Throwback: Say Anything — Is A Real Boy

Throwback / July 13, 2012

Throwback is a column which looks at older albums and the impact they’ve had on today’s scene. Whether still in their original pressing or now reissued, Julio Anta writes about his thoughts on the music when he first listened to it, along with his current thoughts on the record. In this week’s entry, Anta talks about Say Anything’s “Is A Real Boy,” which was recently repressed by Doghouse Records.

My first introduction to Say Anything was on a hot Florida afternoon, during my sophomore year of high school. I wasn’t quite old enough to drive and my friend, Stefania, who had a knack for introducing me to new music, was giving me a ride home. Halfway through our conversation about whether or not the girl I was crushing on was noticing me or not, the spoken word introduction to “Belt” from Is A Real Boy started playing. Unlike other artists that have followed me through the years, this wasn’t a eureka moment in which I was instantly amazed by what I was hearing. On the contrary, I remember continuing on with my rant about this girl while remaining confused over what I was listening to. Was Max Bemis’ anxiety over recording the introduction meant to build a fictional persona, poke fun at himself, or was it actually genuine? To this day, I still don’t know the answer. What I do know, though, is by the time the gang vocals came in over the crescendo of the guitar-heavy outro and the story of a man’s refusal to submit to an industry’s empty promises neared completion, I felt refreshed.

The truth is, I had never heard a voice like that of Max Bemis. The brutal honesty (“Chia-Like, I Shall Grow”) and self-deprecating lyrics (“The Futile”) over what I could only describe at the time as a manic vocal delivery (“An Orgy Of Critics”) made for an album that would change my perspective of what was possible for an emo band.

Released during what I can only refer to as a dark time in the scene, my feelings quickly went from refreshed to relieved as the record went on. Most albums marketed as “emo” at the time of this album’s release were mired with synths, ironic metal riffs, and seemed to give more importance to the band’s flat-ironed hair and eyeliner than the actual emotion that was supposed to be driving the genre of music they claimed to create. What I loved about Is A Real Boy is that it didn’t completely write off the current trends or the context in which it existed. “Woe,” for example, uses synthesizer sounds similar to those found in bands of this time, but instead of being distracting and obnoxious, utilized them in a way that’s similar to guitar leads, subtly accenting various sections of the song, reminding me of James Dewees from The Get Up Kids.

As I continued to listen to the record over the years, the musical trends came and went. Today, the eyeliner has gone away, the skinny jeans aren’t as skinny, and actual emo music has made a comeback, leaving the many bands who capitalized on the generally shallow electro pop trend in the dust. Say Anything has of course lived on and as I listen to Is A Real Boy now, I realize how little credit is given to Max Bemis, the band’s sole permanent member. As he wrote and performed every instrument on the record, save for percussion, it was always my presumption that Bemis would eventually find a spot on the pedestal of independent music’s great one-man band monikers like Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, Mike Kinsella, of Owen, and David Bazan, of Pedro the Lion.

Unfortunately for Bemis, as often happens with highly praised and widely acclaimed albums, every subsequent release by Say Anything has been naturally measured according to the successes of the standout, with none having quite satisfied fans or critics in the same way. With that success, an album like Is A Real Boy is bound to go through multiple pressings, versions and formats; CDs, cassettes, digital downloads, and of course, vinyl.

When Doghouse Records announced the first vinyl repressing of the album in over three years, the demand was so high that it sold out within hours. Once a second variant was listed soon after, I was able to pick up a copy on “Red Oxblood Splatter” before it once again sold out. Since then, multiple variants have been released, and when it finally arrived on my doorstep, the first thing I noticed was the beautiful gatefold packaging. While simple in design, the album’s artwork fits perfectly into the record’s large form factor. The actual wax was equally as impressive, but didn’t give much by way of high quality sound. To be completely honest, after listening to each song on vinyl and over again on the digital formats I’ve spent years getting to know this album with, I couldn’t hear any difference at all.

Physical details aside, what really caught me off guard was the inclusion of the Was A Real Boy EP. Although it was officially released as a companion piece to Is A Real Boy during it’s 2006 reissue by J Records, this wasn’t the first time fans were hearing these songs. Those that closely follow the band know that the songs were originally leaked as the Say Anything VS. Aids Demos many months earlier. Contrary to what the title implies, these songs have nothing to do with Is A Real Boy, but served as demos for a forthcoming benefit album eventually scrapped by Bemis. It’s a real shame too, because the Was A Real Boy tracks truly stand out as their own and show Bemis as a matured songwriter embracing sounds merely touched upon during the full length. Opening track, “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” shows the poppier side of the band fully realized with nothing more than a drum machine and keyboard, while on the other side of the spectrum, “Total Revenge,” navigates through the struggles of a relationship held back by Bemis’ bipolar disorder over a simple acoustic song structure.

As Was A Real Boy shows an obvious maturity from Is A Real Boy, the time between my sophomore year of high school and today has brought an extraordinary amount of change; both personally and collectively throughout this music community we’re all a part of. What hasn’t changed is my love for a specific album like Is A Real Boy, whose words and music have never dulled and which has stuck by me at all times. These are the albums that even decades later will remind me of all the stupid decisions I’ve made, as well as the brilliant moments of self-realization. This is what music is. It’s community, it’s nostalgia, and more importantly, it’s always there.

You can still pick up the repressing over at Shop Radio Cast, as it’s available on oxblood red vinyl and 180-gram black vinyl.

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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.

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