Toby Morell (Vocals, Bass) Devin Shelton (Vocals, Bass) Matt Carter (Guitar, Vocals) Josh Head (Keyboards, Vocals) Dave Powell (Drums)
Emery’s colossal third album I’m Only A Man (Tooth & Nail) captures the aggressive quintet building on the blueprint of its remarkably successful back catalogue to deliver the album of their lives. With an abundance of stylistic risks, the surprise-laden song cycle was crafted with the confidence that can only come from a deeply devoted fanbase and combined sales in excess of 250,000 for The Weak’s End (2004) and The Question (2005).
With the help of producer Ryan Boesch--who previously engineered discs by everyone from The Cure, Foo Fighters, Eels, Ozomatli and From First To Last--the Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton-fronted outfit steps out of its comfort zone at the very start of I’m Only A Man. Launched by “Rock N’ Rule,” the song’s bold energy is a powerful proclamation of the inventive song structures to follow.
“That song went through a lot of changes,” says Shelton, who penned the epic tune. “At first I was struggling with it. Finally I decided to go with a really heavy, aggressive approach, and it worked. I spent a lot of time making sure that everything fused together the right way, and the band’s input really made the song.”
Strengthened by an irresistible hook (“I guess you don’t have faith”) and a captivating, near-lilting middle section – not to mention a mind-blowing trumpet sample delivered upfront by keyboardist Josh Head – Morrell explains, “We’re really big on dynamics and changing it up. We love heavy music and screaming – although not for the sake of just screaming. We’ll place it in our songs where it needs to be, just as we’ll put a harmony where it needs to be.”
For Emery – which also counts imaginative guitarist Matt Carter and thunderous drummer Dave Powell – the sonic ebbs and flows on I’m Only A Man come from an array of collective influences, be it classic rockers Queen – who they paid homage to in the past on 2005’s “Listening to Freddy Mercury” – soul icon Sam Cooke, indie rockers Pedro The Lion or musical peers Brand New.
As a result, Toby says, “Some of the songs on this album might encourage our fans to dance along and embrace the hooks, but if you check out our lyrics, some of them are just heart crushing. We knew we were doing something different, but we didn’t go too far. We didn’t leave ourselves.”
From the soulful harmonies that launch the explosive “Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus” (subsequently heightened by both a completely unexpected electronic breakdown and blood-curdling screams) to the roaring, airwave-worthiness of “The Movie Song,” Emery arguably casts itself as the most original band in rock’s modern world.
In advance of Emery’s third album, lead single “The Party Song” – which touts a stern message about the perils of self-destructive behavior coupled with an optimistic rock tack – was released to an enthusiastic response by fans. “I wrote that with Queen or Weezer in mind,” Toby says. “I wanted a simpler, almost happy kind of feeling, although the lyrics are pretty serious. It’s based on a couple of friends I’ve had and especially my wife, who lost her father when she was 17. As a result she started exploring and making negative choices. I’ve had friends who have had some serious stuff go down in their lives and they’ve turned to drugs or alcohol or sex, whatever it might be. And all that stuff wound up being empty because they weren’t fixing themselves. They were avoiding the pain instead of addressing it.”
In contrast from that contagious, succinct blast, the ten-minute opus, “From Crib To Coffin” closes the record out in an artful, expansive way rarely heard since the era of old school 1970s album rock. “Sometimes we get really bored with two guitars blaring and loud distortion, so that one just kept developing,” says Toby. “We did some improvisation and just kept pushing ourselves.”
Be it the chart-worthy, mid-tempo track “World Away,” which is infused with a cathartic detour, or the slide guitar-illuminated “After The Devil Beats His Wife”--which Toby named after the Southern expression for sunshowers--Emery exhibits a welcome depth. “Being in a band you always want to grow musically,” Devin insists. “You never want to get stagnant. We’ve got to keep moving forward and make things happen.”
“We love our first two albums but if we re-write those again then we’re not being fair to ourselves or any fans,” Toby acknowledges. “We’re not doing this just for a paycheck. We want to evolve, which is why we’re stretching the boundaries and going beyond what people might expect from us.”
From its recent acoustic tour to its dual frontman approach, Emery has always taken risks. Of the latter, Toby says proudly, “We were all good friends before we started the band, so there are no egos. And to be honest, having two singers is a huge help when you’re playing a full set of music. Having to sing on your own for an hour and a half, the way we play, would be a struggle. With us alternating it keeps things fresh and new.”
With Morrell and Shelton coming up with the basic structure of the songs, things take shape with the guitar prowess of Matt Carter, who typically elaborates with the guitar. As they perfect the material, Head and Powell also contribute. Weaned on the meat and potatoes commercial rock radio that their home state of South Carolina had to offer, Morrell says, “We didn’t know independent bands really existed until we got to college. And then we knew this was the kind of music we were longing for our whole lives. When we came from the other bands we had been in at college and formed Emery we knew we had to write music that we liked.”
Fast forward through the past six years, the band first settled in Seattle, but its members are now spread out across the country. So with Matt and Josh still living in the shadow of the Space Needle, Devin is in Illinois, Dave in Indiana and Toby in South Carolina, the group makes time for songcraft. In the case of the tunes that shape I’m Only A Man, the men in Emery rented a Charleston-area beach house in late autumn of 2006.
After hitting the studio with Boesch in the spring of 2007, the group has emerged with a disc that clearly sets them apart from the status quo. “As for standing apart – we don’t ever consider ourselves better than anyone else,” Toby says humbly. “The awesome thing about music for us is being able to create and be unique in the context of what we do.”
To which Devin concludes, “We’re really proud of what we’ve done and we really want it to be something that stands out to people and maybe earns us some new fans. My hope is that people will be caught off guard, but in a really good way.”
AS CRITICAL ACCLAIM BUILDS FOR THEIR ALBUM “I’M ONLY A MAN” EMERY ANNOUNCE A HEADLINING U.S. TOUR