Record Review: Can Star Commander Raise Emo To New Life?

Look, it’s just gotten much too hip to rip on bands lately, and I would never insensitively posture just for some cheap hits. Gutterth artists have been on the receiving end of some of my toughest criticism over the years, so I’ll tread carefully.

Arlington’s Star Commander has been on our radar for some time, but I decided to investigate further after they recently played a release show for their new album, The World Was Sinking & I Was Hardly Surprised. Now if you’re thinking to yourself that you haven’t heard of a title that overloaded since the days of a far different cultural climate, when emotional rock music was big enough that its poster-boy Conor Oberst was dating movie stars, you’re not alone.

And so now the tone is set for what this record actually sounds like: very much of a time when this music and the people that made it ruled the earth. Or more specifically, and to put it into a local context, when Emo scholar Eric Grubbs was reviewing acts that originally created the sound utilized by Star Commander (when they actually existed, as opposed to reunion tours). Happens to the best of us.

No matter your feelings on the “E Word,” you can at least hand it to the group for their ambitiousness. Besides the spatially cumbersome title, they actually just come right out and scream the word “America” at the end of the first track. Does it get any more heart-on-face — or any less subtle — than that? Many would argue that subtlety has no place in the young tortured songbook, and I find that’s an understandable position to take. After all, I always wanted to find the nearest school guidance counselor every time I’ve happened upon a teenage garage band playing “thoughtful” post rock instrumentals.

The group doesn’t even list the aforementioned Oberst as an influence on their page, but the vocal influence is unmistakable. They actually list the Counting Crows, and frankly, I don’t even know what to do with that other than to admire the boldness of such an admission.

And that’s another issue that comes up with Emo, it very well could be influenced by Counting Crows — or worse. I’ve had one too many a Saddle Creek disciple choose to engage in a war of words as I try to explain why Alan Palomo is a more interesting musician and better songwriter than some of these upset heroes, but to no avail. Though that goes nowhere fast, at least it’s fun. That’s actually a pretty succinct summary of so many things that involve music. But my guess is that tomorrow’s adults will be much less embarrassed of “Chillwave” than some of my peers are of the once-similarly hot Emo. I know, I know. Sharpen your arrows.

Like a number of other punk spinoffs and micro-genres, Emo settles in two vastly dissimilar places as it ages every so ungracefully. There is the glossy mall incarnation where it is used to fill out the smaller stages of theme festivals. Or, the bands go back to the obscure touring circuit from which it came. Star Commander is firmly in the latter category and would probably be appalled to be playing stages with sneaker sponsors, though that’s just a guess. But their take on this music is definitely of the more ragged variety of the late 90’s, a sound that continued through about 2003 or so. After that, everybody started playing with synthesizers — an awkward fit for Emo. Though that dabbling makes this better than what many recent acts do with the formula, one hopes that they return from their next tour sounding a bit less like those by which they are so strongly influenced. The group is at its best when it just tears straight-ahead, losing the weighted 3/4 rhythms and sniffling balladeer tendencies.

One of their tracks, entitled “New Jersey,” ends with a poignant little message regarding infighting in the local arts:

And I still don’t what any of this means, all the boys fighting for their scene, but this music thing, well it’s starting to wear me out.


Image: Detail from Star Commander’s new LP, “The World Was Sinking & I Was Hardly Surprised.”