This was not emo
Desert City Soundtrack belie emo tag and just rock
I’ve never been keen on the sub-genre term “emo,” short for an emotional focus within hardcore or indie rock music. It just seems redundant. Isn’t most music emotional to an extent?
The worthless tag originated during the legendary mid-'80s D.C. scene as future indie icons such as Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) abandoned the repetitive hardcore fury of their past for a more emotion-based approach to melody and vocals. And like a plague since then, countless young bands have spread the term, using it to describe anything from moody rock overtures to shoe-gazing, rainy-day punk.
Jaded grumbling aside, it was with some apprehension that I biked to the Riff Raff Rock Club—land of 1,000 bands—last Monday night for a show headlined by Portland’s Desert City Soundtrack, a foursome described to me as “emo … with Shemp haircuts.” Still, I held out hope that with a name like Desert City Soundtrack— the music would be evocative in that forlorn, desert city way. Chico counts as a desert city during summertime, right? Especially now that all our trees are disappearing.
By night’s end, one thing was clear: Desert City is not another whiny emo band from the Northwest. Its late night set was a full-frontal assault of hardcore, uptempo rock with angular tendencies (a Slint/A Minor Forest pedigree with more lyrics). Each song featured screamed, unintelligible vocals—the neck veins of guitarist/front man Matt Carrillo standing out like popped guitar strings—subtle piano fills adding depth, and the powerful, propulsive drumming of a thin-armed, thick-sticked, bitch-on-wheels (and I mean that in the most reverent way)—Caitlan Love.
I don’t know how the DCS records sound and couldn’t name a song if you paid me, but the live show wasn’t so much depressing (read: emo) as it was angry—far more early ‘90s, East Coast art-school punk than the mopey, cookie-cut indie rock I’m accustomed to from the Northwest. The players poured heart into their high-energy set for a dwindling crowd that came mostly to support the local openers.
Chico’s Bleego! and Caveat both played to a more enthusiastic crowd.
Bleego! had the most distinctive sound of the night: a three guitarist wall with stacked synthesizers, and a fourth member manning a manic drum machine and sequencers. The hardware was used to create a wall of raucous electronica/drum-n-bass with ambient atmospherics layered with spacey, effect-riddled guitar fills. There was also a dance element: some songs were like grindcore light infused with ‘80s New Wave, as the band—dressed uniformly in white lab coats like test dummy technicians—bopped mechanically around the cluttered stage. The juggled genres were unusually expressive. Imagine a Swedish metalhead in a paisley mumu, bodyrocking to the mechanical rhythms of a Ford assembly line and you get one visual this abrasive band was creating for me.
Locals Caveat played more straightforward, almost radio-friendly rock with a traditional foursome. The songwriting ("Don’t worry") was well-crafted, though many of the tunes sounded alike; plus the vocals seemed lacking early-on. But it didn’t matter to the crowd of cheering friends who came to see the band and do shots with them onstage.
Yes, the Riff Raff was a-rockin’ tonight.