The Forgotten Pop-Punk Records of Summer
Well, it’s official: The Song of Summer 2013 is “Blurred Lines.” Or “Get Lucky.” Or maybe it’s “We Can’t Stop” or “Take Back the Night.” Either way, no one bothered to clear any of this with you. Which is just as well; you’re not really a joiner anyway. Still, there’s something perfunctory about the whole endeavor and that bothers you — these are all very rich people making classy and well-manicured pop songs with expensive videos. You’re being forced into a consensus against your will, memory-making by committee. That’s not summer to you. They just so happen to be the biggest songs on the radio and it just so happens to be August.
Make sense? Great, you’re still with me here, meaning there’s a good chance that you generated most of your “summer music” connotations when summer actually presented you with an entirely different way of living. All of a sudden, you didn’t have any kind of meaningful obligations for entire days, and if you did, it was a job where you were possibly shirtless, hunched over a grill or working for your uncle. If any of this has gotten through to you, there’s a good chance that pop-punk or power-pop or emo is your sound of summer — youthful, literal, a soundtrack to making bad decisions from which you will recover. And while it’s not like our type needs any further incentive to commiserate, let me just say — it’s OK. I know how hard it’s been for you as of late.
This problem is twofold: You might think you’ve simply aged out of pop-punk sonically. Very reasonable. The bands themselves often try to mature by jettisoning the qualities that made them so likable in the first place (the caffeinated rhythms and high-fructose melodies) without any new strengths to replace them. And secondly, you probably think you’ve aged out of pop-punk lyrically. These days, the opposite sex confuses more than frightens you, you couldn’t care less what your calculus teacher or your parents think of your life decisions because they haven’t had jurisdiction over you in nearly a decade and you might actually enjoy going into work in the summer because at least it’s air-conditioned. Or you might think the genre itself is dead or has evolved in lockstep with hip-hop where the most popular stuff is defined by Auto-Tune, cross-merchandising, and haircuts that scare you.
That might’ve been true of the form in 2012. Hell, it was true only a few months ago. There were a couple of noble false starts on a power-pop/punk revival on the major-label level. Wavves’s King of the Beach remains the best Cali-skate/punk-pop record of the new decade, but on the self-serious and overcooked Afraid of Heights, Nathan Williams makes the typical mistake of thinking the world needs more Kurt Cobains (ca. 1993) instead of more Billie Joe Armstrongs (ca. 1995). Jimmy Eat World defined “grown-up emo” 14 years ago on their masterpiece Clarity, and its new LP, Damage, was an intentional “adult breakup album” that sounded like latter day Gin Blossoms instead if we’re being generous. Surfer Blood’s Pythons has some tracks that could’ve knocked Fountains of Wayne and Superdrag out of the buzz bin (seriously, “Weird Shapes” is one of the best rock songs of 2013), but good luck trying to find anyone who will defend it outright.
And yet, on a smaller level, this kind of music is experiencing a minor renaissance. This is not a comprehensive list, but it spans gender, influence, and geography — from Aye Nako to So So Glos to the indefensibly named and life-affirming Diarrhea Planet, bands are starting to unashamedly stump for the music that taught them their first three power chords. Three stand out on account of merit, on account of being ignored almost entirely by mainstream media and having an unintentional, collective cohesion that makes them all perfect for summer — The Greatest Generation, the fourth album from Lansdale, Pennsylvania’s the Wonder Years, You’re Always on My Mind by A Great Big Pile of Leaves, and the self-titled debut of Owel, a band I am positive that no one reading this has heard of previously. Whether or not they will define your summer, you can make a day out of all three.
If you can get past the name of the band and the title of the album, you’ll be pleased to find out that Wonder Years’ The Greatest Generation is almost certainly the best straight-up pop-punk album in years. At the very least, it’s the best straight-up pop-punk album since the last Wonder Years record. Though you might’ve heard the same accolades given to Japandroids’ Celebration Rock and Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory last year, those are phenomenal indie rock albums. This is straight-up pop-punk, Warped Tour stuff. It does not flaunt its DIY idealism, it does not cover Gun Club, it does not hire Steve Albini to get an ultra-raw sound and a booster shot of credibility. The production gleams, the guitars are sweetened, slicked up, compressed and stacked like baked loaves of Subway bread, the sixth song is the one with the acoustic guitar and piano and the vocals always rise up several notches during the chorus, giving you the nudge to sing along so you can try to reach that high note with a lead singer named “Soupy” Campbell. He’ll hit those notes, you probably won’t, but that’s OK.
