Review: The Wonder Years – Burst & Decay

For many people, myself included, it is hard to buck the idea that The Wonder Years are a positive band. After the release of The Upsides, there is always that part of me that will juxtapose anything they release with the immortal line of “I’m not sad anymore”. Even as the band has matured and their music drifted away from youthful optimism, I still see them as one of the most earnest bands out there. But their songs always felt grounded in the stories each album told. Burst & Decay, the band’s new acoustic EP, is an exercise in reinvigorating their material so much so that it’s hard not to see those same optimistic boys that set the scene aflame with positivity.

You can buy Burst & Decay on iTunes.

Burst & Decay is a delicate interpretation of songs throughout their catalog. Tempo changes, keyboards, and crooning vocals are the most prominent changes from the original punk rock. However, that is enough to revamp these songs entirely into their own message. The softer songs build to crescendos that the original songs lacked. When vocalist Dan Campbell shifts from a croon to all-out shouts, the message carries stronger and more prominently than the original songs were able to.

“There, There”, which reflects on one’s own faults, becomes a slow-built song of defiance. “Cardinals”, a song of regret over letting down a friend, becomes a moment of somber reflection and a loving war cry.

It’s not as though these songs are fundamentally different by any means. The melodic violin, soft drumming and acoustic strums of “Cardinals” sits alongside Dan Campbell’s whispery vocals in perfect meditation. There is a build throughout so that in the final verse, when Campbell explodes and shouts the lyrics, it fundamentally seems to change the tone of the original song. Instead of pleading for a chance to prove himself, Campbell is swearing an oath to the gods.

“Don’t Let Me Cave In”, a cornerstone track of Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, may be the most dramatically changed. In lieu of the raging guitars, the song is a ballad focusing on dreamlike keyboard melodies with minimalistic guitars. Originally, this song was frantic and desperate. Campbell seemed to search for an excuse for being in such hysterics. He pleaded for help. This softer version finds him saying the same words, but determination is behind him. He’s aware of his problems and thankful to have someone there to help see him through his demons.

Not every song takes a different tone to its predecessor. “Dismantling Summer” is arguably the most direct conversion to acoustics. “Coffee Eyes” is still an absolute jam. The drums rattle away and the guitars are crisp and hypnotic. Slightly more isolated, Campbell’s cracking voice as he shouts, “There’s always been a table for me there”, sounds so much better than it did on the original recording.

“You In January”, one of No Closer To Heaven’s stand-out tracks, tops off the EP. The light violin and plinking piano provide the romantic backing a song like this always asked for. It’s also in this song that the record’s title, Burst & Decay become prominent as Campbell sings to his love. “You In January” is the thesis of the album in a roundabout way. Where many of these songs centered on the idea of cracking slowly and trying to stop the damage, these versions have managed that task.

Burst & Decay is one of the few acoustic albums that make a true difference in a band’s sound. Much like The Starting Line’s Make Yourself At Home, this record is short, crisp and fundamentally different than the core sound of the band. Though it doesn’t carry the same weight or theme of a proper album, Burst & Decay does enough to differentiate itself from anything else The Wonder Years have done.

My one hope for this album was that perhaps the songs would be reimagined lyrically, much in the same way that “Logan Circle” and “Logan Circle: A New Hope” were. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with Burst & Decay. But finding a new meaning and tone to the existing lyrics may be something more profound.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and is probably playing euchre right now. Why? No reason other than he is a pretty cool cat. Myaaah!

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Five Years Later: The Wonder Years – Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing

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As weird as it is to talk about the pop punk “revival,” it’s impossible to ignore what The Wonder Years were able to accomplish in 2011. Coming off of one of the most unexpected debut breakthroughs in recent memory with The Upsides in 2010, the Pennsylvania punk act staked their claim in scene lore the following year with the release of Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing.

You can buy Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing on iTunes.

You can buy Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing on iTunes.

Five years later, the album still digs at uncomfortable memories and painful trials from my past. Part two of a trilogy of albums, the record deals with the fallout of young adulthood and broken promises related to societal expectations. It’s a millennial anthem if there ever was one – I tried, I failed, I don’t know where to go from here.

