Filling the Pop Punk Gaps: Modern Baseball

Modern Baseball

In 2014, pop culture is as personal as ever. There are more ways than ever to access it, analyze it, converse about it and, most importantly, latch onto it. You can experience Coachella from your couch, if you have an Internet connection and an HDMI cable. You can binge-watch television series after television series at your convenience. You can go see a movie, get on your phone and find 100 different opinions about it before you reach the theater parking lot.

You can freely obsess over Sunday night television shows with the scrutiny and intensity of live sporting events, simply because you know that other people are doing it too. You’ll always have someone to discuss it with, because people have become incredibly passionate about these things. In fact, it’s become so personal that we feel betrayed when something goes off the script in our heads. A popular TV show deviates from its revered source material and sparks a week of think pieces. An actor is cast as the star of the next installment in a blockbuster superhero franchise and Twitter goes nuts, because he wasn’t whom the masses pictured in the role. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the grand scheme of pop culture. But this is the way it’s always been in the music world.

Music has long been the most personal medium. In your formative years, the kind of music that you like is a mark of identity. You personally identity yourself as, say, a Beatles fanatic, a Deadhead, an emo kid, a Dave Matthews Band kind of guy, a punk rocker, or what have you. That’s your thing, and you’re not listening to the same old crap as everybody else (whatever you perceive that crap to be). In your mind, you’re inextricably linked to your band (or artist or rapper or whatever), and nothing can change that. Unless, of course, your band goes off the script and makes something different, something that’s not for you. In that case, you’re beside yourself. “Sell outs!” you might cry out. You’re personally offended because you have ownership. It’s not just a band whose music you like; that’s your band.

Now, I might have characterized this as something that happens when you’re young, but the truth is that this is a rut music fans of all ages can fall into from time to time. A blistering blues-rock duo decides to take a trip into 60’s and 70’s psychedelia. A hop-hop megastar takes a break from good vibe, party music to make an abrasive industrial album, full of bangers of a different kind entirely. Some fresh-faced British indie rockers go off into the desert, embrace stoner rock and make something dark and weird. And, most recently, a beloved punk band eschews guitars and goes full orchestra. These kinds of moves aren’t going to rub everyone the right way. But these things happen. So, before you switch on Internet Outrage Mode, it’s important to remember a few things. First and foremost: These people don’t owe you anything. As artists, they’re free to grow, adapt and try new things, just as you are in your own life. This is their first album in a few years. Can you honestly say that you’re in the same place as you were a few years ago? It’s absurd to expect the same of them.

However, if you’re not happy with their new material, that’s completely your prerogative, but if you feel upset – nay, betrayed – simply because it doesn’t sound the same as the old stuff, then you’re being unreasonable.

Understand? Great, now it’s time for the silver lining that we so easily tend to overlook: Whenever a band abandons the sound that you so fervently love, there’s always another one waiting in the wings to take it over and make it their own. So, say (as previously mentioned) your favorite pop punk band grows up, starts worrying about babies, stops playing guitars and throws themselves into grandiose orchestra arrangements, what do you do? Don’t fret; enter Modern Baseball.

You're Gonna Miss It All

Modern Baseball released their second album, You’re Gonna Miss It All, a couple of months ago, and it’s been just begging for you to discover it on Spotify ever since. It’s composed of 12 breezy tracks, the majority of which are enjoyable pop punk jams. It hits all of the familiar beats of the genre and, more significantly, all of the beats of a certain age. Modern Baseball is a young band – lead singer and guitarist Brendan Lukens finished his sophomore year at Drexel not very long ago, and all four members are in their early to mid-twenties – so it makes sense that their songs are about young people problems. In You’re Gonna Miss It All, Modern Baseball effectively encapsulates what it’s like to be at that point in your life, just as so many other bands that came before them have done, but they do so with their own style and sensibility.

You could call these guys a lot of different things. Smart, witty, quirky, paranoid, self-obsessed, contradictory – all of these terms apply. But you probably wouldn’t characterize them as particularly “cool,” because most of their songs are about being and feeling like the opposite of that. When you’re a 20-something, feeling like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing with your life, it’s easy to feel like a loser. Losing isn’t necessarily enticing, but it’s definitely more relatable than being cool. Being cool has its perks, but it’s insular and elitist by nature; it’s a fancy club with a guest list that more people than not are going to be left off of, on purpose. You’re Gonna Miss It All is like an open door into the familiar world of the babyfaced Lukens and fellow songwriter, guitarist and co-vocalist Jake Ewald; a world of crummy apartments, premature nostalgia, on-again, off-again relationships, boredom, unnecessary drinking binges, and a whirlwind of emotions.