I could compare this to blink-182 or Yellowcard or what have you and not be too far off the mark — everything wants to be “the single” here, except for “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral,” the seven-minute closer built from lyrical callbacks from the previous 12 songs, reminding you The Greatest Generation is technically a “concept album.” But that wouldn’t change your mind one bit. How about this — Generation came out on the same day as Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and they have a lot more in common than a release date. In fact, you could think of Ezra Koenig and “Soupy” Campbell (guh) as two dudes from the same high school class who were never aware of each other’s existence, lived parallel lives along different economic and cultural strata, and would have a lot to talk about at the reunion if they could get past the exterior differences in their upbringings and current locations. These are both bands dealing with the pressures and anxieties about being scared as shit about the future, and they reinforce each other’s crucial universality by proving that millennial anxiety isn’t a luxury problem.
But once again, the Wonder Years have a lot more to prove. First off, “the Wonder Years” and “The Greatest Generation” are the sort of entry-level references that would get laughed out of a Vampire Weekend writing session — the Modest Mouse name-drop on “Step” is probably the least esoteric of their career. Otherwise, it’s just two guys grappling with the same problems, seen through the prism of their respective education and life experiences. Modern Vampires begins with Koenig empathizing with an unshaven, underemployed guy who still thinks the world owes him something, whereas The Greatest Generation ends with Campbell trying to forgive the presumably unemployable addicts in his family who have lost hope completely. An oft-quoted lyric from “Don’t Lie” mentions “a headstone right in front you,” an impending, theoretical specter of mortality while Campbell cancels a tour to spend time in a hospital with his dying grandfather. Koenig “fronts like Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam.” The Wonder Years speak of Missouri and the Chesapeake like they’re different countries. In Vampire Weekend songs, Saabs get torched and the New York Times gets torn to pieces. In “Teenage Parents,” Campbell dedicates the record’s most ascendant, major-key chorus to a lyric about growing up with nothing but hand-me-downs and Goodwill. A spiritual revelation occurs in “Ya Hey” when a DJ segues from Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” to Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” both unimpeachable and timeless. A spiritual revelation occurs in “We Could Die Like This” when Philadelphia Eagles fans see their team take the field without Jerome Brown for the first time.
We could go on and on, and it’s easy to portray this dynamic as high class/lower class, city/suburb, book smart/street smart. One doesn’t get it “right”; both simply express their own worldview in a relatable way through tuneful and expertly arranged music and both are extremely fond of making lyric videos. A key line from “Passing Through a Screen Door” has Soupy screaming “I’m 26 / all the people that I graduated with / all have kids / all have wives / all have people who care if they come home at night / well, Jesus Christ — did I fuck up?” I can say from personal experience — and maybe you can as well — that if you’re 26 years old, unmarried, and living in a place like Lansdale, Pennsylvania, you may have fucked up. Because what chance do you have to get out once you’re in your late 20s and only now realized you’ve outgrown this place? You’ve probably missed out on a life-altering college experience and maybe you can consider a job in the city, but will you ever climb that ladder? Should you have paid more attention in class during high school? There certainly isn’t a creative class around to encourage your life choices, and your grandparents knew depression with a capital “D.”
Later on, Soupy shouts “I’m angry like I’m 18 again / and the walls are closing in” during “The Bastards, the Vultures, the Wolves.” And even if the Wonder Years are no longer writing songs with titles like “This Party Sucks,” “Dude, What Is a Land Pirate?” and “Bout To Get Fruit-Punched, Homie,” it’s a moment of frightening clarity that reminds you why people seek out this kind of music — few feelings are more perversely pleasurable than the overwhelming conviction one has in their teens that I’ve figured it all out and we’re screwed.
Of course, it’s worth noting that The Greatest Generation is so relentlessly melodic that it compels you to shout along and realize your catharsis in real time. Like Bruce Springsteen, The Hold Steady, or Gaslight Anthem, there’s a blue-collar nobility, an epic longing here — the world is rigged against you and you need some heavy artillery to fight back. That’s a powerful emotion to tap into and what’s so thrilling and novel about the Wonder Years is how much pop-punk means to them, and how they’ll fit their maturing worldview into that schematic and vindicate it. Granted, it’s easy to dismiss the buzz around the Wonder Years since the pop-punk critical community tends to be lovably and laughably enthusiastic — The Greatest Generation has an absurd 96 rating at Metacritic based on a scant four reviews, indicative of both the scene’s cheerleading as well as how most mainstream publications won’t go anywhere near this stuff. But it’s the rarest of pop-punk records, the one that confronts the problems of your mid-to-late 20s with the music of your mid-to-late teens. There’s nothing wrong with this sound, and you don’t have to outgrow these pound-the–steering wheel rhythms or yelp-y harmonies. It can grow up with you.