Fresh off of a painful divorce and hitting the reset button on nearly every aspect of life at the ripe old age of 27, I found myself mesmerized by Dan Campbell’s ability to connect deeply with my frustrations and fears. On Suburbia, Soupy became the voice of a generation of young adults looking for answers – unwilling to let the defeat of depression drag them away, but unable to find hope to cling to.

In the midst of Campbell’s confusion, I found common ground. “I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for,” he cries on “Came Out Swinging” – a mirror image of my life experiences in 2010. On “Local Man Ruins Everything”, he relents, “I’m not a self-help book; I’m just a fucked up kid”, an admission that became my thesis in 2011.

Like many of you, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing is a deeply personal album for me – one that got me through many late night drives; a coping mechanism at the end of lonely double shifts. To this day, I’ve yet to encounter an album that personally impacted my life and walked alongside me quite like this one did. It hurt to listen, but over time, it mended my soul in the most therapeutic of ways.

I was apparently not alone in my experience. Suburbia kick started a tidal wave of pop punk mania, reigniting a genre that had turned stale. The Wonder Years deserve all of the credit in the world for lighting that fire, but for all of the great music that has come in the past five years, none of it has touched my soul quite like Suburbia did.

For the past few years, I’ve been writing a book in my head and in notebooks that mirrors the chapters of Suburbia – a work of creative non-fiction that journeys through the most difficult part of my life with the album as the soundtrack. Maybe one day I’ll get around to writing it. If not, The Wonder Years still spoke every word of my experience to near perfection. For that, I can never thank them enough.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Five Year Retrospective: The Wonder Years – The Upsides

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I hated the prick on the album cover at first glance – this guy wore a shirt similar to what I was wearing and smiled awkwardly as though attempting to apologize for a fight I’d personally had with him. The cardboard sign reading “The Upsides” taunted me for how miserable I felt. I stood seething in a Hot Topic, looking down at this album sitting alone in a grim selection of CDs and salty rubber wrist bands. I bought it just to spite him.

It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

It’s hard to believe that The Wonder Years weren’t a part of my life, much less one of the leading voices of pop punk in January 2010. I’d listened to their debut album Get Stoked On It! a year before and had been very “eh” towards it. I popped the CD into my car hoping for mediocre punk rock to distract me for forty-five minutes from how utterly miserable I felt every day. Instead, I didn’t even get out of the parking lot before the opening line sent a stopped me literally in my tracks, cliché as that may be.

The first and last sentence uttered on the record is one of the most genuine punk rock ideas in all of music; “I’m not sad anymore”. It’s simple, elegant and such a sheer war cry to fight back against whatever may be burdening your life. Everything on the album revolves around this idea.

The linear notes state that the original concept when the record was being written was to write about the depression the band felt and the suffocation of feeling down and out in your early twenties, something that most people experience. However, the way that it often happens, it’s something small that usually reminds you that this type of angst just isn’t that bad and it will eventually get better; in this case, the fountain in Philly’s Logan Circle being turned on.

“I’m not sad anymore” changed the pop punk genre as a whole. Other bands in the scene more or less wrote about the same punk issues (lost the girl, attempt to win the girl, depression and drugs), or had begun inspirational easycore (Set Your Goals, Four Year Strong), but the attitude was still that the music needed to be rowdy enough to break some beer bottles. The Upsides based itself in loud pop punk that allowed itself to ease and flow as the lyrical content needed, something that gave the lyrics the energy to be fight back against the world and soften enough to have translatable meaning.

The Upsides is a story about understanding and overcoming when you feel out of place in the world around you. College angst, the paralyzing loneliness as your closest friends move away or settle into their lives, the upheaval of relationships and trying to remember what home felt like. Songs like “This Party Sucks” and “It’s never Sunny In South Philadelphia” base themselves in depression, especially with lyrics like, “We stopped standing proud a year ago now / What you see is just a shell of who I used to be / I can’t believe I got this weak”. However, the context of this type of darkness is just a back story that helps lead to finding your bottom and pulling yourself up.