The album opens with “Fine, Great,” in which Lukens sings “All I want to do is worry about everyone but me,” and then spends the rest of the song – and album, for that matter – worrying about himself. Clocking in at 2:28, it’s a brisk, mid-tempo introduction to these guys’ mindset. It’s essentially an exercise in trying to hide feelings that he so clearly has and wants to lament about, at length. The opening riff of the second track, “Broken Cash Machine,” is slightly reminiscent of Blink-182’s “Stay Together for the Kids,” but once it gets going, with it’s twinkling duo guitar attack and driving bassline, it recalls Motion City Soundtrack. It’s about being home alone on a boring Friday night, while your mind drifts to unpleasant subjects. It perfectly underscores how easily boredom can lead to regret. Ewald goes from “Praying something cool might happen/ the sun explodes, we die/ the world ends” to “Oh, why did I do that?/why does everything collapse?/ even when it’s glued together” in about 15 seconds.

(This is an acoustic version, but it’s still pretty charming.)

“Apartment” is the epitome of the mini-drama of the loser everyman (or everywoman). The thing that makes this song and most other Modern Baseball songs so endearing is how they have fun playing up the heightened emotions of minor life events in the way that emo music does, and then balances it out with self-deprecating humor. Here, our Lukens-Ewald hybrid character meets a girl who’s apparently way out of his league. (Where? At her apartment, of course.) He imagines the whole fantasy life he’d have with her before he ever utters a word to her. But he goes on, finding excuses to be around her while he musters up the courage to ask her out. The song builds up to the moment of truth, and all he manages is “I was wondering if you wanted to hang out tonight? We could get dinner or something.”

Lukens and Ewald are very clever lyricists. Their wordplay is often delightful and humorous, but they also make a few attempts at deeper metaphors. In “The Old Gospel Choir,” they do a little bit of both. Beginning with a few slow and sad notes, light drumming and the mention of “a tombstone in the brush”, the song evokes mourning before revealing itself to actually be about the passing of a relationship, not a person. It also features one of the album’s best, most self-deprecating lines: “Sharp as a tack, but in the sense that you’re not smart, just a prick”. Halfway through the album, Modern Baseball shows their range with the folk rock-tinged “Notes”. They then pick up the pace with a slightly generic, but anthemic, two-minute long fist-pumper called “Charlie Black”. It’s all “whoa, whoa” defiance in the face of a break-up. Although it’s not the best song of the album, it serves its purpose, because the next song, “Timmy Bowers”, shows that it’s all an act. “Wait a minute/ cause I’ve been living/ more like a fucking king without you” on the upbeat “Charlie Black” becomes “Wait a minute/ cause I’ve been living / more like a piece of shit without you” on the regret-filled, intentionally repetitive and distant “Timmy Bowers”.

The last four songs of You’re Gonna Miss It All make up the album’s best stretch. “Going to Bed Now” brings back the folk rock/cowpunk feel, as Lukens and Ewald sarcastically bemoan their self-absorbed, self-entitled peers, and then admit they’re “in the same boat”. “Two Good Things” is the best “need to get my shit together” song of the album, and gets at the maddening feeling that comes with not knowing how to go about it. Sandwiched between the two is the album’s lead single and best song, “Your Graduation”. It begins with Lukens obsessing over a girl from the past and growing increasingly frustrated with their never-ending saga until, finally, he’s completely fed up. Lukens’ sad-sounding monotone of the chorus suddenly gives way to an angry outburst by an unfamiliar voice. It’s the very punk rock voice of drummer Sean Harbor for the first and only time on the album. He has a hard edge that the softer-voiced Lukens and Ewald lack, and it gives the song a vital jolt. Regret turns to anger, and anger turns to moving on in less than three minutes.

The album ends on a gentler note, with a very pretty acoustic song called “Pothole,” which is sung by Ewald. It completes a diverse and very strong sophomore album from a band with a lot of potential. It’s not Say Anything, but it’s in the spirit and has the feel of the music that bands of that generation used to make. There’s always going to be ambitious, young bands to follow in your favorites’ footsteps. It’s just a matter of if you’re willing to open your mind and embrace them.

MB live

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

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