Inspired by a friend's journal entry (where she was listening to this group) I went back and dusted off an album I hadn't heard in probably at least 5 years.
American Football (a name taken from a flyer for the Chicago Bears found in Ireland that read, "come see American Football, the most overpaid athletes in the world!") was a band between 1997 and 2000, and they only ever had two releases, both called American Football, one an E.P. and one an L.P. Their sound is unashamedly influenced by early (real) emo groups like Sunny Day Real Estate and the first few Promise Ring releases. Thoughtful arpeggiated guitar lines dipped in just a touch of shimmery reverb/delay are accented with jazzy, minimalist percussion, and the occassional horn line or keyboard ("The One With The Wurlitzer"). Vocals are sparse and airy (almost a Davey Van Bohlen with just a bit more confidence), and the melodies are light and soothing. All of this could be characteristics of just about any early emo band, but it's really the jazzy elements that take American Football from being a copycat repeat of what has been done before, and put them in a class all their own.
The biggest problem American Football has is that all the songs sound largely alike. Unity of sound on an album is a definite plus, but the rippling waves of sound never really change tempo or dynamic throughout the album. In retrospect, two releases was just enough material for this band to present, any more may have done little more than to show the group's limitations. As it stands now, the 12 or 13 songs in American Football's cannon is just enough to add a tender, melodic element to my iTunes shuffle from day to day.
In the winter of 1999, Ben Weasel started putting together what was to be Screeching Weasel's first full-length album for their own Panic Button records. It was a conscious deviation from everything the band had become known for over the last decade. Their infectious blend of Ramones-inspired pop punk that was defined on My Brain Hurts, and perfected through albums like Anthem For A New Tomorrow and How To Make Enemies And Irritate People was distinctly absent, and in its place was a very rough, non-descript straight-forward blend of punk rock. Weasel had gotten filled up with the punk rock scene around him, and wanted to make a statement about the pettiness and eliteness of many of the people in the scene.
The general poor reception of some their recent albums was likely fueling these feelings, as is evidenced by the final track being named after Bark Like A Dog, an album that many fans panned because of its glossy sound. Emo is the polar opposite of that sound; according to Weasel, all the songs were recorded in one or two takes, shortly after the rest of the band had just learned them. Very few overdubs were used, and the vocals are shaky and often off key. The lyrics on this album are personal, candid and dissatisfied.
The problem is, however, that it all doesn't work in the end. The message is very preachy and uninteresting, the melodies are practically non-existent, and the production quality seems more lazy than charming and intimate. An album like Neil Young's Tonight's the Night works better because of its rough spots, since Young is making a statement about the loss of a friend, and is truly grieving throughout. Emo, on the other hand, wants actively to be the opposite of what came before it, since what came before it was not selling.
Screeching Weasel's best albums have always been the ones with a certain amount of production sheen to them; My Brain Hurts is a major achievment and it sounds glossy, Wiggle is a stumbling point and much of that is because of how it sounds. There is nothing wrong with wanting to mature and sing about something with a bit more substance than "Joannie Loves Johnny." But, sacrificing what does work about your craft to achieve that maturity is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Mature lyrics mixed with quality musicianship and great production is something that Ben Weasel wouldn't discover until his most recent solo album, These Ones Are Bitter. Perhaps Emo will go down in his legacy as a necessary stepping stone to bring him to These Ones.