In the marginalized world of the music industry there lives a record label that has survived and thrived by embracing a rather unique niche. Fearless Records, formed in 1994, was known primarily for signing a plethora of pop punk bands and releasing fast and furious punk compilations such as Fearless Flush Sampler and Punk Bites. Over time, the label branched out into other genres such as alternative and indie rock, post-hardcore. Its current bands include many bands that fall under the very loose definition and quite diverse sound of modern pop punk. In the past, Fearless has released albums by such diverse bands as At the Drive-In, Portugal. The Man, The Maine and Plain White T’s (the only one of its bands to ever release a number one song), among others. However, since the mid-2000s, a Fearless staple has been its eclectic Punk Goes… series, which features “punk” bands (both from the label and off of it) tackling covers of popular songs from wildly assorted genres.
The series began in the year 2000, and on November 17, Fearless will release its 16th installment (Punk Goes Pop 6, featuring a punked out version of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew Your Were Trouble” by We Came As Romans…seriously). Believe it or not, the majority of these releases have landed in the Billboard 200 chart. What began as a “What the hell?” sort of experimental, novelty release has surprisingly evolved into the flagship of the brand. Personally, I tend to look at these (roughly) yearly releases with a mixture of morbid curiosity, confusion and admiration. While these records are successful, none of them are uniformly good, but most of them have their moments. Some pairings of artist with unnatural genres result in what can only be described as corporate groupthink gone horribly wrong and are just as strange as they sound. (Can I interest anyone in a half-screamo rendition of “Call Me Maybe”? SO FUCKING CALL ME MAYBE RAHHHH.) Others, however, feature bands having fun embracing a different sensibility while tweaking the source material into something that is unmistakably their own (See Bayside’s charming cover of Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls”).
Judging by the numbers, pop punk fans appreciate these albums, which feature bands and artists stepping out of their usual lane, and yet, these same fans are either disinterested or mortified when one of their bands/artists try a different genre on for size for an entire album. As I’ve written before, this phenomenon isn’t new and it’s certainly understandable to a degree. I’ve been guilty of being turned off when an artist or band I liked produced something that didn’t conform to my expectations. It’s undoubtedly an obstacle in applying critical analysis, but it’s not an unconquerable one. Back in the spring, I wrote a piece that examined the void left when an established band of a certain genre vacates its previously earned territory and, furthermore, focused on a promising band that was conveniently filling in the pop punk gaps. This fall, I’m more interested in exploring the flipside of this equation by following the journeys of two different pop punk acts that recently strayed away from their punk roots, beginning with Yellowcard.
Yellowcard has been around in one incarnation or another since the mid-90s. They’ve had a winding, tumultuous, decade and a half-plus career that has had its share of high and lows. You could chop their career arc into numerous phases, and several of them would overlap in interesting ways. There is the rarely discussed pre-Ocean Avenue era, the even more seldom mentioned pre-Ryan Key era, the post-hiatus era and so on. Regardless, the band’s career as a well-known pop punk band began in earnest with the smash success of 2003’s Ocean Avenue. The ultra-catchy titular lead single became a commercial hit that was played endlessly both on the radio and on MTV (back when music videos on MTV were still a thing). The album itself was full of high-energy pop punk jams, uniquely violin-driven melodies, catchy choruses and teenage angst. It garnered favorable reviews and won a strong fan base; however, three years later, the band alienated many of them by returning in Lights and Sounds with a different sound and attitude. This version of Yellowcard was more alternative rock than pop punk, and the effusive, relatable hearts-on-their-sleeves emotion of Oceans Avenue was replaced by a newfound cynicism that the band had likened to growing up. It stems from disillusionment with the pressures that come with fame, their hatred of living in Los Angeles, romantic struggles and Key’s battles with drug and alcohol addiction. In 2014, it’s a fascinating record with numerous rousing anthems and an intriguing storyline, but it’s easy to see why it was so jarring when it was released. Though the band successfully split the difference with 2007’s Paper Walls, its promotion was stifled by a record label buy-out, which stunted the record’s sales and prompted the band to go on indefinite hiatus.
For all anyone knew, Yellowcard had reached its unfairly ignominious end. But, surprisingly, the band reformed in 2010 to record a comeback record, ushering in a new era for the band. Since the hiatus, Yellowcard’s been on a tear, releasing 2011’s sublimely-titled When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, 2012’s passionate and upbeat Southern Air, and an acoustic version of Ocean Avenue to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2013. Which, finally, brings us to this fall’s left turn, the somewhat divisive Lift a Sail. You can tell that this is going to be a very different Yellowcard album just by looking at the album cover. Whereas almost all of Yellowcard’s album covers feature images of the natural outdoors – ocean waves, eerie palm trees, trees outlining a neighborhood of paper houses, a night sky with the bright lights of the city in the distance, a bridge in a meadow leading to the light – Lift a Sail features a ship floating across a soft, light-colored dreamscape. Yellowcard’s previous album covers are all evocative of the band member’s lives as they have lived them; Lift a Sail looks like a mythic bedtime story. It’s not fully representative of the album – there are indeed pieces of the band’s personal life found all over Lift a Sail – but it does provide you with a sense of the scope that the band is aiming for here.
