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Saturday, June 11, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Sadcore
"Sadcore" is a term that has come to designate what is essentially music by the depressed for the depressed. It has its roots in the indie rock of the late 1980's and reached its apex in the mid-late 1990's. It music with unrelentingly downbeat themes; loss, death, heartbreak, failure, misery, loneliness, isolation, unrequited love, and alienation.
The emotional content of the lyrics lend sadcore some characteristics found in emo, but the styles remain distinct. Sadcore's roots lay in the singer/songwriter movement of the 1970's in the manner of Nick Drake; lots of acoustic guitar, spare but delicate arrangement, introverted vocals. Where emo generally is harder rock derived from hardcore punk, sadcore is gentler, more introspective, without much (or any) punk influence. Emo is band-oriented, and focuses on a communal interaction with the audience; sadcore artists are introverted by nature, and while many bands are classified as sadcore, a lot of these bands are really fronts for a single artist, working solo or semi-solo. Among the flagship sadcore bands were Red House Painters, essentially a vehicle for singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek and American Music Club, largely the concern of singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel.
Sadcore isn't purely singer/songwriter music in disguise, however. In addition to subtle acoustic intricacies were complex lo-fi studio creations wallowing in dissonance and atmospherics; many sadcore artists recorded on four track, like the lo-fi bands. Touchstones like the Cure, The Smiths, and the Cocteau Twins also provide many of the early influences, with their subtly nihilistic lyrics and guitar textures. Also present to a smaller degree are the wall-of-sound guitar layers of shoegazers like Ride and Lush, as well as the no wave noise of Sonic Youth. However, more of it is spare than lush, more of it is stripped than layered.
Sadcore is still with us, and probably will continue to be, in one form or another. As long as there are brooding, sensitive types with guitars, there will be brooding, sensitive music for brooding, sensitive listeners.
Some important/influential sadcore artists/songs include:
1. American Music Club: Gratitude Walks
Led by singer Mark Eitzel, San Francisco-based American Music Club explored many music traditions to create their ultimately distinctive sound, regardless of their bland name. Listen closely, and you'll hear traces of folk, country, jazz, lounge, punk in addition to a solid rock base. Eitzel battled many demons; a drinker since his mid teens, his alcohol fueled rants and meltdowns repeatedly led to friction with the band. "Gratitude Walks" is one of their signature tunes, from their 1993 major-label debut, Mercury. A hungover, impressionistic moment of clarity the morning after, it benefits from a subdued jazzy instrumentation and Eitzel's frayed but in-control vocals. Mercury was considered a disappointemnt, coming on the heels of the acclaimed Everclear, released on Frontier in 1991. But it is a fine album, if a morbidly depressed one. Easisly their darkest and most challenging effort.
2. Smog: Bathysphere
In many respects, smog is the epitome of an American sadcore band. Led by Bill Callahan, an obsessive, melancholy, intoverted, and enigmatic lo-fi pioneer who was responsible for most of the sounds on their discs, Smog made perhaps their biggest impression with the 1995 release, Wild Love, on the Chicago label Drag City. Wild Love is a dark portrait of daily frustration, not without some wit, and it features a canny blend of chamber music and indie rock. The album is a masterpiece of home recording; made on a very low budget, the album is spare on the surface, but teeming with sound underneath. Smog has never been big enough to chart an album, but since 1992 they've put out a dozen albums, most quite good. The most recent, A River Ain't Too Much to Love appeared in 2005, still on Drag City.
3. Red House Painters: Down Colorful Hill
Mainly a vehicle for singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek, Red House Painters, from San Francisco, are often compared to American Music Club. American Music Club's Mark Eitzel frequently cited Red House Painters as his favorite band, and helped them get a demo tape recorded in 1989 heard at the London-based 4AD records, who signed the band. This demo tape was release pretty much as-is in 1992 as the Red House Painters' debut, Down Colorful Hill. The album features only 6 songs; two clock in at the 10-minute mark, and the others are five minutes plus. "Down Colorful Hill" is the longest, built around a spare melody and Kozelek's eerie vocals. Red House Painters are also sometimes considered a dream pop band, due to their association with 4AD, but sadcore is closer to their sound.
4. Low: Lazy
Low formed in Duluth, MN in 1994, and in some ways was envisioned as the anti-grunge; intensely quiet, austere and spare, less about sounds than the spaces between them. Led by the husband and wife team of guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker with bassist John Nichols lending a hand, "Lazy" was first released as an EP on Summershine records in early 1994, and appeared on the band's first album, I Could Live in Hope, later in the year on Vernon Yard. The music is light; between the airy vocals of Sparhawk and Parker, there is little more than snare drum, high hat, minimal guitar and bass. All the song titles are one word only, "Lazy", "Fear", "Cut", "Down", "Drag", "Rope", etc., finally ending in a ray of hope "Sunshine".
