Sailor’s instrumental post-rock skews to the pretty side of the spectrum. They love clean guitar lines, soaring melodies, melodic bass work and acoustic guitar, which is unusual for the genre. They have much more in common with Unwed Sailor than they do with Mogwai. “Hope” is the epitome of their sound.
The tension-heavy intro, full of cymbal splashes and pensive piano flourishes, gives way to a solo acoustic guitar playing the beautiful main chord progression. Then, in an absolutely brilliant moment, the whole band gleefully crashes back in at full speed and intensity. My jaw dropped the first four or five times I heard it. The only way the song could be more gleeful is if someone shot off a confetti cannon at exactly the moment they start up and let the colors rain down as the band tears through the song.
The band keeps playing through various iterations of the main melody, getting heavier and heavier as the song goes along. They keep building tension on top of tension, only letting a little bit of it go at each “chorus.” This makes the final payoff much more gratifying. The final time around, the drums are pounding, the guitars are wailing away, and the piano is twinkling is an incredibly satisfying way. After all, they’ve nailed it: the whole thing sounds exactly like what I believe hope sounds like. It is absolutely my favorite track of this year so far, and it wasn’t even released this year.
Moonlit Sailor doesn’t just bring the power on “Hope.” They know how to set up a tune and build it slowly, as only one song here drops below the 5-minute mark. “Landvetter” is a more pensive piece, but it retains an energy that doesn’t let it get mired down in mope. “Sunbeams” has a wonderful wide-eyed feel to it due to the simple yet powerful melody. “1994” falls between the glee of “Sunbeams” and the thoughtfulness of “Landvetter” to create an incredibly beautiful song that would not be out of place on a Sigur Ros record. The enormous synth moment at 2:30 of “1994” creates an ethereal, uplifting mood that simply reminds me of a higher plane.
There are a couple of songs that drag on So Close to Life, but they are inconsequential compared to the number of tunes that pay off many times over. This album is an absolute must for all lovers of post-rock, especially those who like crescendos, tension and epic moments. Moonlit Sailor loves that stuff, and they give it to their listeners in spades. “Hope,” “1994” and “Landvetter” are simply some of the best tunes I’ve ever heard in the genre. Highly recommended.