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.
ProTip: Wrecking your car during a cross-country move is not a good idea. It will, at very minimum, bankrupt your productivity for the week.
I felt that Athletics‘ Why Aren’t I Home? was “easily the most emotional rock experience that I’ve ever heard and/or been a part of.” So when the band announced that four of their tunes would be released in a piano and voice setting, I was thrilled. Stop Torturing Yourself does not let me down: these arrangements are beautiful. The band’s control of tension and melody transfer from the originals to here, as atmospheric instrumental performances are replaced by the resonance of the piano and the beautiful vocals. “Speaking for Everyone” is the winner here, as the haunting tune takes on an even more poignant air. The musicians in Athletics know how to convey emotions, and this release is an outstanding reminder of that.
Things Get Shaky by Keystone Kids also features some beautiful piano playing, but it’s augmented by another instrumentalist. The duo plays guy/girl indie-pop that will resonate with Mates of State fans. Both bands share a love of ’80s music in addition to piano-pop, and that’s a divide: if you’re into one but not the other, there will be moments that you want to skip. But if you’re down for both those things, the synth blast and drum machine of “What They’re Saying” will score points with you just as easily as the poignant confessional “Falling.” Fun and heavy, by turns.
I don’t review modern rock on Independent Clauses very much. This is not because I don’t like it; on the contrary, I like good modern rock very much. It’s just that there’s not a lot of it to be had. I love everything Anberlin releases, because it has the emotional impact that much indie rock and folk has while still retaining the guitar bombast, cavernous drums and throat-shredding vocals. But most other bands just can’t stay artsy when they throw down a double pedal roll.
Thankfully, Athletics is championing good modern rock in an incredibly subversive way. By marrying the power of modern rock to the melodic thrust of post-rock (which is, as a backlash to modern rock’s posturing, one of the most emotional genres we currently have), they created Why Aren’t I Home?, which is a consistently amazing debut.
The press for Athletics gushes “It’s one of those albums that reminds you why it is you listen to music in the first place,” and for once the music lives up to the exuberant PR.
The band starts off with the title track, which lays down a distant atmosphere before bringing in rapidly arpeggiated, cascading guitar work. The drummer rolls expectantly on the cymbals. A second guitar comes in with a building guitar line. A tom pound punctuates the preceedings, leading to a snare roll. The vocals, clear and strong roar out as a bell kit comes in. The music leads to the breaking point.
and then nothing happens. They pause entirely.
And THEN they bring in the whole band, with screaming guitars, pounding drums, thundering bass to create an absolutely triumphant feel. It’s post-post-rock; it’s music to think about and mosh to. At the same time, if you can.
The band spends the entire album messing with people’s ideas of what rock is. “See You on the Other Side” is a straight-up rock tune, with a cascading guitar line on top of the mix as the only sign that this band isn’t on tour with Anberlin. The song whips into a frenzy by the end, and you’re probably dead if you aren’t excited as well. “Fairview” is a slow, churning mood piece that would be in perfect company with Sigur Ros. “Jordan” is a vocals-heavy indie rock song, honestly. “Lullaby” isn’t a lullaby at all, but one of the most tense pieces on the album, complete with distorted hollering and a crushing sense of doom underpinning the piece.
But it’s speaking for everyone that gives the most shivers (and trust me, I had more shivers listening to this album than I have in any other album this year). It’s a hollowed-out tune, with the vocals reverbed and the guitars amorphously shifting the atmosphere in the background. It’s incredibly mournful, put over the top by the devastating cry “Have mercy/on everyone/but me” which takes over the last minute of the song and turns into an emotional destroyer. Haunting isn’t a strong enough word.
I could write about each song here, but that would be doing the music a disservice. If you like adrenaline and distorted guitars in your music, but can’t stand posturing of any variety, you need to track down Why Aren’t I Home? It’s easily the most emotional rock experience that I’ve ever heard and/or been a part of, thanks to their brilliant songwriting and spot-on execution. This band deserves to “make it,” whatever making it means to them. This band is amazing, and this album must only be the beginning. Please, for the love of all that is good and right in music, stay together, Athletics.
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.