Cleveland has gone from cesspool to rock ‘n’ roll's enshriner back to cesspool in no-time flat. Once the crown jewel of Lake Erie, the city and suburban streets of Northern Ohio had more to look forward to than a glass pyramid, the Dog Pound, American Splendor, and LeBron James. But Cleveland, like many U.S. cities, has fallen back on hard times due to a dragging economy, job scarcity, and subpar education.
Out of this anguish, however, Cleveland's music scene seems especially resilient. Peter Laughner may not be king anymore, but the younger generation's underground can take pride in the wealth of eclectic musicians the city continues to harbor. Chief among them are John Elliott, Steve Hauschildt, and Mark McGuire -- collectively known as Emeralds. While the band's moniker may not reflect the group's many influences and unparalleled risks, the Cleveland trio and their like-minded brethren are molding the city's ups and downs in their own images.
What Happened captures Emeralds -- whose members released solo cassettes, CD-Rs, and LPs throughout 2008 to complement full-band releases -- continuing to stake out their own aesthetic territory. Warping the electronic sounds of the ’70s and ’80s, Emeralds recontextualize the dated space-age technology of synths with a sound that matches the dark pall hanging over all of us. Despite its futuristic tones, however, What Happened is more like an oasis from dirt devils and rising tides than a soundtrack to 1984.
The five tracks that comprise What Happened exist in a plane rarely touched since the days of synth's rise. Gone are the pop pretenses, favoring not all-out experimentation (like Jessica Rylan), but limit-testing drone and synth-based melody. Having a background in the sometimes harsh but never boring noise scene keeps What Happened from tailspinning into laziness. Yet the album never mutilates itself to entertain its creators. The joy Emeralds find within each of their musical creations -- be it together or apart -- is in the creation itself. Each tune is built brick by symmetrical brick; yet what's significant isn't how the songs are built, but from which materials they are built.
Indeed, like Christo, Picasso, or Dali sublimating anxiety into art, Emeralds are less concerned with reconstructing the Cleveland of old as they are with providing new colors and forms with which to critique. In this time of stretched money and global crises, we would do well to emulate Emerald's desire for a new direction.
1. Alive in the Sea of Information
2. Damaged Skies
3. Up in the Air
4. Living Room
5. Disappearing Ink