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Noise in the Basement: Emo or Not Emo?

June 6, 2007

A recent conversation with City Paper music editor Jess Harvell turned to the subject of Baltimore emo: Does it exist? As omnipresent as the vague subgenre is these days in the wider world of rock, there have to be some emo bands around town, too, right? Jess’ assumption that any unfamiliar band name on a bill at Fletcher’s is probably an emo band was put to the test on Monday, June 4, at Noise in the Basement, the weekly showcase sponsored by 98 Rock’s Sunday night local music program of the same name. And as it turned out, he was at least half-right.

The first band, the Dangerous Summer from Ellicott City, put itself in the emo column pretty quickly. Only one member of the band had that emo-standard hairstyle with the bangs swept to the side, but the singer had the strangled-cat vocal stylings of the Used’s Bert McCracken down to a science. Dangeous Summer’s music was otherwise just peppy alt-rock, but at this point that’s true of most emo bands.

Next, Gatsby Gets the Green Light from Westminster upped the emo ante, with three of four band members sporting the swept-to-the-side ‘do. Meanwhile, the fourth–a drummer in a baseball cap–hinted that he was a secret metalhead with constant stick twirling. But it was Gatsby’s frontman who clinched it, copping his style from Taking Back Sunday singer Adam Lazzara and prancing around the stage, sans guitar, with the mic chord wrapped around his hand.

Owings Mills’ Armoreta is ostensibly an indie-electronica project akin to the Postal Service. But its live incarnation as a four-piece band was capable of a bigger, broader anthemic rock sound. Armoreta performed in an unusual configuration that placed the drums up-front and stage left, with the bassist back where most bands stick the drummer. It was a wise decision, though, given that Armoreta’s drummer was a staggering technician, filling every measure with subtle accents and intricate fills. It was so captivating just to see what he’d do with the high-hat at any given moment, in fact, that it was hard to remember much about the songs themselves. But a shoutout to Jimmy Eat World on its MySpace page notwithstanding, Armoreta were easily the least emo band of the night.

Baltimore’s Empty Gratitude closed out the night, looking more punk than emo with two mohawked guitarists and a bassist in a Misifts shirt. Still, the band’s music wasn’t exactly hardcore, and it turns out Empty Gratitude was the only band on the bill that isn’t afraid to drop the E-word on its MySpace page, labelling itself with the dreaded “screamo” variant. But considering that almost no emo band willingly admits it’s emo, perhaps the opposite is true as well?