The trouble is it’s very difficult to discuss the album without noting the pain and turmoil that has been swirling around this band in recent years. The album opens with a stirring instrumental number called “Convocation,” courtesy of Yellowcard’s virtuoso violinist and founding member, Sean Macklin. It’s only two minutes long, and yet it manages to be slow and mournful, as well as soothing and hopeful at the same time. This is the first Yellowcard album to feature an all-instrumental opening track since the similarly rock-influenced Light and Sounds. Light and Sounds’ “Three Flights Up” suggests a loss of innocence, (which plays into the story of Holly, the main character of the album’s arc); “Convocation,” however, suggests a much more profound loss. Purposeful drum strikes at the end of the song sets a more hopeful mood for the next song, but a sense of loss, or potential loss, lingers. This is a band that recently parted ways with its drummer and founding member, Longineu “LP” Parsons, under what were presumably less than ideal circumstances; a band whose aforementioned violinist has been recovering from thyroid cancer since 2011; a band whose lead singer’s life was drastically changed when, after a day of recording, he checked his voicemail to learn that his wife had been seriously injured in a snowboarding accident and may never walk again.
Lift a Sail is about having the courage to find strength and resolve, which the band, ultimately, has in spades. It becomes explicit on the mid-tempo rocker “Transmission Home,” in which Key sings “I will send a transmission home/ to say that I’ve been out here too long alone”. The song is the first to feature the band’s radical new sound. It kicks off with the drums from “Convocation” bleeding into a massive guitar hook from Ryan Mendez. Although the track is largely dominated by Key’s heartfelt vocals, it’s also a good showcase of skills for new drummer Nate Young. “Crash The Gates” follows; it takes the huge scale and rock ‘n’ roll feel from “Transmission Home” and introduces an electronic beat. In its quietest moments, there are a few stray piano notes, making the subsequent thunderous chorus feel that much more grandiose. The only thing that feels even vaguely pop punk about it is Key’s reoccurring “whoa-oh-oh’s”. On this album, there are only two songs that could possibly fall under the blanket of pop punk, the first of which is “Make Me So”. Though before the album’ the band stated that “there will be no fast songs (although no shortage of energy), in the sequence of the album, “Make Me So” seems to push back on that a little bit. (That is, until you go back and re-visit “The Takedown” or “A Vicious Kind.” Then you can get a feel for how much this band has deliberately slowed down for this record.) It’s a desperation anthem of searching and frustration, which, given the circumstances, is more than understandable.
Yellowcard typically includes at least one heartfelt acoustic ballad per album. On When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, there is the beautiful and radio-friendly “Hang You Up”. On Southern Air, there is the quietly devastating “Ten”. The first song heard by many on this album was “One Bedroom,” a poppy ballad that set off some alarm bells for to how different it is compared to Yellowcard’s more rambunctious material. On first listen, it appears that “One Bedroom” will serve as the album’s standard tender love song. However, following the quiet refrain of the chorus, about two-thirds into it, the song takes an unexpected turn. Key comes back in louder than before: “I wanna love with you and live/ yeah/ live like here forever.” A dirty bass line and a Smashing Pumpkins-esque riff join in and suddenly it’s a 90s-tinged rock song. Then just as you adjust, it concludes with a minute-long guitar solo right out of an 80s power ballad. “Fragile and Dear” is even more jarring. It mixes atmospheric electronic textures with rock-influenced choruses and throws in the moody swoon of the violin, for good measure. Without the choruses, it could easily pass for a pretty solid indie pop tune. With them, it’s a little unwieldy, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless. It’s followed by “Illuminate,” a more straightforward rock song that features some of the album’s best and most positive lyrics. While Key never directly comments on his wife’s struggles throughout the record, it’s easy to see how they informed the song. From “Never lonely, never lost/ Never scared to jump across/ Revolutions come and go but we survive,” to “Do you picture me, what do you see?/ Maybe a future full of unwritten things /We hope to write from what’s been done/ Look for a future no one else has sung,” it’s all very touching.
The back half of the album is loaded with ballads and pseudo-ballads, with the exception of “The Deepest Well,” the aforementioned other song with punk rock overtones. Due in large part to the guest presence of Memphis May Fire vocalist, Matty Mullins, “The Deepest Well” is easily one of the most fun songs to sing along with on the album, especially because of where it’s placed. Preceding it is a dark, airy acoustic and violin number (“Madrid”) that is so lonely it’s hard to qualify it as a ballad, and following it is the bittersweet title track. “If a cold wind starts to rise/ I am ready now, I am ready now,” Key sings, With the last sail lifted high/ I am ready now, finally vocalizing the overall mission statement of the album. “MSK” would be the de facto acoustic ballad of the album, but instead it’s a guitar-less pop song with no pretenses of being anything else. The album closes with a Foo Fighters-esque rocker (“My Mountain”) about Key’s grandfather passing away and being reunited with his grandmother, as well as his aunt (who died of brain cancer in 2012 and was the subject of When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes’ “Sing for Me”), and a piano ballad (“California”).
The different musical elements that Yellowcard introduces in Lift a Sail won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, but the fact they experimented this much at this stage in their career is impressive. What’s really amazing about this album and this band, though, is its overall optimism. This was a band that went from thriving off of teenage and adult angst to trafficking in hope and positivity. How it has responded to turmoil and loss in recent years is a far better indicator of the band’s maturation than the cynicism of the Lights and Sounds era. And though there might not be much punk left in it at the moment, it’s still very much the band that so many fell in love with over a decade ago. They’ve just evolved.
Stay tuned for Part 2…
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He’s currently writes about television for Voice of TV, 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. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices,The College Fix, and The Wine and Cheese Crowd, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.