(Asian Man Records / Dog Knights)
During this so-called “emo revival,” few bands have been held up as heroes as often as Chicago, IL’s Dowsing, and perhaps for good reason. After all, their previous LP, 2013’s I Don’t Even Care Anymore, featured the kinds of delicate guitars, plodding drums, and intimate lyrics that defined emo in the ‘90s. Even the record’s hardest hitting parts exhibited a quiet aggression, often the outcome of singer Erik Czaja’s straight, deadpan delivery.
It’s sort of startling, then, when Dowsing’s long-awaited follow-up begins with a raw-throated Czaja roaring, “Punk is dead, and all your friends will be soon” over gnashing guitars. In fact, he pushes his voice so forcefully on these verses that one might wonder if it’s still the same band—until the chorus, during which Czaja’s croon returns and takes a more familiar melodic turn.
This opening track, titled “Wasted on Hate,” effectively sets the tone for OKAY, which feels brighter and bigger than Dowsing’s prior output. Some songs, like “I’m Sorry You’re Great,” with its mellow beat and resounding chords, would feel at home on any another Dowsing record; Czaja’s voice on “Finally Ghost,” is soft and reticent and folds nicely between the song’s jagged guitars, as it would have on earlier releases. But even this builds into a more ferocious song that evokes a sweaty basement singalong. The album’s best songs exhibit this same exuberance—“Red Legs Kicking,” with its ominous chords and thrashing drums; “Grunge for Life,” with its quiet, noisy core and symbolic lyrics “Now we rebuild;” an “Born to Soar,” with it’s guitars that tangle around the pushy tempo. Instead of sad, these songs seem pissed—lamenting change, cynicism, their scene and city—and, at times, optimistic.
Some songs, in fact, seem like an explicit response to I Don’t Even Care Any More. On “Feeling Better,” Czaja’s roar returns, berates guitars that scratch and claw across each other, drums that try to scramble out from beneath the brawl. “I’m feeling better,” he sings during the first verse, “It’s such a chore / If everything’s so easy / Tell me when it’s over.” Though the lyrics lament the difficulty of maintaining happiness, Czaja seems to have come a long way from lyrics like, “I can’t remember the last good thing that happened to me.” Even the album title (OKAY, in all caps) and artwork (a simple cartoonish “okee-dokee” sign) seem to signal a pivot away from the disdain and self-depreciation on their earlier LPs.
So what happen’s when a genre’s paragon jumps ship? Nothing, of course. “Emo” has always been applied to Dowsing’s music, as all genres are. But something special happens when a band defies—or redefines—the genre it helped to repopularize. Maybe OKAY will be cast aside as not emo enough despite its honest sentiment and heartfelt delivery, or maybe it will chip away at the walls that sometimes constrain taste, encourage undeserved criticism, and limit musicians and music lovers alike. Whatever the case, Dowsing’s latest is loud, punchy, and emo in all the wrong ways. (Dane Erbach)