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Yellowcard – Paper Walls

Stamp this one a 5-star effort because Paper Walls is the best the genre has seen in a very long time.

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Unlike the seemingly colorless scheme of Lights & Sounds, Yellowcard’s Paper Walls explodes from the get-go with the kind of energy and zeal that was all but lacking in its predecessor. Both Ocean Avenue and One For the Kids prompted greater things for the band- and it was because they sang and wrote songs about what they knew- love, heartbreak, growing up and moving out to find the better life. Perhaps it was just a matter of losing touch because Lights & Sounds, with all its fireworks and fancy concepts, could not muster the kind of shine they discovered in moving from the Jacksonville streets to the bright lights of Hollywood, sputtering rather, to a pretty lethargic conclusion. It is in glaring contrast to what they’ve done with Paper Walls however, as their latest effort is more than just a return to form, it’s a calling out to all the pop-punk naysayers who deem the genre too restrictive to be anything with both depth and mass appeal.

The band’s rejuvenation is clear from the start, as “The Takedown” and “Fighting” are some of the best up-tempo, melodically-charged songs Yellowcard have ever written; finding the balance between full-on guitar shredding (see rather bitchin’ solo on “The Takedown”) and the more accessible choral arrangements. Some of this newfound vitality should be attributed to the full arrival of ex-Staring Back member Ryan Mendez, who gets his first chance to contribute in-studio. The guy can flat-out play, and much of the guitar structures and songwriting is as effective as it is because of his collaboration with longtime songwriter and vocalist Ryan Key.

While Yellowcard are full-steam ahead on these faster paced numbers, they’ve always had a fondness for the mid-tempo ballad, the guitar-strewn acoustics and the melty, spring time affair- plenty of which, make up the better moments of Paper Walls. In “Keeper,” Key laments the all too real catastrophe that is love and romance; “I wanna love / I wanna leave / I want you to love me / I want you to leave me,” while the band string him along with similarly simple, melodic grace. The first single, “Light Up the Sky,” is the album’s centerpiece, a seemingly gentle ode to what Paper Walls is all about- cemented by radio-friendly choruses and an easy-to-repeat cadence of “Let me light up the sky / Light it up for you / Let me tell you why / I would die for you / Let me light up the sky.”

Yet unlike their more accessible numbers, the album’s two best songs are perhaps the most personal. In “Shadows and Regrets,” the acoustic-driven introduction is a precursor to the song’s tribute to youth and self-discovery, playing out to the backdrop of Sean Mackin’s melancholy sounding orchestral touches. The song’s mood is in contrast to “Dear Bobbie,” a song so sickly-sweet, even the most rigid of hearts will surely break. It’s deft acoustics and reflective nature, written for an elderly couple long in love and looking back at their lives, is reminiscent to One For the Kids standout, “Cigarette.” The song is an example of the band’s songwriting chops; that beneath the theatrics of high-energy riffs, trashing drums, and the radio ballad, Yellowcard can write the great tune.

However, some will find fault in the album’s high emotional outpouring- almost on high all the time, from its most personal in “Five Becomes Four” (a song that screams the parting shot at former member Ben Harper), to the aforementioned “Dear Bobbie” or the many love-themed tunes, as it can be criticized for being rather one-dimensional topically. Yet one needs only to listen to the over ambition of Lights & Sounds to realize that maybe Yellowcard are just doing what they do best, what they know. And it’s hard not to like something so good.

Stamp this one a 5-star effort because Paper Walls is the best the genre has seen in a very long time.

(Capitol Records)

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Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth

Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype

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Pretty Vicious

The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.

Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.

There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.

You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.

It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.

(Big Machine / John Varvatos Records)

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Sum 41 – Order In Decline

Long gone are the days of All Killer, No Filler

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Canadian pop-punkers Sum 41 have been remarkably consistent over the course of their last few albums. And while we have never stopped calling Sum 41 a pop-punk band, their last few albums have been less about being fun and bouncy, opting instead for a far more serious flavor of rock music. Long gone are the days of All Killer, No Filler, replaced instead with songs that do their best to mimic Muse’s big stadium anthem feel while not forgetting their penchant for metal licks and hefty solos. Truth is, it’s quite a shame because when Sum 41 were more about being fun and silly, their songs had this incredible likeability to them. Forget All Killer, No Filler, they were at their most fun with their often silly 2000 debut Half Hour of Power.

So what to expect with Order In Decline, their 7th full length? Well, if you like easy-to-digest pop-punk anthems, you best look elsewhere as much of the album spends way too much time taking itself too seriously. Not that the results are bad; songs like “A Death in The Family” and “Out For Blood” do the faux-hardcore/melodic punk thing really well. The chugga chugga riffs, toe-tapping melodies, and Deryck Whibley’s snotty vocals continue the band’s well-refined sound. Opener “Turning Away” doesn’t shy from being a little metal, a little rock, a little punk, and sets the high energy tone for the album. The return of Dave Brownsound for 2016’s 13 Voices has solidified the album’s two-pronged guitar attack, and Order In Decline’s production helps on that front- it’s a loud album, it just doesn’t seem to say a whole lot at times. “45 (A Matter of Time)” is the band’s anti-Trump song, and while it tries to provoke, sounds loud, its cheesy protests of “You’re something to few / But nothing to me / Someone so twisted and sick as can be / It wasn’t the plan / We gave it a shot / You’ve proven a real man is something you’re not” won’t exactly inspire a raging fire within the listener. I suppose if you’re turning to Sum 41 to change the course of the future, we’re all in trouble.

Sum 41 love their ballads too- and Order In Decline’s lighter in the air moment (phones in the air for you kids) is the piano-strewn ballad “Never There”. It’s OK, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of effective balladry they showed with “With Me”. The album’s best moment is the blitzing “The People Vs…” which trades the stadium rock for more melodic hardcore/thrash that a little akin to some of the goofy stuff they did on Half Hour. The meaty riffs, a great solo and the soaring chorus pumps much needed old Sum into Order In Decline, and it’s only a shame there isn’t more of it on the record.

As the album closes with the radio-ready “Catching Fire”, listeners are left with one of these two thoughts. For those who enjoy Sum 41 when they’re trying to be the best big band they can be, there is plenty to like on Order in Decline. They’ve found a consistent, polished, and well-produced sound they first hinted on with 2002’s Does This Look Infected?. For those who found their juvenile, snotty attitude on Half Hour of Power and All Killer to be the quality they most enjoyed will respond to Order in Decline with indifference. At least I don’t hate it.

(Hopeless Records)

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