What’s My Rage, Again?
Holy Ghost is Modern Baseball’s third full-length release in a row to feature a small child on its front cover, which is totally not weird at all. In fact, the choice fits the Philly group’s youthful vigor, as well as the earnestness that we all know fuels the engine of their ever-divisive sub genre: pop punk.
But even in cases of legends of the art, like Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and Blink-182, it’s always a bit more ‘pop’ than ‘punk’ isn’t it? That fact has never been truer or more apparent than on Modern Baseball’s latest release. De facto opener “Wedding Singer” captures pop punk at a glance, serving as a barometer for the melodrama to come. It’s all there: palm muted power chords, verbose, sappy lyrics about ‘getting out of this town’ sung barely post-pubescent chirp and that twangy bass guitar tone that the kids seem to love so much. The gang even takes it a step further this time around, throwing in some organ sounds over their clean arpeggios.
Sadly, the album is something of a uniform (but mostly catchy) slog. As is the case with most second tier pop punkers a la Motion City Soundtrack and The Wonder Years, there are exactly one handful of interesting – if fleeting – moments. The dissonance of the thick, bleary chords on “Note to Self” reeks of the ever-influential and smelly-looking J. Mascis, but it’s gone in a flash and right back into that ubiquitous, trebly pop punk bass line and light chugging. Though a brooder that never quite lifts off, “Everyday” has got some rawness to it – Modern Baseball channel their creepy uncle Mission of Burma with jagged minor chords as well as R.E.M., (surely their disappointed father figure) with delicate single-note flourishes. There’s even a touch of ironic meta humor that pop punk loves so much and milks so mercilessly: In the middle of “Mass,” one of those intensely personal and romantic pop rants about everything from listening to records and making coffee together to cross-country tours, singer Brendan Lukens pauses to ask himself and his audience “Who pays to keep these things cliché?” Sure, in context he might have been talking about a Valero gas station bathroom or some thing, but the line’s timing and emphasis still feels very much like a cheeky, fourth wall-breaking glance to the camera. Aside from the titillating couplet, “My baby’s in Massachusetts and all this booze is useless,” that’s about as smart as their lyrics get, even when you give them a very severe benefit of the doubt. In that sense, Modern Baseball sort of bungles the one thing pop punk has going for itself.
It needs to be said that there’s been nothing new added to this formula since the Replacements did it in 1986. Pop punk wouldn’t be so derided amongst actual music fans if it had some variety. It’s always the same clean arpeggios, the same sugary, anthemic refrains with the same mundane, suburban imagery, the same chords under the same gang vocals that always call out the same, like, six New England cities over and over to bring it all close to home for their teenage cult members. At least Modern Baseball got the short song length aspect of punk rock down pat – less than half of them break three minutes.
So how did we get here? Who’s fault is this? Who do we blame? Travis Barker? Michael Stipe? Johnny Ramone? Marc Bolan? How far do we have to go back to pinpoint the moment we introduced the pop punk contagion? More importantly, why do kids still feel compelled to contribute to this ever-expanding phylum of weak, spineless rock music? Surely, pound-for-pound, the genre of pop punk rivals nu meal for for ratio of good music to unlistenable nonsense. Don’t shoot the messenger, it’s just science. Even though MB insist in the finale of Holy Ghost that they’re “Not just another face, not just another name,” through one of their trademarked gang vocal choruses, they do absolutely nothing to distinguish themselves from any other band that’s ever loved The Dickies. Modern Baseball is another drop in the increasingly garbage-choked ocean that is called ‘pop punk’. Who pays to keep these things cliché, Brendan? We do. Music fans. It was us the whole time, like Planet of the Fucking Apes. You maniacs! You blew it up! Oh, damn you!