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Algernon Cadwallader - Some Kind of Cadwallader,Parrot Flies & Algernon Cadwallader Music Album Reviews

 

The Pennsylvania emo stalwarts never found much fame in their own time, but a decade later, these reissues testify to their influence, idiosyncrasy, and proudly uncommercial spirit.

Suppose someone tells you about a night they were four beers deep at an Algernon Cadwallader basement show in 2008 and predicted the following: Within the next 10 years, the critical reevaluation of emo would lead to Philadelphia being anointed the epicenter of American indie rock; the Phillies would win the World Series; and the Eagles’ backup quarterback would outgun the Patriots in the Super Bowl, which would be extra satisfying given Tom Brady’s golf dates with President Donald Trump. Which part is least believable? Probably being at the Algernon Cadwallader show in the first place: The trio achieved a decent level of visibility during their short run, but nowadays “that Algernon basement show” is the sort of thing scene diehards will either lie about or never shut the fuck up about. Due to a quintessentially punk combination of DIY ethics and administrative laziness, the majority of Algernon Cadwallader’s output has long been out of print and unavailable on streaming services. Yeah, you could’ve streamed most of it on YouTube or Bandcamp, but Lauren and Asian Man Records’ reissue of Algernon’s entire discography is necessary because it provides something so rarely granted to bands of this nature: a chance to publicly honor its legacy.

The recent 10-year anniversaries celebrated by contemporaries and tourmates like Tigers Jaw, the Menzingers, La Dispute, and Touché Amoré have shone a retrospective spotlight on a parallel universe of underground rock that went largely ignored in the time between MySpace and Twitter. Any future recollections will probably have to be an oral history, as most of the e-zines, message boards, and websites where Mediafire links and show information were passed along have been relegated to history’s digital dustbin. Archived original album and live reviews are virtually nonexistent, whereas interviews from that period languish on blogs that haven’t been updated in years.

One such blog is Alter the Press, where bassist/screamer (he is not a singer) Peter Helmis joked in 2008, “We’re a DIY band from Pennsylvania. We sound like Cap’n Jazz.” It was a deliberately self-deprecating quip, but Algernon’s self-determination played a significant role in their legend. They sidestepped the label ladder to release their records and their friends’ records on Hot Green, never hired a major booking agent or manager, and decided to call it quits in 2012 rather than being beholden to the expectations and budding hype of an emo revival they were largely credited with starting. Bands like Tigers Jaw, Joyce Manor, and the World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die worshipped Algernon for their iconoclasm, which also prevented them from every being as successful as their acolytes.

Notice how Helmis says they were from Pennsylvania, not Philly. Specifically Yardley, a small town in Bucks County, whose first citizen was named Algernon Cadwallader. Many of the bands responsible for creating this scene were specifically from Keystone State suburbs and not Philadelphia at the outset: the Wonder Years (Lansdale), Balance and Composure (Doylestown), the Menzingers and Tigers Jaw (Scranton), Snowing (Lehigh Valley), and Title Fight (Kingston). Like most of those bands, Algernon would eventually move to the city proper, but even then, Philadelphia was mostly a non-factor in indie-rock conversation; the lack of attention allowed them to go at their own pace, just enough outside the cruel microscope of hype that incinerated bands thrust upon stages they weren’t ready to occupy.

And Cap’n Jazz is clearly the first comparison anyone would make for Algernon Cadwallader. There’s one archived review popping up for Some Kind of Cadwallader on Google and here’s first sentence: “Algernon Cadwallader have studied ’90s Kinsella recordings like they were on tomorrow's final exam.” In that case, “Katie’s Conscious” aces it and gets extra credit, mashing together the shifty hooks of Shmap’n Shmazz with a tribute to the halftime landslide of American Football’s “Honestly?,” all while honoring Joan of Arc’s lean towards conceptual non sequitur: “Radio rap is back for a reason!,” shrieks Helmis, a guy who helped revive uncommercial emo for reasons that still baffle most critics.

