A friend of mine recently asked me for a recommendation on an up-and-coming pop-punk-ish band for her to check out. There are no shortage of pop-punk-ish bands, duh, but this came with a specific context. Being 26 years old now -- and my friend is slightly older -- finding a band in that genre that also keeps pace with your interests / hopes / desires / worries / general mindset becomes a fair challenge.
I'm a Modern Baseball fan, but their first two albums struck me at a specific angle. Their appeal was rooted more in the past than the present, and I viewed the band in a semi-nostalgic light even at first listen. The first time I saw Modern Baseball play, at Run For Cover's CMJ showcase a few years back, they were laughing on stage at how bonkers the crowd was going as they played "The Weekend." That moment is a bit frozen in time to me; I saw a band that seemed genuinely curious about what the heck was going on. Why do so many people know these words? Do all of these people own our album? Wait, where are we? Etc, etc.
I couldn't get into Sports, Modern Baseball's self-produced debut, before that show. Sports is a bunch of pretty decent songs presented in a wholly underwhelming setting; simple songwriting performed by a few guys who were okay at their instruments, singing about high school stories, Twitter, hometowns, other standard pop-punk / indie-rock / emo fare. "The Weekend" sounded so much better at a CMJ showcase than it did on Sports that it presented the album in a new context, made me listen to it in a different way. That album still doesn't sound great, but it makes me feel a thing or two about a thing or two. Songs like "Re-Done" have aged surprisingly well.
Most of those things or twos are, again, rooted in the past; even MoBo's follow-up, the more-celebrated and much-improved You're Gonna Miss It All, operated in neighborhoods of nostalgia while showing development in its songwriting and musicianship. Being 24ish and listening to "Your Graduation" definitely didn't make me feel old, but it was something around that general idea. Only two and a half years removed from college graduation at the time, looking back on a semi-adult life event with the perspective of "those were good (and different) times" was somewhat fresh, and plenty rejuvenating in an unexpected way, like the first time you have déjà vu or a fond memory of a fun time in a city you only recently moved to. When I reviewed You're Gonna Miss It All for AbsolutePunk, I called it an "essential album in 2014" while not totally letting the band off any hooks:
Eventually, we will require Modern Baseball to "grow up" lyrically, but that day is not now. Maybe on LP3 we'll want something that we can chew on longer. Maybe Modern Baseball will give that to us, and maybe they won't, but this band of Drexel University students does not have to answer a greater calling right at this moment. Their legacy can be judged on another day.
I don't think today, just a week and change following the release of their third album, Holy Ghost, is the day to judge Modern Baseball's legacy. But when I wrote that, I was not-so-secretly hoping to see this band take a big step forward with LP3. Following pop-punk as a slightly-older-than-average member of its target demographic can make your legs tired from walking in circles. New and exciting bands come around often enough, but so many of their trajectories fall flat as groups recycle cliché themes or, more bluntly, write the same albums over and over. You get into a band only to become uninterested as their third album retreads the same ground they walked on four years earlier. It shouldn't be any surprise that it's hard for a 28-year-old to latch onto the same ideas and emotional connections they were preoccupied by at 18.
The acts that do manage to grow and adapt alongside their concurrently-aging fanbases are more interesting, harder to come by and ultimately vital. The Wonder Years have done this well, approaching each new release with a large, blunt instrument in the form of Dan Campbell's increasingly external worldview, which pairs nicely with ever-internal monologues and reflections. Modern Baseball still leans toward introspection on Holy Ghost, but does so in a way that feels a far cry from the jokiness found on their discography-to-date. In fact, Holy Ghost's most sonically uplifting tracks ("Wedding Singer," "Mass," "Apple Cider I Don't Mind") prove to be some of its most emotionally naked and heavy. MoBo is growing, adapting, not the same as they were, that's cool, whatever; it's a good trip and my legs aren't tired.
The narrative surrounding Holy Ghost has been told enough times that I don't need to rehash it too much: The album's split into a Side A, where Jake Ewald pens prose about the death of his grandfather, relationships, religion and self-purpose, and a Side B, where Brendan Lukens wields a wild chainsaw and calmly shreds it over notes on his time spent in rehab for depression and bipolar disorder following a near attempt at suicide. It would be an understatement to say Modern Baseball has taken the next step in its career; it's more like they started climbing the stairs two or three steps at a time and are currently a few flights above where we probably thought they'd be by now. They haven't reached the top of the staircase, and that's exciting to think about, but it's equally exciting to live in this band's moment -- a buzzy, electric moment riddled with flashes of spine-tingling songwriting on a memorable new LP.
This A/B setup works surprisingly well. Lukens and Ewald don't sound super similar, and their songs are dynamically theirs, but Holy Ghost is an undoubtedly cohesive unit, right down to the portion of "Coding These To Lukens" where Ewald passes the baton to Lukens. The front half of the album holds the best work Ewald's done on a MoBo release; his side is littered with highlights, none more impressive to me than the swooning "Hiding," with its electronic drums. But it's hard to overlook a heavy-hitter like "Wedding Singer," the thoughtfulness of the opening title track, the straight rockingness of "Mass," which I believe will be a fan favorite, and especially "Note To Self," where we see him get fed up with the day-to-day grind: "Drunk and worthless, spewing bullshit all across the stage / Wake up and we find new hiding places, trying desperately to escape the glare from our stupid, spineless words / Just whining, every fucking day / What do I really want to say?" He screams the last words in that verse, providing one of the album's most intense emotional climaxes. Ewald could have a long, potentially Kevin Devine-esque career waiting for him as a singer-songwriter bandleader even after MoBo closes shop if he wants it.
Lukens' side is a bit more straightforwardly punk, the songs faster and topped with barbed wire, for security purposes. "Breathing In Stereo" is over almost before it starts, but we get the beginnings of his reflections on his depression and alcoholism: "Hopeless, I’m fading / It’s the same damn thing every night." By the time his side ends, with the stormy "Just Another Face," things are a bit darker ("I'm a waste of time and space") but also considerably more optimistic, purposefully driven and forward-looking as Lukens sings messages relayed to him by friends and family: "If it's all the same, it's time to confront this face to face / I'll be with you the whole way / It'll take time, that's fact / I'm not just another face, I'm not just another name / Even if you can't see it now, we're proud of what's to come, and you." It's a triumphant ending to the record, and the growth Lukens displays in that song as a human is a microcosm of the growth MoBo shows on the album.
More than anything else, my takeaway from Holy Ghost is that Modern Baseball has the potential to be that next band. The band that I want to take with me for a while, the band that could write the next album that sticks to my ribs, the band that could begin to walk with me, stride by stride, as The Wonder Years have successfully done for the last six years. As I said, bands like this are vital, necessary and rare in this genre. It'll take continued progression from MoBo for them to cement themselves as that band, but Holy Ghost is a more-than-encouraging sign that they have this potential. And, you know, I'll be with them the whole way.
You can pick up Modern Baseball's Holy Ghost via Run For Cover Records' Bandcamp for only $5 right now. The vinyl is available via RFC as well, and via Amazon if you prefer that. You can stream it via the above Bandcamp embed as well as on Apple Music, and elsewhere. If you want more background on Holy Ghost and its story, the band released a great documentary about the album process; there are also great pieces on FADER, The New York Times (!), and Fuse; finally, Steven Hyden's episode of Celebration Rock with the band is awesome as well.