It's amazing how one band can shape an entire scene's reputation. In the '90s, Milwaukee spawned one of Midwest emo's most celebrated bands, The Promise Ring, whose 1997 classic Nothing Feels Good landed at No. 3 in Rolling Stone's recent ranking of the 40 Greatest Emo Albums of All Time. But despite the outsize impact of one influential act, Milwaukee was never particularly an emo hotbed. Milwaukee emo was a niche scene carried by just a few great bands, most of them uncelebrated.
Twenty years later, it remains that way. Philadelphia it's not: Only a handful of contemporary Milwaukee emo bands have made much of an impact outside of basements and attics. And yet, small as it is, the scene is still among the city's most fertile, and much of the best indie and punk music coming out of Milwaukee right now owes a meaningful debt to emo.
Here are seven Milwaukee acts keeping the city's emo tradition alive.
No Milwaukee band has embraced sprawl quite like Telethon. The group's 2017 album The Grand Spontanean was a 90-minute, five-act rock opera that piled one high concept on top of the next, among them a choose-your-own-adventure ending and an album-within-an-album from a fictional ska band. The group hasn't stopped swinging for the fences: This year's ripping Hard Pop is filled with rousing tales of lowered expectations and lapsed American dreams, many of them propelled by an over-sugared barrage of horns, woodwinds, cellos and glockenspiel. It's a funny, geeky record that bends over backward trying to put on a show.
Barely Civil couldn't have picked a more perfect name. The band sounds like a study in how we suppress our true feelings in the spirit of civility: Frontman Connor Erickson sings in polite pleas, his soft, composed voice outgunned by the band's volcanic guitars. It's an alluring cross between tenderness and agitation, and the group plays to that juxtaposition to heartbreaking effect on its moving 2018 debut We Can Live Here Forever. It's a record about transition, finding a place in the world and the mixed emotions that come from leaving the past behind, even if the past wasn't all that great to begin with.
Perhaps nobody believes in Milwaukee's emo tradition more wholeheartedly than Holy Pinto songwriter Aymen Saleh, who was so enamored with the city that he moved here last year from Canterbury, England. His accent is British, but his musical instincts are unmistakably Midwestern: His 2016 debut Congratulations opened with a nod to The Promise Ring's "Stop Playing Guitar," and he cites the Promise Ring offshoot Maritime as one of his all-time favorite bands. Like so many of emo's most distinguished songwriters, there's real wisdom in his droll, verbose prose. This year, he released Adult, a wry and deceptively insightful emo-pop record about the challenge of meeting grown-up expectations.
Dramatic Lovers' music challenges the conventional wisdom that sequels are never as good as the original. Members of the group have logged time in some of the city's most prominent emo-adjacent bands — The Promise Ring and Decibully chief among them — and, as with those predecessors, Dramatic Lovers' music aches in the best way possible. The band's sound is less a redux, though, than a reinvention. One of the best Milwaukee indie-rock records in recent memory, the group's 2019 full-length debut You Talk Loud cuts BJ Seidel's pleading, soaring voice with crackling synthesizers.
Every contemporary emo band's sound is rooted as least a little in nostalgia, but few local acts hearken back to an era quite as specifically as Dreamhouse. With its unmistakable alt-rock crunch, the group pays homage to the commercial heyday of Fueled by Ramen and bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore, with singer Brianna Jackson frequently channeling Hayley Williams' unflappable wail. It's an empowering sound, all muscle, and a reminder that voicing your emotions doesn't mean having to sound small.
Versio Curs' is an especially ornery imagining of guitar pop. Singing in the peevish moan of a man twice his age, as if play-acting all the back pain that awaits him in late adulthood, Kyle Halverson delights in sucking the romance out of the band's swooning pop songs. "I think I'm catching your cold," he grumbles in "On Sunday," from the band's mercilessly entertaining 2018 parade of grievances How Are You. Every song is bright and punchy, and hits entirely too close to home.
Live Tetherball Tonight
There's a word that's been tossed around a lot in Milwaukee over the last several years: emo-esque. Newer bands like Vanity Plates, Lifetime Achievement Award and Flat Teeth all make music that brushes shoulders with emo but stops just short of fully committing. Live Tetherball Tonight is the hard exception to that trend. The trio is perhaps the most unabashedly emo act in the city, indebted to Midwestern emo and only Midwestern emo; its latest EP, the open mouth kisses, sounds like the entire Polyvinyl Records discography from 1997-2006 distilled into 17 minutes. There's nothing -esque about it.