The connection that this album made to listeners is that it felt real. The term gets thrown around with a lot of music these days, but it’s a concept that has come to be one of the staples to TWY’s music, and this was the first time it had started to bud from them. The lyrics read like a novel in the way that it mentioned ‘characters’ (Dave and Spiro), everyday experiences like “talking shit in diners” and “sitting on the roof with Matt and Molly”. Tangible locations like Logan Circle, or inside jokes (“the Blue Man Group won’t cure depression”) became a focal point to ground the story. These concepts, in their simplicity alone, are based on real memories and interactions that everyone has had.

The Upsides is a therapeutic concept album for sure, until you realize that it’s really not meant to be. It’s just an album written by some guys who aren’t trying to be more than just that – friends trying to get a band off the ground while maintaining their sanity. Vocalist Dan Campbell wasn’t the best singer at this stage of his career, and further away from how good he would become than might be comfortable. He’s loud and often times off-key, but it only makes him sound more genuine.

As if that weren’t enough, the music is incredible. The chord progressions and riffs are unique in that you can tell how much they’d learned about writing music since the release of Get Stoked On It!, but were just beginning to harness the energy and talent for the writing of Suburbia I’ve Given You All and The Greatest Generation. While pop seemed to overpower the punk side of it, the songs were ravenously loud behind such words of encouragement instead of shouted rebellion.

The closer, “All My Friends Are In Bar Bands” is savagely simple, but one of the most profound songs the band has written. After nearly an hour to singing about trying to stave off depression and fight back against a world that wants to take you down, the final piece just wonders aloud what all of their friends are doing at home and runs down a list of names. During one verse, Campbell sings a line that hit me as a universal truth to start on the road to overcoming sadness: “I’ve spent twenty-two years just wading through bullshit, and hey, it’s worked so far / I don’t know why I’m here but I know who my friends are”.

The Upsides isn’t the best Wonder Years album. Its imperfect in many ways and even somewhat sloppy in execution, but it’s a genuine rebellion against giving up that nothing else can even come close to. They’ve grown exponentially as a band since its release, but everything since then (Suburbia I’ve Given You All and The Greatest Generation) has stemmed directly from this, written as a retrospective trilogy and references to the songs from this album spread throughout. The Upsides was the exact album needed for the beginning of a new decade that started in the slumps.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has seen Wonder Years almost every time they’ve been near the city for the last few years. He is an obsessive maniac who hasn’t been able to go a week without listening to one of their albums since The Upsides reinspired his love for music half a decade ago.

Most Anticipated of 2015: #1 The Wonder Years

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UPDATE: A new album, No Closer to Heaven, is coming September 4!

If I need to explain why The Wonders Years make the top spot, you haven’t been paying attention. Although the band is roughly ten years old, they more or less burst onto the scene out of nowhere five years ago with the release of The Upsides and have done nothing but redefine what a pop punk band can do ever since.

In theory, The Wonder Years are as simple as can be; they turn the guitars loud and blast away a punk song with a catchy chorus. In practice, each consecutive release ups the ante and nearly dwarfs the album before it. The writing gets tighter and heavier, and the lyrics deeper and broken down to the essential parts of the human experience. Somehow, the concepts of each album relate to what has come before it, making their past discography more relevant as it helps build on each new song.

The Wonder Years are a story that is ever growing. Their last three albums have been retrospectively grouped as a trilogy about growing up. Each album has multiple call backs to the records before it, be it the characters, the locations or the melodies and lyrics. Where their new album goes is a difficult question to answer: since it sits outside of the trilogy we’ve known up ’till now it may be something completely new that we haven’t heard from the band before. But that’s nothing to be wary of; they’re constantly pushing themselves into new territory.

However, the spat of side projects from the various members (Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, Why Bother?) over the last couple of years have let the band experiment in new territory that may or may not make its way to their core sound. Aaron West in particular was an exorcise in lyricism and storytelling that overshadows nearly everything else in its genre. From what I can tell, the band lives off of trying to top themselves with each release to make pop punk into a refined art form. Regardless, being TWY, all signs point to the album being loud, aggressive and catchy as all hell.

