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Everywhere, A Band of Constant Sorrow

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page N01

What a miserable year for rock.

Actually, it wasn't so much a bad year for rock as a great year for misery. Gloom, despair, agony -- it set in thick and early, with guitarists everywhere nursing bummers, settling scores, whining, groaning or plotting revenge. Melancholy ruled. If you weren't bleeding from the heart, you couldn't get into the pity party.

Yes, the bubbly flowed in the rap world, (thanks 50 Cent!), and yes, a mood of sultry seduction glowed in the land of neo-soul (here's to you, R. Kelly!) In country, the hunky honky-tonkers, such as Toby Keith, sang fondly about their favorite bars, and those former teen pop stars, Justin and Britney, tiptoed toward early adulthood with showbiz smiles on their adolescent faces.


Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional, leader of the brooding pack, which reached an emo high with an album that debuted in the Billboard Top 10. (Marina Chavez)

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Then there was rock. Aside from the garage-rock revivalists, such as the White Stripes and the Strokes, it was pretty much all torment, all the time. The sorrowful tone was set by the alternative-metal acts -- your Puddle of Mudds, your Linkin Parks -- who sang about "drowning in a pool of misery" (Puddle) and whined about "a heartful of pain, headful of anger" (Park). Nu-metal bands, such as Korn, fumed at the world's refusal to salve their suffering, although a salve at this point would probably require a national holiday. It's Recognize Korn's Anger Day, kids. Take the day off.

You expect anguish from Korn, and from Puddle and Park, for that matter. It's their niche. But these guys were nearly out-moped by John Mayer, who followed up his low-angst breakthrough album of two years ago with the unironically titled "Heavier Things." Either Mayer was putting us on, or he's coping with a bad case of success fatigue. And Mayer seemed like an Osmond compared with Lucinda Williams, the doyenne of the alternative country world. Her soggy mountain breakdown, "World Without Tears," was an album of defeated frettings by a lovesick shut-in. It's true that Williams has never done upbeat -- well, she hasn't done much of it -- but "Tears" is so blue it's hard to imagine how she could get any bluer. After a breakup is likened to a scorpion bite, and you're paralyzed with grief in a shade-drawn room, can it get any grimmer?

Yes, it can. While Williams performed musical triage on herself, a dozen bands crisscrossed the country pushing a style of deeply earnest hard-core called "emo." It's one of those genre tags that few groups embrace, but you know emo when you hear it, and it's never more distinctive than in concert. The songs are neurotically focused on nasty breakups, and the singer is always the slighted party. The crowd chants the lyrics in cathartic unison, like a church choir of the spurned. Irony has left the building.

Though widely derided for its lack of humor and all that sensitive-guy posturing, emo had a great 2003, drawing large and fervent high-school-age audiences to such venues as the 9:30 club. And if misery loves company, companies love misery, too: Some of the best of the emo bunch are now signed to major labels, while a handful of others were snapped up by indies this year. Though sales are no challenge to Good Charlotte, emo is gaining traction, and the leader of this brooding pack, Dashboard Confessional, released an album this year that debuted in the Billboard Top 10. More, the genre was officially canonized with a full-length book, "Nothing Feels Good," by Spin writer (and occasional Washington Post contributor) Andy Greenwald.

Will it last? More pointedly, can these boys keep ruing their lives if they're catching on, if they succeed? The answer is yes, if a conversation with Chris Conley, lead singer and songwriter ofSaves the Day, reflects the depth and intensity of typical emo singers' dejection. Conley chatted last month, during his band's stop in D.C., on a sofa in the back of his tour bus.

"I just have intense self-loathing, and I'm extremely insecure," he said, when asked about the source of such lines as "all my veins are tangled up, tied in knots." Conley weighed more than 200 pounds when he was 13, he explained, then after dropping the weight got a very serious case of acne, which he's yet to shake. But doesn't the band, the fans and all that applause distract him from all that? Only briefly.

"The adoration from the fans is extremely fulfilling," he said, his voice booming and monotone. "It's tremendously satisfying, and that connection to people is spiritual. But at the same time Chris Conley the person outside of the band, that's who I actually am. People have images of the band but in time that all goes away. The band will go away and I won't make music, the songs will stop coming to me. At some point, I'll be all dried up. . . . I'm still left all by myself at the end of the night and at the end of the band."

So don't expect chuckles from these fellows any time soon, okay? And anyway, emo's survival doesn't rest solely on the slumping shoulders of acolytes like Conley. The dreariness is apparently contagious. For years, Blink-182 made frat-boy rock, and one of their album covers featured a porn star in a nurse's outfit about to administer an enema with a latex-covered hand. In 2003, the trio released a (surprisingly good) self-titled album that sounds highly emo-influenced.

Bye-bye glove, hello loneliness.


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