Weekly 40-Watt #2: The Front Bottoms

Weekly 40-Watt is a feature where I listen to an album or band, new or old, for the first time and jot down some notes on it.

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This week’s 40-Watt blog is not strictly about a band that I’m listening to for the first time, like last week’s was, but it’s a band that I’m visiting for the first time in a long while.

I originally heard The Front Bottoms back in summer 2010, when I reviewed their debut EP, Slow Dance to Soft Rock, for AbsolutePunk.net. They were an unsigned band and I wrote about them like they were an unsigned band. Back then, I called the EP an “eager and honest brand of indie rock/punk” and praised “The Beers” as a highlight. In retrospect, that song is certainly still my favorite song that uses the word “steroids” in a chorus — no doubt.

The way I closed that review? “Hopefully this band can muster up enough attention one day to embark on a proper tour, and maybe even work their way into a long-lasting career; it would be a shame to see this type of clever songwriting go unnoticed by the masses.”

It would have been nice to have been a little more prophetic back then and count it as a rare win in the column of predicting future stardom. But I wasn’t sure how far the shtick would carry, and even a year later when I reviewed their first full-length, I was still pretty timid: “The Front Bottoms may have doubled the length of their catalog with this release, but their significance as they make more noise away from the confines of Bergen County is growing exponentially.”

For whatever reason, I never continued to keep up with The Front Bottoms after this. But needless to say, the band blew the heck up — they released an LP in 2013, then signed to Fueled By Ramen and released two more full-lengths in 2015 and 2017. That 2015 release, Back on Top, peaked at #32 on the Billboard 200 and the 2017 release, Going Grey, didn’t get quite as high but in the era of streaming plus sales it’s hard to say what that really means. It appears from a distance as though this band is as popular as they’ve ever been, if not currently right around their height.

This revisitation of The Front Bottoms is prompted by seeing them play with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine at The Stuffing in Atlanta late last year. The “eager and honest brand of indie rock/punk” is some true shit to see on stage. They were a duo when I reviewed that EP way back when, but seeing TFB play in 2018 involved a total of up to 16 people on stage at once. Granted, they weren’t all playing interests — a handful of them were sitting at a makeshift bar on stage, sitting around drinking beers while the band performed.

The few old songs I knew, along with the newer ones I’d heard at least a few times, made their set extremely fun to sing along to in spots, and I came home to give Talon of the Hawk, Back on Top and Going Grey proper listens. While all of these albums are quality, I’m choosing to focus on Going Grey, which I think I like most of them all.

The album makes clever use of synthesizers, and the more poppy leaning provided by the instrumentation feels like a really natural backdrop for Brian Sella’s vocals. Sella isn’t necessarily a traditionally great singer — he’s got the type of voice that any listeners feels like they can at least aspire toward. He’s a “maybe I can sound that good on a really good day” level singer. I think it comes across like this somewhat purposely, due to a practiced casual delivery that at times teeters toward a spoken-word style of singing.

A good example of that comes across in the chorus of “You Used to Say (Holy Fuck),” a song that balances its bouncing, boppy, synthy portions with an extended guitar bridge-outro and playfully catchy refrain. There are several moments on the album where the songwriting completely catches me off-guard, even after listening to this quite extensively over the last few months. Not many ways to put it other than saying that it’s truly expert, creative songwriting — well-built songs that can be repeated without an expiration date.

The first four tracks here are all highlights, but I want to skip down to the fourth track, “Vacation Town.” One of this band’s hallmarks — and this was evident even from that initial six-song EP in 2010 — is the ridiculously high hit rate of one-liners that pile on top of each other, melding into a mosh pit of craveable lyricism. I found myself longing to listen to this track, as well as “West Virginia,” “Motorcycle” and “Help” from Back on Top, even just shortly after hearing the songs. It’s not just that it attaches itself to a fold in your brain, but it then delivers something when you listen that is hard to find in a lot of indie-pop or pop-rock or whatever this is these days. For a relatively simple, defined sound, this band rewards you over time and it’s only ever even better when they do it live.

Back to “Vacation Town” — my favorite song on the album. From the very first line of the track (“I want to be that comfortable place where you write and read, watch TV, or deeply breathe”), there’s a sense of familiarity even on first listen. Like poppy comfort food, like a favorite dessert that’s not too sweet. This loops into a driving chorus that ends with a horn backbone:

I miss the hours in the morning
And you in the morning hours
I miss walking, naked
Through the backyard to get to the outdoor shower
I miss the way things used to be
I miss the way things used to be
It's okay, no one's around
I'm off-season vacation town

Here’s your thesis statement: The Front Bottoms write songs that make me feel nostalgic for something I wasn’t present for. It’s aspirational nostalgia. This is a song that speaks to a moment in my life I never experienced, but it was a favorite moment of my life. It’s okay that the moment can’t be pinned down, and perhaps it’s even better, because this means the feeling can, ideally, live forever in repeated listens. Many bands wish they could turn a phrase as successfully as The Front Bottoms manage with apparently casual ease, almost an indifferent disinterest.

Later in the same track, in a near-spoken-word delivery: “I could only express my love when I'm fucked up or far, far away / Physically, another continent / Emotionally, another headspace / Mentally, I'm not even here.” Certainly a lyric I could have related to much harder a few years ago in life, but I can so clearly remember myself during that time that the sentiment still hits home resoundingly. This song holds a truly uncommon force over me, and I freaked the hell out the first few times I heard it.

There are other strong tracks here, with “Trampoline” and “Raining” and “Don’t Fill Up On Chips” sticking out, but one thing I’ve realized during the course of listening to this album and the rest of The Front Bottoms’ work is that they’re a bit of a “greatest hits” band. I don’t mean this in a negative way; Going Grey is good, if a bit front-loaded, and the other LPs I mentioned are also deserving of full listens. But when this band really hits their mark, they hit it with irregularly impactful accuracy, like not just a slam dunk but a backboard-smashing one. There are maybe three to four of those types of songs on each album, which is an incredible feat by any measurements, so I’ve taken to listening to a playlist of my favorites on shuffle as opposed to my more regular process of listening to albums all the way through with them.