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.
500 Miles to Memphis‘ last album Sunshine in a Shot Glass was a wild country-punk album dedicated to what seemed to be the nastiest break-up ever. Lead singer Ryan Malott, in his attempts to improve in all aspects upon the last album, went out and had another friggin’ breakup (or, God forbid, it’s the same breakup still happening) that seems even more brutal than the last. Thus, we have We’ve Built Up to NOTHING, which is one of the only titles I’ve ever seen that manages to yell.
I feel straight-up awful for Ryan Malott if these tunes are all autobiographical, but I’m thankful that he’s so good at getting his angst down on tape. If the first one was a great break-up album, this is an epic breakup album. Where Sunshine in a Shot Glass reveled in the country/punk dichotomy, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING sees it as a fact of life and gets on with writing great songs. This allows the band to expand its sound out in great ways, like the Avett Brothers-esque piano-country-punk of “Let it Go,” instrumental interludes “…” and “dejas,” the nine-minute-long kiss-off “Everybody Needs an Enemy,” and the 3-minutes-exactly adrenaline blast that is “Shots.” There are marching bands, strings, organs, pianos, banjos, and more. The title track closes out the album with a tuba-led strings and brass orchestra, and Malott pulls off the guitar-less song with such slick expertise you’d think he’s been doing it forever.
Some parts he has been doing forever. There are two-steppin’ country-punk songs like the frantic “It’s Alright” and “East Texas Angel” that have nothing distinctive in them but Malott’s trademark vocals, solid melodies, and a punk strum. And that’s enough to turn out a great song all on its own. But it’s experiments like the relatively mellow, heart-rending “You Loved Me Once” and the organ-soaked romance of “Moonlight” have little to do with punk and more to do with emotion-tugging country and pop which make this album so infectious.
This isn’t just a rage-tastic break-up middle finger in musical form. This is a thoughtful evaluation of all the emotions that come along with a breakup, as filtered through Ryan Malott’s singer/songwriter idiom. As a result, the tempos, styles and sounds of the album are incredibly varied. I mean, “Moonlight” could be on country radio right now and no one would know that 500 Miles to Memphis is mostly a punk band. And that’s awesome.
If you’ve gotten your heart broken, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING is a therapy session and a half. If you like country-punk, these guys are the reigning kings. If you like adrenaline-fueled punk albums, you’ll still like this album. And, amazingly, if you like hot country, you’ll find treats for your ears here. 500 Miles to Memphis has pushed their sound out to new areas and conquered them thoroughly. An amazing release.
P.S. Someone love Ryan Malott. Please.
Band Name: 500 Miles to Memphis
Album Name: Sunshine in a Shot Glass
Best Element: Passionate country and hooky pop-punk married in a near-perfect album
Label: Deep Elm Records
I’m a very discriminating listener of pop-punk. I’m also not a huge fan of country music. Despite these two major hurdles, 500 Miles to Memphis has won my heart with their country-punk amalgam.
There’s no easier place to start in explaining their sound than “Don’t Mislead,” which marries the galloping snare beat native to old-school punk with the plodding up-down bass lines of old-school country. It’s a nearly perfect split between punk and country throughout the song, with a dark country feel to the verses and a pop-punk chord mashing for the chorus. Ryan Malott’s alternately sneering and earnest vocals are the thread that ties the song (and all of 500 Miles to Memphis’ sound) together.
The lyrical themes of the album read like a traditional album – songs about friends, hometowns, lost love, whiskey, going nowhere, wanting to get out, even God. But instead of being depressing, these familiar country themes are charged with a punk attitude of guarded optimism – life may suck, but we’ll still wake up tomorrow to do this again.
Aside from being a fascinating study in ethnomusicology, Sunshine in a Shot Glass is awesome. The music is varied, from straight-ahead chargers (“Fireflies”, “Darlin”), to hoedowns (“All My Friends are Crazy”), to weepers (“Cheers”, “Keep it Together”), to just rock songs (“Broken, Busted, Bloody”). Each song boasts a melody that is hummable and dangerously hooky, whether it be from the vocals, the fiddle, the guitar or the bass. The band works together absolutely perfectly on these songs – never covering up the most important parts, they concede individual glory for the good of the group. With so many things going on in each song, that’s an important thing to learn.
To be honest, I’m not the type of guy who would search out a country-punk band. But Sunshine in a Shot Glass is easily one of my favorite releases of the year. I’ve been humming standout track “The Regret” for about a week solid, and I haven’t even put it in my car yet (that’s where albums become immortalized for me). I honestly can’t think of anything wrong with this album – it’s perfectly paced, superbly written and performed, honest, passionate and fun. Heck, the album art actually enhances the listening experience – and that’s rare. You need this album if you like country or punk – if you don’t like one of the two, even better. I’m convinced that you will love this album anyway.