5. Cat Power: Enough iTunes
Cat Power is really Chan Marshall, a singer/songwriter from a musical family who got her big break opening for Liz Phair. "Enough" leads off her 1996 sophomore album, Myra Lee, ad is a long, twisting acoustic-based number that establishes Cat Power as one of the rawest, nakedly emotional of the mid-90's singers/groups pigeonholed in the sadcore genre. Later in 1996, she signed with Matador records, for whom she has recorded four albums. Her cathartic vocals might not be everyone's cup of teal, although Alanis Morissette fans might want to give her a listen.
6. Elliott Smith: Miss Misery
"Miss Misery" is the song that catipulted Smith to brief stardom, a role he was even less equipped to deal with than Kurt Cobain. Featured in the 1997 film, Good Will Hunting, it elevated Smith from his lo-fi folk-punk singer/songwriter obscurity and found an audience with depressed young people across the country. Smith had been around for awhile at that point; he had written and recorded music since the age of 14, and had been a member of the grunge band Heatmiser, appearing on their 1993 album Dead Air. Smith wasn't well suited for bands, however, and he dropped out of site to record his solo debut, Roman Candle, on a basement 4-track in 1994. After "Miss Misery" clicked (it was nominated for an Oscar), Dreamworks gave Smith a deal and a budget, and his recording bcame more ambitious. He took his own life abruptly in 2003, while laboring over what would become his final album, From A Basement On A Hill.
7. Ida: Treasure Chest
Ida was formed in New York City in 1992 by singers/guitarists Daniel Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell. Both have pedigrees; Littleton had been in a string of punk bands, beginning with the Hated in 1985. Mitchell had been part of a duo with Lisa Loeb; both Mitchell and Littleton appear on Loeb's "Stay". "Treasure Chest" is from their 1996 sophomore release, I Know About You, which features Michael Littleton on drums. Masters of spare, spartan rhythms and dreamy, depressed lyrics, this band also could qualify as dream pop, but the sparseness of production tilts it in a sadcore direction. Ida's most recent release, Heat Like A River, appeared on Polyvinyl in 2005.
8. Cynthia Dall: Bright Night
If you've never heard of Dall, it might be due to how her 1996 debut album was marketed; it bore no title or artist name on it. Dall's connections to sadcore are fairly solid; she shares a label with Smog, and contributes to their albums as an ersatz member; Smog's Bill Callahan appears here, providing guitar and vocals. "Bright Night" is a good, windswept, desolate ballad from this sparse outing, which borders on profoundly beautiful in its unrelenting melancholy. Her imagery can be stark and frightening, but her approach isn't devoid of insight, sympathy, and even optimism. Her second solo disc, Sound Restores Young Men didn't appear until 2002.
9. Idaho: If You Dare
Idaho, from California, aren't one of the more famous groups on this list, but they are among the closest to epitomizing sadcore. Formed by classically-trained four-string guitarist and vocalist Jeff Martin and his high school friend John Berry, and the duo wrote songs together, and released a few singles in the early 90's. Berry then left, leaving Idaho primarily a vehicle for Martin. On the 1994 album, This Way Out, Martin plays all the instruments himself except for drums. "If You Dare" leads off Three Sheets to the Wind, a 1996 effort that saw Idaho adding live members to augment Martin. Martin's four-string, tuned oddly, is a real draw here, but everything works; the live players give a little more oomph to the music than This Way Out had, and Martin's manic depressed lyrics and ambience make this sound a lot like Red House Painters. Idaho has since gone back to being a one man band.
10. Shannon Wright: Heavy Crown iTunes
Wright, from Jacksonville, FL, got her start as a member of Crowsdell, an indie pop band of some renown. Crowsdell released Dreamette in 1995, after relocating to New York, and gained a lot of underground notice. However, Crowsdell broke up after a fight with their label Big Cat in 1997. Wright retreated to rural North carolina, where she has recorded a series of deeply personal, heartfelt recordings on four track. "Heavy Crown" is from her 2000 sophomore album, Maps of Tacit, which takes a lo-fi approach, shades of Tom Waits and Kurt Weill, instruments like harmonium and Wurlitzer organ, to create a masterpiece that really defies any easy genre classification. "Heavy Crown" appeared on her 1998 debut, Flightsafety as well; the version here is radically different, emphasizing the chorus instead of its intricate chording, making it a very uneasy sounding piece.
Sunday Morning Playlist appears weekly.
Listen to Smog: Bathysphere (1995)