Written by Erin Mathis
It’s always a little unnerving when a beloved band makes the jump from an independent label to a major label. Major labels are known for releasing only songs which have potential to gain success on the charts. However, fans want to trust that what they hear on the album is not a selected “safe” set, but the result of a band truly pushing themselves to their creative limits.
The Front Bottoms recently made the jump from the independent record label Bar/None Records to Fueled By Ramen, a label that has signed big name bands like FUN., Panic! At The Disco, and Twenty One Pilots. The album they put out is Back On Top, a title that speaks for the band’s off-the-wall sense of humor, though only a few songs on the album fit in with that tone. And though frontman Brian Sella stated in a recent interview that the songs on the album were written prior to their signing with the label, the album as a whole still feels a bit toned down and played safe.
So let’s start with the good news. There are a lot of songs to love on this album. By far, my favorite song off it is “Laugh Till I Cry.” I’ve been listening to it non-stop for a few days now, for a few reasons. First, the lyrics are both hilarious and catchy. I went to the album release show at Vintage Vinyl Records in New Jersey, and Sella told us a little bit about the song’s lyrics, specifically the line: “Ladies and gentlemen, the DJ just threw up on the dance floor.” He explained how a friend of his hired a DJ off Craigslist for an event, and that the DJ got so hammered that he, you guessed it, threw up on the dance floor. Besides that golden line, the lyrics tell a story of someone growing up, and moving on from days of reckless behavior. It conveys a very relatable and bittersweet feeling, that I simply can’t get enough of. This song also features sounds of a motorcycle revving up, something that is unexpected and falls in line with The Front Bottoms’ playful, spontaneous spirit.
My second favorite, hands down, has got to be “West Virginia.” The song starts off with the relaxing sound of rain and features an acoustic guitar; something that this album doesn’t have much of. And though it starts slow and gentle, it speeds up and becomes heavier with the addition of an electric guitar and Sella’s passionate, loud lyrics. This song is exactly everything we’ve come to love about TFB. We have spontaneous back up singers pitching in, we have Sella making a shout out to all his friends in West Virginia, and we have the lyrics: “Ride or die / Brothers for life,” focusing on the importance of friends to bring you through tough times. This song brings out that basement show intimacy that TFB do so well, and I wish there were more acoustic influences, raw-sounding songs like this on the album. One song that comes close to matching this is “Plastic Flowers.” It’s a truly unique song that features an organ, and real honesty in the lyrics. He tells everybody to “shut the fuck up” and thanks an invisible audience for coming, once again making the atmosphere of the song feel like an intimate basement show concert.
Another notable song would be “Help”, a fun and upbeat track with perfect couplet rhymes like “You need a means to an ending / I need a spiritual cleansing,” and repetition that makes it something to get wonderfully lost in. “The Plan (Fuck Jobs)” has great humor in its lines, as well as experimentation with some ska-sounding brass instruments, which are brought out even more so in both “2YL” and “Ginger.”
“Motorcycle”, the album opener, really sets the electric sound that continues throughout the album, and is a great song to head bang along to. “Summer Shanty” has a slowed down tempo that is reminiscent of early blues-based rock and roll, and features a fantastic guitar solo.
“Historic Cemetery” is the most confusing song on the album. Sella sings a chorus about “gettin’ high and hanging out,” even though he has said in the past that he doesn’t smoke weed. So it makes me wonder why he would write a song that essentially promotes a lifestyle that he doesn’t take part in. Then, the ending of the song has a rapper slowly speaking along to the rhythm of the song. Though it is beautiful, exciting, and refreshing, it is kind of placed without explanation, and doesn’t seem to fit.
Finally, “Cough It Out” is the album’s love song. It’s fast paced and really gets the crowd moving. The lyrics are relatable and tug at your heart strings: “I am delusional with love,” Sella sings.
Overall, the album was decent. There are enough chaotic, punch-you-in-the-gut emotional songs to satisfy fans, even if the album as a whole reflects a change that the band has made for a bit of a safer, more polished sound. Their previous albums were definitely more organic, while this album feels a bit more formulaic, and it is reflected in both song composition and length. At the album release concert, Sella played the new songs on his acoustic guitar, and honestly, I think he should continue to bring his acoustic with him for their next tour. Brian Sella, his sometimes off key vocals, and his acoustic guitar are what fans first fell in love with, so here’s to hoping that although they’ve taken a turn for the more “professional” sound, they don’t let go of the things that first made them great.
Back on Top Rating: 7/10