Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. / EMA
By Dom Sinacola | 16 June 2011
In a city already bristling with intimate venues and a nepotistic local scene jam-packed enough to fill ‘em—here’s looking at you, Typhoon, your band is bounteous enough to spill into the street and hold up downtown traffic if ever booked at the Knife Room—Mississippi Studios stands amongst Portland’s best. For the simplest of reasons, too: affordable drinks; hot dogs you can order through the serving window while out on the patio chain-smoking and wondering how the soundsystem isn’t a neighborhood sound violation; a place to sit practically on top of the bands below; an upstairs bathroom next to a couch where I never had to wait once and where I found some scruffy dude sleeping through EMA’s set (or just doing what my mom used to do when she was probably regretting ever giving birth: resting his eyes); sincere, infectious enthusiasm from a staff one would expect to appear otherwise in a city predictably beset by dark-lidded, scowling types; Persian rugs softening the cement floors; it not being the Crystal Ballroom.
So Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and EMA walk into a bar…and are sincerely surprised to see so many people come out on a Monday night. Granted, EMA got Best-New-Music-ified and DEJJ has been building hype through mentions on NPR, Ginnifer Goodwin’s Twitter, and other mature forums, so it’s not a huge leap of logic to expect Portland—now EMA’s hometown, we were told—to come out and support two obviously talented acts, anticipating what will come from such a strange pairing.
Both bands have released debut albums in the past month and both records couldn’t be more different—at least on the spectrum of whatever functionally constitutes “indie rock” these days. EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints is alternately dour and exultant, fidelities and orange-flavored guitars stretched between the two extremes with Erika M. Anderson’s sometimes winking, sometimes thoroughly unpleasant voice placed haphazardly on top, testing the strength of the membrane created. It’s A Corporate World instead revels in its beautifully shiny production, mounting one catchy, breathlessly poppy number onto another; it is either all gimmick or none at all, which hardly detracts from how immediately delicious a song like “We Almost Lost Detroit” can sound after a heady diet of EMA’s tendon-splitting troubadour grunge.
What becomes immediately and surprisingly apparent for both acts is that their corresponding debuts play out as slyly different beasts on stage. Past Life Martyred Saints can sometimes seem the brutally personal ruminations of an intensely inward-obsessed artist—just today, former CMG scribe Lindsay Zoladz described it as “awesome solipsism”—but live, Anderson demurely and often deferred to the undoubtedly better musicians surrounding her, acting more of an anti-focus than the admittedly engaging core, replete with cute haircut and scout’s-honor mystery, she serves up on record. More than once she thanked us for coming out on a weeknight, even asking for a show of hands as to how many of us had to be to work early the next morning. No surprise that when I raised my hand I was in the tiniest of minorities, but I felt like she was playing to that minority, gracious for our presence, openly humbled by not having to slog through a 9-to-5 job herself, and very conscious of the dynamics in her set.
EMA as a whole is still working out its kinks on tour—literally, at least in the case of the appearance of the electric violin, an indulgent groin-grabber that stood to the side of the otherwise fertile wall of sound and just kind of existed for its own sake. Meanwhile, the drumming left some momentum to be desired, especially when EMA’s best moments exist in the escalating anxiety between minimalism and catharsis, instead sorta swatting away and skipping super-serious through a handful of incongruent rhythmic ideas. Which shouldn’t be all that shocking; Martyred Saints is, I’d imagine, pretty divisive for those likely to hang a lot on the drum tracks, a lot of thin-sounding, disorienting, middle-range clacks that bear little responsibility in each of the songs.
But I get it—I think—and I like it; I like what EMA’s doing, and Portland, given time, will welcome her with open arms. That is, if they haven’t already: she’s playing here for Musicfest Northwest and will surely find allies in the city’s weirdo cadre, her former band Gowns most likely remembered and remembered well. At the time I was taken aback by an a capella she sing-whispered to the crowd, describing a night with someone put together despite whatever consequences would come to bear in the morning, because the lyrics felt indebted primarily to Katy Perry. But now I’m not so quick to judge; there’s something startlingly mature about teen angst filtered through the machinations of noise and lo-fi mayhem and wall-of-sound riffing, something akin to grunge but way grander. On stage, Anderson was refuting issues I didn’t even know I had, justifying what she was doing when no one really asked her to.
Detroit’s own Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. then came out to a steadily filling house, all walks of life cramming into the ringing void left by EMA’s last urgent notes. They wore NASCAR onesies that barely registered before they stripped them off to reveal three-piece suits underneath—which they then wore throughout their whole hour-and-a-half set, a feat admirable in itself given the luster of sweat coating their bodies by night’s end. The band’s a two-piece, duties shared between Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott, the latter you may remember as a contributor to our two-part, decade-spanning Fantasy Covers Podcast—coincidentally, EMA’s Grooms takes the last spot on that podcast—and yet, in all seriousness, they seem of one mind.
Bear with me: I don’t mean they’re tight, technically, I mean they’re tight—they look and sound built from the same primordial stuffs, eyes dulled by the bedroom, hair modeled after Frank from 30 Rock, pop sensibility and vocal timbre forged from the same moment in time before time began. It’s A Corporate World is a testament to this; it’s a producer’s record, clean, sharp, and mindful of every tidy corner, as if the two musicians couldn’t trust the melodic core of their sounds to translate amidst the detritus of everything else they were pumping into the mix, so they sanded off its edges and paid careful attention to holding the catchiness of each track’s hand through the melee.
Yet on stage, let loose and without revision, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. made power pop with a welcome roughness. And still, the songs came through, “Almost Lost Detroit” a pleasant dip in cock rock with an undeniable chorus, the titular track bubbly without any cloying regrets, or “Simple Girl” refreshingly unlike its title. Talking Heads “This Is the Place” even found its way to an interstitial moment, and all seemed right in the world; when “God Only Knows” appeared (as it was the closing track on their Horse Power EP ) the world seemed slightly righter. Meanwhile the band’s initials sparkled at the stage’s wings, home-hewed lighting rigs adorning their playground for no other reason than that the band, I can only imagine, decided that their first national tour should come with something whose entelechial goal was to sparkle. As a fellow Detroiter, I found their gleeful presence all the more engaging; maybe Detroit isn’t lost after all, I thought.
So, Mississippi Studios: possibly the greatest thing since sliced wrists for the impenetrably cool oeuvre of Portland cliques, but in essence the exact opposite. Behold, I thought, a night without pretense, instead a venue brimming with gratitude, welcoming to all, some perfectly comfortable middle ground to serve as a place where the jobless and the jobbed can commingle without resenting one another, where both are given their due, and where a band like Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. can cover Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” and EMA wants so badly to join them on stage. It may represent the attitude Portlanders brag about to those in dirtier, less friendly places, but until one’s spent a night suffering some humorless douche at Rontoms or sat outside of Gold Dust Meridian trying to look, for all intents and purposes, cool enough, it’s nice to know that the illusion still persists unabridged (that was a PDX pun, see?) in a place that takes its name from a river hundreds of miles away. With little else to say: Bra-fucking-vo.