Anything Else But Emo
Some albums are under appreciated because they are ahead of their time. Others end up on the margins of collective memory because they simply weren't very remarkable. But every once in a while, a band crafts an album that straddles genre identifiers and ends up getting mercilessly choked out due to the fact that it doesn't belong in the scene to which it's being marketed. It's a question as old as consumerism: how to successfully expose a piece of art to the exact right demographic in the most meaningful and effective way. Occasionally, reliance on the pattern recognition of our too-often flawed systems of pop music stratification turn out to be the nail in a band's coffin before the "right" audience even has a chance to judge the work. To paraphrase a much better writer, "What's in a genre label?" Sometimes, a lot.
The Honorary Title released their debut record Anything Else But the Truth in 2004, and their future looked bright. Having been handpicked by Chris Carrabba for a supporting slot on his Dashboard Confessional tour and earning the seal of approval from many of the indie and emo scene's more relevant tastemakers of the time, THT seemed poised to break through in a big way, not unlike erstwhile crossover favorites Bright Eyes or Taking Back Sunday. Despite mastermind Jarrod Gorbel's passing physical and musical resemblances to Carrabba, THT was destined to fall short of that mountaintop - and the fault may well lie in the way they were advertised.
In 1999, American Football remade emo music in their own image. The only problem was that we didn't realize it. In the years to follow, fans for whom their classic debut self-titled album (AKA LP1, as their recent second album is also self-titled) had opened new doors into subtlety, musical interplay, and how to have fun with time signatures would go on to form bands that would constitute emo's third wave (or fourth, depending on where you draw the lines). All this to say that even in the early 2000's emo was on the precipice of a new sound, one less reliant on screaming and distortion than on sarcasm and self-awareness.
Enter The Honorary Title. Gorbel's songwriting and vocal performance on the album drew comparisons in the rock press to everyone from Jeff Buckley to Elliott Smith to Elvis Costello to Nick Drake, and with good reason. AEBtT is a showcase for a master pop songwriter stretching double entendres until they rip apart while simultaneously letting his vocal cords double as a window into his soul. While all that sounds very "emo", you'll notice that he wasn't being compared at the time to those that should have been his contemporaries - instead the analogs largely came from the FM radio of yesteryear, which makes sense when we consider that the record's producer, Roger Moutenot, had previously worked with the likes of Guster and Yo La Tengo.
One can only imagine that the presupposed emo-centric pedigree played some role in Doghouse Records' decision to sign the band - Doghouse was a label that had found success with bands such as The Get Up Kids, Say Anything, The All-American Rejects, and Hot Water Music. It would follow then that they would try to market this new acquisition to fans of those bands, and to fans of Bright Eyes, and Dashboard Confessional, and Brand New. The problem with this strategy is that Anything Else… is a polished pop album, full of turns of phrase that bounce between cleverly sophisticated and embarrassingly solipsistic but are almost always well-written, produced by a guy who cut his teeth making rock records that sounded like the definition of MOR. This was never going to be the firebrand type of youthful energy that inspired mosh pits - it was always going to be a considered effort by a band well beyond their years in terms of their musical acumen, replete with steel guitar flourishes and melodic undertones powered by synths and pianos.
The only reason that any of this would matter would be if you are the type of person that believes this album never truly received its due. I happen to believe that wholeheartedly. If you can overlook the more melodramatic lyrics, and the occasional left turn into well-intentioned but misguided sexism ("when I said you looked good, baby", "the way you're busting out of that wifebeater"), what you'll find on Anything Else But the Truth is an immensely pleasurable collection of songs crafted by an artist who knows that this is his time to shine. In another version of reality, Anything Else… opens the floodgates for a new crop of young songwriters who value lyrical expression over pedal chains and indulge in days of reflection as often as they do nights of debauchery.
But that isn't the reality we live in. We live in this one, where it is barely a footnote on a decade where no one knew what kind of legs emo might have and didn't know how to catalog work that was vaguely similar on its face while being profoundly different at its core. Instead of being marketed as an example of singer-songwriterism at its finest, the record was thrown onto the woodpile of the scene and summarily sent into the flames to be engulfed by its own incompatibility with the rest of the genre.
Here's hoping that we as individual listeners can differentiate the distinctions in music and decide how we feel about it based on our own preferences and not because of how well or poorly it is presented to us in the marketplace. If the story of The Honorary Title teaches us anything, it's that sometimes the industry itself has no clue what it has or how to package it.