Dead Red Sea: Birds
When emo first started raising its young, skinny head back in the early to mid-'90s, its skipping speed and earnest punch felt just as passionate as the poetry. Yes, the pinprick sensitivity was always there, but it felt like it was intimately intertwined with the whole musical package. Play fast. Scream-yell lyrics. Feel mopey. But who could have guessed that these heartfelt youths would mature into 1970s singer/songwriter types. Thematic older brothers such as Smog's Bill Callahan and Sebadoh's Lou Barlow wrapped their laments inside an irony so far afield it hits with a brittle but bracing bitterness. The emo boys are way more serious. Dashboard Confessional? Three words: Gordon fucking Lightfoot.
The saving grace of Ryan Shelkett's most recent project, likely to be mislabeled emo, is his attention to the group dynamic. With Dead Red Sea, the former Cross My Heart linchpin has the wherewithal to remember that the drums and bass provide the thump to underline the torment, and that his guitar is electric. And he knows how to plug it in every once in a while. Sea's full-length debut, Birds, bounces from heart-wrenching, if occasionally jejune, introspection ("Bad Man") to nigh math-y instrumental hubris ("Humanoid"), never once falling prey to the narrow sonic palette favored by its label home, Charlotte, N.C.-based Deep Elm Records.
Birds pays more attention to high fidelity than most Deep Elm recordings do, even if it has the tendency to be a big downer. Shelkett still peddles bittersweet anguish best exemplified by the almost pathologically sullen-yet-jaunty "It's So Hard to Be Alive." But he's also taking a few more risks on this album than he has previously, trying on a country flair for "The Rain" and digging into piano magic for "Nowhere, Nothing." Even so, Shelkett's weighty, winsome vocals fit his music better than they have any right to. His guitar work remains a bit stilted at times, but when he decides to be a bit more limber, as he does on the title track, the results are damn near impressive.