But if you’re looking for an effortlessly catchy rock album whose sonic and lyrical character doesn’t make you as aware of your dwindling bank account or impending death, it’s tough to go wrong with You’re Always on My Mind, pop-punk that’s mellowed with age. As with the Wonder Years, anyone who considers themselves a refined aesthete will reject A Great Big Pile of Leaves on principle — the name and the album title are actually less facepalm-worthy than the cover, which is a hand drawing of a pizza slice, a hamburger, a mug of beer, and a skateboard on a backdrop the color of a brown lunch bag. A NOFX cover band would probably think it’s too on the nose for its demo tape. Fortunately, the music therein delineates the problem with your prior assumptions — you still enjoy beer, pizza, and outdoor activity while listening to music that thinks all that stuff is somehow beneath mention.
And yet, You’re Always on My Mind beats the odds. Damn near a concept album about a life of low risks and modestly high rewards, it’s a tribute to the kind of situations that avail themselves to adults in the summer simply because the days seem longer and you spend more time awake — the dearth of decent food options after a certain hour (“Snack Attack”), swimming at midnight (“Slumber Party”), getting used to a shitty apartment (“Pet Mouse”), and beating yourself up for staying in that shitty apartment instead of going to parties (“Ambiversion”). Because all the aforementioned remind you that you could probably use a girlfriend or something right now and you’re certainly not going to find one if you’re only “extroverted when no one’s looking.” But NBD.
The music itself is equally casual and likable — Peter Weiland’s voice is a rare lower register, a slack conversational tone that makes me think of Steve Malkmus if he had joined a fraternity at UVA instead of the college radio station. AGBPOL’s rhythm section mirrors a sort of relatable excitability; the drums and guitar are a bit twitchy, but nothing too spastic. It’s hooky, but in a subtle way, charming but not overbearing, and adapts to whatever mood you’re in at the time. It’s light, fizzy, and you can effortlessly go back for another round, a musical hefeweizen. Appropriately enough, the last band to do this as well was named Wheat.
While those two records are fit for the heat, Owel’s self-titled debut is a proper cooldown for a summer night rife still with possibility. Not since The Weeknd’s House of Balloons have I heard a self-released album that sounded so damn professional and assured that there simply had to be a major-label benefactor behind it. Or at least Alexandra Patsavas. I doubt that’s the case here: Owel probably has fewer Twitter followers than you.
This isn’t pop-punk per se, but rather the ideal for what most bands in this genre hoped to grow into. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was a run of nominal emo bands entering their “mature” phase, figuring that they’re better off transplanting their wimpy demeanor into ornate studio concoctions of strings, drum machines, church reverb, and acoustic guitars rather than some variation of punk rock that only exposed and emphasized their softness. It resulted in highly produced crossover attempts such as Sunny Day Real Estate’s The Rising Tide, The Promise Ring’s Wood/Water, The Jealous Sound’s Kill Them With Kindness, the Get Up Kids’ On a Wire, and the mother lode, Clarity — albums that were maligned by the punk community but never made a dent on the Billboard charts either. SDRE’s label folded, the Promise Ring never made another album, the Jealous Sound disappeared for nine years, Get Up Kids doubled down on the folk-emo and kept losing, and Jimmy Eat World got dropped by its label.
Fortunately, Owel has no such backstory or punk cred to forfeit, and its debut fully embraces the duality of arena-emo, theoretical makeout material, communal music for the loner. About half of it swells up to astounding, epic crescendos that sound unfathomable for a band at this level — I’m not sure if they’ve ever toured out of the tri-state area. The other half consists of slowly evolving buildups to those astounding epic crescendos — gentle, string-drenched ballads with poetically allusive, undergrad-serious titles such as “Death in the Snow,” “The Unforgiving Tide,” and “Burning House.” There are phrases from Clarity that have stuck as signifiers of pure emo — just watch the fireworks; for me this is heaven; can you still feel the butterflies. Owel lives and dies by those slogans and offers its own in response: “nothing’s ever meant for anything / but everything means so much to me now.”
Everything means so much to me now. It’d make a great follow-up to Nothing Feels Good, wouldn’t it? Call it a night after “Reborn” closes out Owel so you can go into work the next day and tolerate the watercooler talk about the latest “Blurred Lines” video parody. It’s OK. You’ll deal. You can still feel the butterflies.