The Beautiful States’ debut LP is a screaming emo record from the American Midwest, and depending on your musical proclivities, this assessment either marshals excitement or exhaustion. The color palate is all blues and greys—the cover art says as much—racing guitars and screaming refrains that channel the pain, pride and dislocation of land-locked post-adolescents. But the record defies such easy treatment, both certainly derivative and subtly re-interpretive from exploratory and innovative bass lines to the angular arpeggio guitar work that occasionally sounds more like Minus the Bear than American Football.
Forming on Craigslist, the band’s story is one of those blighted American tales of disconnection and reunion. All of the band members went to the same high school in Cincinnati; separated by age difference, they reunited on the Internet; in a worn, sparse practice space they penned their first and the album’s first song, “Worm”. It’s a nearly five-minute meditation on love that might be just as applicable to the type of granular triumph involved in getting a band together and writing songs. Singer Chuck Bell screams the chorus “I’ll be the worm down in the dirt” and it’s impossible not to think of all the natural phenomena churning along silently all the time. The disparate elements contained in the four band members began apart, digesting their craft like Bell’s worm in the dirt, only to be later united on such explosive and common ground via the Internet. In other words: modernity doesn’t destroy so much as reorganize the traditional. “Worm” opens with a guitar line that wouldn’t be foreign to a Get Up Kids record, splashy guitar strums that give way to speeding arrangement. When Bell yelps “I need this more than you can know”, it is form meeting function.
Many of the songs on Every Little Thing follow a through line that will be familiar to listeners who have followed early and mid-90s emo to more recent contributions from bands like Grass Is Green and The Hotelier. While nothing on Every Little Thing is as immediately satisfying as say the most recent Modern Baseball album, this collection of songs is hardly foreign to the genre of popular emo. A song like “Seventeen” has a chord progression and strum pattern that could easily be lifted from an Alkaline Trio record—it both sounds and is vested in the dreams of teenage years that drive so much popular punk music. Keeping with tradition, “Seventeen” is less than two minutes long, a breathless trip through old emo tropes. Following track, “Space Plans” erupts behind intricate lead guitar work and prog-driven breakdowns. The second movement of “Space Plans” is a web of angular guitars that recall the sophistication and technical achievement of Minus The Bear, a certainly not punk moment lying in the middle of a traditional sounding arrangement. Penultimate track, “Old St. George Is Burning” bridges the gap between popular emo and post-rock most successfully, alternating between gentle, lithe guitars and screaming, high-fret board work.
And the charm of The Beautiful States lies in the richness of the recording and the overstuffed arrangements that shift and jump with a nearly baroque quality. On “Interlude” the band willfully winks at these classical influences. Even the post-rock infused “Randy Johnson Bird Explosion”, a song that blithely refers to a moment of bizarre, televised elegy, sounds like a punk song but it moves with a classical touch, surging through its wordless near five-minutes with dynamic range and diverse arrangement impulses. On subsequent track, “Fall”, another concoction that owes a great deal to bands like This Will Destroy You and the most propulsive moments of Explosions In The Sky, Bell screams his way through an a sophisticated and diverse soundscape. Bell comes by this trait honestly—his father is a player in a symphony orchestra.
If punk’s best ability allows bands to build hermetically sealed little worlds, a kind of diorama pop, The Beautiful States aspire to something larger and more intricate, whole universes of arrangement and time-signature shifts. It can make the record frustrating, even tiring at times. The Beautiful States never intend to charm exactly, but the richness and supple qualities of the songs offers an inverted form of pop: the hooks are always unfolding in the background. Likewise, whether you hear them or not, there are always guys building something beautiful and complex in the converted industrial landscape of Ohio. The worms are always churning the dirt.