Initially, this blog post was a ten year retrospective of the 2005 indie/alt rock music scene, like a reunion of sorts. I was going to pun Gross Point Blank and we would’ve had a great time. Kings of Leon, Acceptance, and Bright Eyes were all going to be on this list. But when I finalized my top ten choices, I realized that five out of ten albums all came from the same indie record label: The Militia Group. So here we are.
Let’s reminisce, shall we?
Scratching the Niche
Once upon a time — when Dashboard Confessional ruled the earth — there was an edgy little record label out of Orange County, CA called The Militia Group (TMG). Their roster of bands lay somewhere in between what you’d hear on, say, Drive-Thru Records and Tooth & Nail.
For their origin story, you can visit Wikipedia (or this blog). What is appropriate is this: TMG started signing bands and releasing records in 2000-2001: Rufio, The Lindsay Diaries and Noise Ratchet (a personal favorite) were some of these early artists.
Most of TMG’s roster is now gone and left forgotten in the used bin of your favorite closed-down record store, but you might recognize some of the bands that hit major label success: Copeland, Cartel, Acceptance. Back then, there was an intensity in the music that TMG was signing. Noise Ratchet, for instance, was angst-fueled and Christian emo, i.e., perfect. Unlike the deliciously glossy (Sprinkled) Tooth & Nail releases, TMG was a little more unrefined, a little riskier.
They broke into my scene with Copeland’s debut record, Beneath Medicine Tree. We had known of love songs, and of rock songs. We had worn our hearts on our sleeves. But back then, when I was in high school, there wasn’t a better record you could buy. Beneath Medicine Tree did everything we wanted in an album, including the stuff we were afraid to admit we wanted: it taught us about the beauty in pain. It was thought-provoking and refreshingly transparent.
TMG was gaining momentum and we were all paying attention. When 2005 hit, this tiny record label stepped up big. It was a perfect storm and the timing was right.
major label records were shrinking. We still believed in the old model, for the most part, but it didn’t help that rock radio was hitting a dry spell. Green Day was still riding the wave of “American Idiot,” Weezer was in “Beverly Hills,” and Nickelback was taking a shitty “Photograph.” Fall Out Boy was breaking through, however, but that type of energy was hard to find on radio.
So with big labels missing the mark, and with smaller labels like Tooth & Nail gaining momentum (thank you The OC Supertones, Mae and some little band called Anberlin), young audiences were primed for a wave of incredibly niche, feel good emo-indie rock glory.
Enter: The Militia Group.
The best part? For me, at least? I was there (for some of it).
In early 2005 I was an intern at The Militia Group. It was incredible. Primarily, I worked in the warehouse with a fun guy named Sam. We’d slap stickers on envelopes and mark addresses with permanent markers. These packages we mailed to street team kids and concert promoters, and occasionally, when I was good, they let me drive to the post office to drop off the packages.
Ok, so the work wasn’t glamourous, but I did get to sit in weekly manager meetings. What a time! Copeland was ramping up the release of In Motion, Cartel was sending in early demos of Chroma (making us all very excited), and Denison Witmer had just signed on to the label. (I may or may not have lifted an early Witmer demo CD out of the dumpster. I may or may not still listen to it).
One of my favorite memories was when the artwork for Copeland’s In Motion came through the office. Everyone was so excited, especially us interns. What would it look like? What would it be? We had heard a couple songs already, and they were spirited. I walked into the conference room and saw the artwork spread out on the table. “Oh,” I said, “a dried twig.”
The more I write, the more I wonder if, maybe, these albums are all so important to me because I LOVED that internship so much. It was such a special time. I had just graduated from the Musician’s Institute of Hollywood for music business, managing my own bands on the side, while learning the industry from the best. So, is it all just bias then?
These albums that I absorbed, way back when, they weren’t just important to me, but to all my friends, and to the indie scene as a whole. The music industry was simultaneously expanding and shrinking, everything changing. Niche music (different than genre music) was becoming a thing, and we were allowed to claim bands from labels that no one had ever heard of, because if you got in early, and they hit, you had street equity. It’s how it worked.
And it’s what made The Militia Group so special. They were dependable and had integrity. You trusted the stamp of their brand on a CD case. Of course, their goal, like any label, was to sell records, but The Militia Group wanted to sell good records.
The question now, of course, is how do these records hold up?
TMG’s Epic 2005 Line Up – 10 Year Reunion
In Motion – Copeland
For a boring band, Copeland sure knows how to make a fast paced, rockin’ album. “Pin Your Wings” is a flashy pop rock single, and it got the attention of major labels. How disappointed the majors would be, however, when Copeland worked against their natural tendencies to write pop songs, preferring artistic dreariness instead.
Every song on this record is a classic. “Sleep,” “Don’t Slow Down,” and “Love is a Fast Song” were all anthems that fueled my late night drives from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo.
So how does it hold up?
Beneath Medicine Tree will always hold a special place in my heart, but In Motion might be my favorite Copeland record. I think it holds up better. Certainly, there is no better 1-2 Copeland punch than “No One Really Wins” and “Choose The One Who Loves You More.” Though I can’t find the source (anyone know?) I remember reading that this is the band’s least favorite record, which may explain why their follow up albums get so damn dark afterwards.
I’ll always love it.
Rating: Still A Killer
Hello, Good Friend – The Rocket Summer
Was there a better 2005 summer anthem than “Brat Pack”? Probably not. Probably never. But what made Hello, Good Friend so good, weren’t the peppy pop songs, but Bryce Avery’s earnest, almost-angsty energy. Tunes like, “I was so alone” and “Around the clock” had more spirit than Slick Shoes records and more hooks than a fishing dock.
So how does it hold up?
