Emo Forefathers Braid Return Triumphantly with the Hook-Drenched ‘No Coast’
Release Date: July 8, 2014
Braid frontman Bob Nanna wouldn’t offend most emo haters. He’s neither too earnest nor too oblique. He might savor the generational obscurity of a title like “The New Nathan Detroits,” but he’s not trying to keep new fans out of the club, who can easily Google to reveal it’s a Guys and Dolls reference. Even though he pops off the occasional title like “I Keep a Diary” or a line like “You’re the only thing that’s beautiful that no one understands,” his heart is a safe distance from his sleeve. For a purported emo legend from Chicago, he’s a remarkably average guy, especially for someone who’s body of work is as revered as Braid’s is in certain circles. See, for example, current peers Into It. Over It., whose Twelve Towns (each title is a town) owes a conceptual debt to Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5, which features 26 titles that start with a different letter of the alphabet.
Rooted in knotty ’90s indie rather than ’00s pomp, Nanna’s music flirts with ramshackle tunelessness and ricocheting, off-target melodies; riffs happen but they don’t feel intentional. He doesn’t seem like he overthinks any of this. He’s got no consensus classic album like Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary or Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, but he’s got a good reputation likely heightened by turning off his main brand for 16 years while he hit-or-missed in Hey Mercedes. Foes of calculation love this stuff.
If these qualities sound familiar, put it this way: He’s one gigantically influential record label short of being Mac MaCaughan. Braid’s reunion album helps this analogy: Like Superchunk’s excellent late-career releases Majesty Shredding and I Hate Music, No Coast is easily Nanna’s best, catchiest record. Maturity has sharpened his interest in melody, and his ear for it. He’s never indulged emo’s prog/drama-fueled penchant for dynamic shifts, tempo changes or screaming. He could’ve gone confessional acoustic, one of the few options afforded maturing scenesters from the Get Up Kids’ Matt Pryor to City and Colour’s Dallas Green. But instead he’s made the alternate universe follow-up to Death Cab for Cutie’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, an indie-pop album with the kick of a summer shandy and no chance of getting famous. When I interviewed Into It. Over It.’s Evan Weiss earlier this year, he insisted that the biggest misconception about emo (or “good music” as he prefers to call it) is that it’s a boys club. Nanna’s evenhanded music supports this claim, as it finds the Emo Everyman bypassing gender warfare in favor of learning to accept pleasure without guilt. Driving the point home is that he’ll sound like the Foo Fighters now if he damn well pleases. “Run from the outcome/ Give me some outcome,” he sings on the opener, almost to illustrate the before and after in his search for concreteness. Self-consciousness about a bad reunion album tarnishing his legacy has driven him to make his best work.
Tunes like “East End Hollows,” “Put Some Wings on That Kid” and “Many Enemies” flirt with anthemic qualities like squeaky early Built to Spill meeting the grizzled drive of later Bob Mould. As punks, Braid don’t scan as anti-anything but they do know how to set up a good riff or charmingly pitchy chorus without realizing they should repeat it later. When’s the last time you heard an emo song that randomly dissolves into wiry Fugazi dissonance the way “Bang” does halfway through? As “Many Enemies” illustrates, Nanna’s sick of having friends he can’t call on (“What can you do? You can’t do nothing”) and, implicitly, choruses he can’t call hooks. He says this album’s called No Coast because he didn’t want it to coast on their reputation like other so-called reunion albums. It goes deeper than that: No Coast is the work of a proud scene divorcée declaring his allegiance to nothing but verse and chorus. And that’s a beautiful thing that too few punks understand.