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Sinai Vessel’s ‘Brokenlegged’ is a luminous example of why emo has endured

(Daniel White/Sinai Vessel Official Facebook Page)

For those of us whose adolescence arrived during the commercial heyday of “emo,” there are inevitably certain associations with the genre that must be contended with.

For some, it will provoke memories of scribbling dramatic poetry in notebooks, or staring out of a car window thinking about how these faraway punk bands understood you better than anyone in This Town. Some people may remember their fashion choices and/or haircuts, or which songs soundtracked those many treacherous trips through middle school hallways.

On one level, it’s hard to comprehend how anyone would want to relive any of those memories. And yet one can find wildly popular “emo nights” in venues all across the country. Even in the offices of The Massachusetts Daily Collegian itself, on some nights, you may find groups of editors shouting along to deep cuts in their middle school playlists to power themselves through another long night of production.

Emo is a big-tent genre, incorporating everything from the histrionics of My Chemical Romance,  to the blunt sincerity of Jimmy Eat World, to the cartoonish Sum 41. What binds the genre together though, is a sense of occasion, and a deep sense of self-importance. That self-importance can be suffocating if done wrong, but there’s a great satisfaction to be derived from listening to music that makes every mole hill into a mountain.

It’s called “emo”—short for “emotive hardcore”—for a reason. The one thing every one of its practitioners have in common is that they can take even the most mundane incident or interaction and present it as a life-changing experience. “Brokenlegged,” the second full-length from North Carolina natives Sinai Vessel, does this in spades, in the process demonstrating why emo has proven to be so resilient.

The first thing that stands out about “Brokenlegged,” released Jan. 27, is how unorthodox the production is. Everything from the richly layered arrangements to Caleb Cordes’ note-perfect vocals seems to have been frozen and then re-heated in a microwave, as if you’re not getting the full picture. Listen to it on a bad set of speakers (without headphones on a smartphone for instance) and you’ll really hear how compressed the sound is.

Though irritating at first, this production does actually serve a purpose. The resulting effect is the same as putting a heavy filter on a photograph. Just as seeing an image in black and white, or with its colors altered, would alter your perception of the contents of an image, this listen-through-glass production shifts the way “Brokenlegged” plays. In most instances, this sort of heavy-handed production would likely come off as ridiculous or artificial. But, since this is emo, a genre obsessed with the framing of memories and thoughts, it works beautifully.

Its success hinges on the stirring imagery Cordes packs these songs with. What good would that production do if Cordes—on the standout track “Dogs”—didn’t mention how if his “petty thief” brother “had stuck close to the law/he’d not be lying prostrate in the street”?

On the gorgeous “Died On My Birthday,” Cordes sets the scene at a “cruel, cruel lunch after the funeral,” where “Every missive and dispatch rolls of the tongue/And lands heavy on the table.” Keeping it up, Cordes continues “It rattles our lentil bowls/A whole fortnight of meals left cold in your honor/In your absence/In our confusion.” #Deep enough for you?

Jokes aside, one has to tip their hat to Sinai Vessel, whose brilliantly fleshed-out arrangements and remarkable chemistry as an ensemble are the perfect vehicles for Cordes’ cinematic lyrics. “Brokenlegged” took over five years to create, and the exhaustive perfectionism that went into it is on full display.

Each one of its many layers is vital to the end product, an album that’ll give you that same comfort and satisfaction that your favorite emo band of yore gave you all those years ago.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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