The Rocket Summer was never meant to be taken too seriously. That’s my theory, at least. We all knew what we was getting into here. And guess what? It’s as cheesy as we remember. I think it’s great still. I have a feeling I won’t get these songs out of my head for quite a while.
Rating: “I am not into the idea of living without you.” Still A Killer — a cheesy, cheesy killer
Bonus: I once danced on stage with Bryce at a Rocket Summer show and completely embarrassed myself. I put my arm around his neck and I think I creeped him out. Sorry, Bryce. I was young.
Chroma – Cartel
When Chroma came, so did I (umm, musically, that is). The production was sharp, the music was tonally taut. The lyrics were a big step up from Cartel’s Ransom EP (2004), with singer Will Pugh exploring deeper themes on songs like, “The Minstrel’s Prayer,” “Matter of Time,” and “Save Us.”
What I loved, especially, about Chroma was the pacing. Bands like Cartel, i.e., pop punk extraordinaires, get in and out of a songs with no questions asked — hit the chorus and run, so to speak. Chroma stood out because it was incredibly balanced: short pop songs, long outros, alternating song structures, blending transitions. It was like reading an incredibly well written paragraph from a novel, with sentence variation and ingenuity that carries you away.
Chroma, additionally, was a game changer for TMG. “Honestly” grabbed MTV and radio attention and put a national focus on the small label. Cartel didn’t stay long, of course. After the crazy success of Chroma, Cartel signed to Epic. You might remember their next giant, unforgiving misstep on MTV’s “Band in a Bubble.”
So how does it hold up?
Not as flawless as I thought, and some of the lyrics are more formulaic than I remember, but it’s still a rockin’ record. I don’t have the patience to listen to this album from start to finish any more, which is what was meant for. All that to say, “The Minstrel’s Prayer,” “Q,” and “A” is still my favorite three song album closer. SO GOOD!
Rating: Still a killer, but in smaller doses
Are You a Dreamer? – Denison Witmer
Like I mentioned up top, when I was a TMG intern, I pilfered a Denison CD out of the boss’ trash. I’m not proud of it, but I’m also very proud of it. What I didn’t expect was Are You a Dreamer? to be better than what I heard on those early demos. I was wrong.
The album featured a host of Witmer’s friends, like Sufjan Stevens and Shara Warden. Songs like “Little Flowers” and “Everything but Sleep” were deeply personal and nearly perfect. Back then, when this came out, I was trying to understand the subtleties of what it meant to have faith outside of a church. I’m not sure if this album helped me reach any conclusions, but it didn’t need to. It allowed me to think. It told me that other people asked these questions too.
So how does it hold up?
I don’t have the benefit of distance to give this album a balanced review. The truth is I never stopped listening to it. Are You a Dreamer? is still one of my all time favorite records.
Rating: Shut up and go buy the vinyl!
Bonus: After years of missing Witmer’s tours (family emergencies, vacations, moving), I finally saw him in Seattle in 2012. He opened with “Little Flowers” and I squealed.
fielding – fielding
This album only exists in the dark corners of hard drives. I had a hard time even finding a Youtube video (excuse the quality). Fielding, or fielding, was a band that made an incredible record and left before anyone noticed. I don’t know much about them, to be honest. If you Google them, you’ll probably come across an active band called Fielding, which is not them.
“The Giant,” “Big Surprise” and “All You’ll Get” were some of my favorite songs of 2005/2006, and I always made a point to include a song of theirs on every mixtape I made. It was unlike anything else coming out at the time. Not power punk, not pop rock. fielding was something else: soulful indie, maybe.
I would love to learn more about this band. If anyone knows, send me info!
So how does it hold up?
I hate to use the tired phrase “ahead of its time,” but when you listen to fielding, you can’t shake the feeling that it should’ve came out this or last year. A tour with Head and the Heart, for instance, would save souls.
Rating: Still a killer.
Umbrellas – Umbrellas
This was an album that — like fielding — would’ve benefited from a less crowded release year. TMG was hitting it big with Copeland, Cartel and even The Rocket Summer. I’m not saying albums like Umbrellas weren’t given enough attention, because it’s all speculation. But these things happen in record labels. Albums get left behind in the dust of better performing artists.
Umbrella’s singer came from The Lindsay Diaries and made this side-project record that eclipsed anything else he did before (or after) it. Some songs made it to TV, used on shows like Grey’s Anatomy. But other than that, mainstream success eluded them.
I especially enjoyed “The City Lights,” “Sleep Well,” and “June, Summer, Rose.”
So how does it hold up?
I remember really loving the song “Ghost,” but after a recent revisit, it just didn’t do it for me. His voice goes a little gooey, and the lyrics, “When you hear this song I hope your ears bleed,” are too cheesy, or melodramatic, for me to get behind. Some songs I remember not caring for hold up better than I thought they would. “Broken Ice” is one.
In the end, the album suffers from a flat production with overdramatic lyrics; however, it still makes for a great listen on a cloudy or rainy day.
Rating: Dated, but good album
Open Surgery – Man Alive
Policia – Various Artist (The Police covers)
Sing, but Keep Going – Sherwood (Side-Cho label, technically under the TMG umbrella)
And then it all ended.
TMG quietly closed their doors in 2012. There isn’t much of a story. As far as I could tell, records weren’t selling (for anyone) anymore, and some poor investments didn’t pay off. It’s a shame they’re gone because it would’ve been great to see TMG put out a ten year reunion mix album, or something. But hey, this is how the world works.
We sing, we evolve, we reminisce.
These anthems will stay with us forever, I think. They may not hold up as well as they used to, but that’s the story of humanity, right? In motion and moving forward, a little slower each year, but with the grace of great memories.