It’s going to be a big year. A new album is almost guaranteed, especially since The Greatest Generation was released almost two years ago and the band are already signed for another full run of this year’s Warped Tour. Maybe I give them too much credit, but the band has been at the forefront of the pop punk rebirth in the 2010’s without even flinching. Even if the album is a bomb, the band is an inspiration of hard work and ferocious integrity that anyone can and should look up to.

“It’s gonna be our year, boys”.

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has seen Wonder Years almost every time they’ve been near the city for the last few years. He is an obsessive maniac who hasn’t been able to go a week without listening to one of their albums since The Upsides reinspired his love for music half a decade ago.

The Wonder Years: Why they mean so much to the scene

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“I’m not sad anymore”. It’s the simplest phrase you can think of; a three year old can say it coherently. But it’s the foundation and backbone for a revolution to the pop punk scene that is changing it for the better.

The Wonders Years are the embodiment of overcoming adversity in every sense of the phrase, musically, personally and professionally. They weren’t the first, but simply the best at turning a stagnant scene into a positive force of brutal honesty and integrity. Simply put, The Wonder Years are not only the pinnacle voice of this generation, they’re the single best touring band in the country.

While they’re commonly seen as the new symbol of the pop punk genre, the real threat of this band is actually much deeper. They rewrote the entire playbook for the scene in three records over three years. They’ve never really attempted to be more than they are: They’re just a group of guys trying to figure things out, playing the music they like without hiding behind shitty poetry in an attempt to sound like rock stars or set out to make the next great radio hit. They’re loud, invasive and often times stylishly off key, but it connects to their fans in ways that most bands never mange throughout their entire careers.

Musically, The Wonder Years are ahead of the game as each release shows every member becoming exponentially more talented in their field without changing the formula that they started out in. But it might be their lyricism that helps to connect with so many people. I’d heard The Wonder Years for the first time around early 2009 and thought of them as nothing but a novelty. They were a band that made references to Captain Crunch, created song titles like “Dude, What is a Land Pirate?” and just blasted synth over amateurish sounding guitars. When The Upsides hit, it came like a bomb.

Throughout three major releases, they’ve managed to stray away from obvious topics of girls and broken love, instead tackling topics of life on the road, the harshness of feeling misguided in your early 20’s and trying to make yourself the best you can be, even in the darkest of hours. Their lyrics come from base language and are crafted so that relatable life experiences are approached straight on without fear. In doing so, they have found a way to churn out one unstoppable chorus after another without predictable rhymes.

Each album grows with the band as well; instead of writing more pop songs and seeing their audience outgrow the themes, the themes themselves grow. Where The Upsides started by feeling misguided and out of place in college, The Greatest Generation picks up nearing the age of 30, wondering if the life choices made up to that point were the right calls.

It’s thoroughly thought out writing that incorporates evolving references to past albums and accidental characters that continuously appear (We’ve heard about ‘Richie’ so far on all three records to some degree). It’s a series of small references, but it helps you feel like part of something much bigger each time you find one, and it makes the most recent songs sound that much more important.

Onstage, they’re an explosive force, bouncing and spinning with an energy that their peers oftentimes lack. Saves The Day, a legend of the genre, barely move on stage and instead just play. The Wonder Years are a constantly moving force of energy with bounding set lists to give their shows an energy and camaraderie that makes the crowd feel like part of what makes the songs so important in the first place.

It’s easy to kiss ass to a band you like, but The Wonder Years are something different. They forced themselves out of the profile of another crummy punk band to something profound. They sing to anyone who has ever felt lost to let them know that it will all be okay as long as you never give up, and back it with the crashing pop punk to give you energy to wait it all out.

This isn’t a band that happened to find the spotlight for a brief moment in time. The Wonder Years are the embodiment of a generation that is struggling to find its place in a world that seems out of focus, but aren’t willing to stop fighting to make it work.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.