Pop Punk is Dead
It’s always weird when modern bands do anniversary tours for fairly recently released albums. It’s like the decision is supposed to indicate that whatever album they put out just a short while ago has, in some way, prematurely reached its destined status as underground contemporary classic like Lonesome Crowded West or something. Bands occupying the nebulous intersection of subgenres like alternative rock, indie and post-hardcore punk are really into doing this. Taking Back Sunday took a victory lap for Tell All Your Friends a few years ago. Circa Survive is about to embark on a rather lengthy Juturna anniversary tour. Minus The Bear did it with Highly Refined Pirates in 2011 and is doing it again this year for Menos El Oso. It’s like our favorite groups are trying to make us feels old, marking how many years have passed since the days of shining adolescent innocence when we first popped in our favorite records in order to convince us to buy concert tickets and merch and stave off the inevitable midlife crisis.
Anyway, Motion City Soundtrack just rolled into the station after a ten year anniversary go-round for Commit This to Memory, which is an album I didn’t even know people liked, let alone enough people liked enough to warrant a whole self-congratulatory tour. The Minnesota group has always walked the not-so-fine line between Blink-182 (whose Mark Hoppus would later act as producer for the band) and Elvis Costello, and maybe of pinch of The Descendents if you feel like giving them the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately for MCS, they might have saddled up for one Warped Tour too many and gotten lumped in with other catchy emo aesthetic-tinged pop punk like Fall Out Boy and New Found Glory. Even in their turn-of-the-century heyday they were ultimately outshined on two fronts: either by the popular resurgence of their established predecessors like Weezer, or by the chops and structural ambition of more post-hardcore leaning emo groups like Coheed and Cambria. But this time, insists lead singer and guitarist Justin Pierre, things will be different. On Minnesota radio show The Current, Pierre says of previous efforts that “…we started overthinking everything slowly over time,” and that the group’s newest record, Panic Stations “was about trying to forget everything we’d learned and going back to the fresh, new feeling.”
Wait, really? That was the problem with Motion City Soundtrack’s last two records? That they were overthought? Opening track “Anything At All” certainly can’t be accused of that error. It starts out like every preceding Motion City Soundtrack album has started out: with four chords and a blazing snare fill. Truth be told, their sound hasn’t evolved terribly much since their debut, built on a bedrock of adorable palm-muting over sunny power-pop vocals and occasional Moog synthesizer thrown in for the sake of the occasional hook. With the recent loss of drummer Tony Thaxton, Motion City’s secret weapon ever since he pulled out a 6/4 time signature in “When You’re Around,” the rhythm section sounds louder and more caveman-ish – like everything being indiscriminately bashed behind all the pop punk. “TKO” wastes no time, bursting in with keyboard blurts while “Lose Control” skitters along with synth drums that give way to a mid-paced storm of washed-out guitars, crash cymbals and “Whoa-ohs” ostensibly meant to rhyme with the world “Control”.
Panic Stations has no shortage of the group’s trademark sensitive but playful lyrics (See: “All this time I’ve wasted waiting for the world to end,” “Long live the echoes of my despair, dissolving into nothing” and “You won’t see me around / Go bury the knife in someone else” from “I Can Feel You,” “Heavy Boots” and “Over It Now,” respectively). But the repetition of the cheery chugging and accompanying four-measure keyboard melody starts to feel like the band is just shuffling set pieces around from song to song. I agree with Pierre in that not every album has to be Dark Side of The Moon, but you need some variety. Not everything needs to be over thought, but some things need to be, you know, thought. Furthermore, “The Samurai Code” is not nearly as bad ass and stoic as the song title suggests. It’s the track in which the keyboards finally stage a revolt, stop lurking in the shadows around the hooky choruses and overtake the guitars during the verse.
Closer “Days Will Run Away” is by far the high water mark of Panic Stations, not least of all because it’s the only track that has any dynamic range to speak of. It’s one of those slow burning punk dirges with a giant climax that anyone who’s ever listened to rock music will be able to see coming a million miles away, but it’s still a refreshing break from Motion City Soundtrack’s monotonous pop punk format.