Helmis had about as dysfunctional of a relationship with perfect pitch as Tim Kinsella, and the bespoke nature of his vocals is best exemplified by Algernon’s cover of Elvis Costello’s “No Action,” which appears on the patchworked, “new” compilation Algernon Cadwallader alongside their take on the Beatles’ “This Boy.” “No Action” itself is embryonic emo—yelpy, twitchy, and prone to some extremely petty bon mots at an ex’s expense, while “This Boy” plays more toward the emasculated longing for an ex that typified emo’s early-2000s pop phase. But songs that tightly structured and lyrically transparent are a complete mismatch for Algernon’s scattershot energy and antipathy towards straight melody. If Elvis Costello ever hears Helmis’ defilement of the high notes on the chorus of “No Action,” he might seek legal action.

But there’s a right way to sing “THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE” on a song titled “Horror,” and then there’s Helmis’ wrong way, which is the best way, wringing out every last bit of cartoonish, splattered gore the sentiment deserves. It’s worth pointing out that if you read the lyrics straight, it’s a song inspired by studying up on the cruelty of man while sitting on the toilet. Helmis also shared Kinsella’s taste for gnomic, lysergic metaphysical musings (“Dinosaurs died quite a while ago/We still fascinate and look at their bones”; “Try and plant a tree on top of a computer/That’s not happening”). And here’s a song title from their 7” demo, which is bundled with 2009’s Fun EP and a few B-sides on Algernon Cadwallader: “Look Down (Because the Ground Is Easier to Understand and Doesn't Take So Much Work to Figure Out But I'd Rather Not Know Where I'm Standing and Have An Idea of What Life Is All About).”

Still, like most comparisons that arrive early and never really leave, the Cap’n Jazz one is helpful, but becomes less justifiable with distance. The Kinsellas’ group had no choice but to sound like themselves—a bunch of mismatched teenagers dealing with childhood trauma and drug abuse, figuring out their sound in real time, an abstract poetry slam disguised as a “weirdo punk band.” The members of Algernon were beerier and bouncier; more importantly, they purposefully chose Midwestern emo over other forms of punk and hardcore, a choice that liberated from the professionalism, earnestness, and striving that defines indie rock.

Ten years and many label rosters’ worth of imitators later, Some Kind of Cadwallader still leaps out of the speakers, an album that treats its songs like secrets they’re dying to share—they can barely contain themselves even during the starstruck ballads and the 13-minute jam. Some Kind of Cadwallader is always in motion, as a matter of fact. Guitarist Joe Reinhart tossed off riffs like banana peels for Helmis, the elements of what would define fourth-wave emo: spindly arpeggios, finger-tapping, wandering harmonies, rapid-fire hammer-and-pull figures, oblong time signatures, capos where capos aren’t meant to tread. It’s both tossed off and astoundingly technical, even nerdier than the metal and math rock it pulls from, reflected by the dubiously (but accurately) named “twinklecore” subgenre that take shape on labels like Count Your Lucky Stars, Topshelf, and Big Scary Monsters.

Algernon Cadwallader were a band that never really tried to sound like just three guys in a studio, but they didn’t try to sound bigger, either. Some Kind of Cadwallader doesn’t go orchestral; it finds the abandoned toy chest in the basement—a brief hint of melodica on the title track, shakers and maracas on “On Up,” the most canonical use of slide whistle this side of “Groove Is in the Heart.” For all the immediate pleasures, there are moments of real poignancy where Algernon imagine these basement shows as something to grab onto for dear life: “Horror” feints at a tingling, post-rock crescendo before it ends with an a cappella group hug that wants to go on forever; it could just as easily pass for a field recording from a Super Bowl celebration on Broad Street. “Motivational Song” spends its last two minutes collapsing, the sound of a band trying to break down its equipment and load out while an acoustic plays in the background, unwilling to leave the stage and go home. The closing “In Response to Irresponsibility” is 13 minutes of wayward jamming, and if it went on three times as long, no one would mind—if they learned anything from the short and sensational existence of Cap’n Jazz, it’s that this stuff never lasts as long as anyone wants it to.

The modest, grassroots success of Some Kind of Cadwallader sparked label interest, most notably from Jade Tree. This partnership would’ve been a powerful symbolic gesture—Algernon joining a label responsible for many of their primary influences and reestablishing Jade Tree at the forefront of emo after a run of aimless years. Instead, Algernon started their own Hot Green record label, which would release Everything/Nothing, the debut from post-Everyone Everywhere project Hurry, and Get Disowned, the first proper album from Hop Along. In between, Algernon bode their time with 2009’s Fun EP. The endlessly excitable “Spit Fountain” alone makes it essential, proof that Algernon could’ve stayed squarely within the parameters of Some Kind and maybe even improved on it. Fun also includes “Black Clouds,” which some have called “perhaps the least engaging song Algernon ever recorded”—and they work for Be Happy Records, the label who put the damn tape out.

Algernon Cadwallader gave themselves all the time they wanted to work on a follow-up, and Parrot Flies was eventually released three years after Some Kind of Cadwallader. Helmis claims they recorded the album twice, and the results are in the vein of LP2 (The Pink Album) and EndSerenading: a gnarlier, more esoteric successor that spends its immediacy cowering in the shadow of its cult-classic debut and usually ends up being the contrarian’s choice.

In some ways, Algernon became a better band on Parrot Flies. The production is cleaner, the songs less beholden to their influences. Opener “Springing Leaks” reintroduces the band’s proprietary slip-n-slide instrumental interplay and foreshadows Helmis’ and Reinhart’s future transitions towards more standardized indie rock (in Dogs on Acid and Hop Along, respectively) by slowly tailing off into dueling guitars that could pass for Pavement at their shaggiest. It’s an impressive showing for the new two-guitar attack of Algernon that doesn’t arise again until the self-explanatory closing jam “Cruisin’.” In between, Parrot Flies is distinctively Algernon, but more mannered. Aside from a nearly banjo-like acoustic run on “Sad,” it lacks the jack-in-the-box instrumental surprises, and the hooks seem to be stumbled upon rather than confidently projected; likewise, some of Helmis’ more quotable lyrics (“Smoke and mirrors are good for barbecues and vanity”) can feel forced. At the time, Parrot Flies could be viewed as Algernon coming into their own, but in hindsight, it’s a band trying to break free of a movement they started and probably unable to do so as long as the name was attached.

Instead, the band called it quits in 2012—third-wave history repeating itself. Maybe they didn’t spawn American Football and the Promise Ring, but, like Cap’n Jazz, Algernon Cadwallader fractured right before they could capitalize on the swelling public interest in a scene they fostered as things were skewing towards a more pop-oriented format. See Miami-to-Philly transplant Glocca Morra’s Just Married, and also the debuts from Joyce Manor, You Blew It!, Modern Baseball, and a band from Western Massachusetts going by the Hotel Year, to name a few. Helmis recently admitted he was relieved by the timing of Algernon’s breakup, as they never had to be judged by how much they catered to the idea of “emo revival.” And the proof is in what followed: Helmis stayed the course with the trad indie of Dogs on Acid and Yankee Bluff, while Reinhart became a fixture in the full-band version of Hop Along and provided production and engineering on Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost, Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again, and Foxing’s Nearer My God—the kind of “level up” third album Algernon Cadwallader never got to make themselves.

Yet these reissues present Algernon Cadwallader not as a band cruelly cut short in their prime, but one that accomplished everything they set out to do within the span of six years. It’s worth remembering that this kind of thing was probably the least likely candidate for any kind of longevity or success in the mid-2000s. No, Algernon Cadwallader and their peers weren’t intended as an alternative to the MySpace and Fueled By Ramen emo bands who were already starting to hit a lull in popularity by the release of Some Kind of Cadwallader. Nor were they in direct competition with the prevailing trends of indie rock that seem to cycle like Zodiac signs. But Some Kind of Cadwallader makes it easy to think that this was all by design. “If fucking up feels right/Fuck it up,” Helmis screamed on “Motivational Song”—an intracardiac injection not just for emo but for indie rock any time it’s taken to heart.


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