Sometimes being a die-hard fan costs you a little more money. Whether it’s grabbing a “greatest hits” record because it has two new songs or the delightful Jon Snodgrass renaming songs and then releasing them on a couple of records or Corb Lund’s latest record consisting entirely of rerecorded “oldies” (although, having said that, Counterfeit Blues is a truly fantastic record), those of us rabid enough to grab up every single piece of work a group releases will inevitably find a few repeated tracks here and there. But that’s sort of what being a die-hard is all about, right?
I certainly have no regrets about spending good money on Rally, the latest from Toronto pop-punk loyalists Junior Battles. Issued at the end of May by American label Paper + Plastick Records, it may seem at first glance that there isn’t much to their sophomore full-length; it’s a swift 27 minutes, has three songs that run roughly a minute each, and includes two songs that were previously-released. Evidently they hadn’t necessarily intended to write a new full-length album. They had a few new songs and felt like they might as well push themselves a little further to create a whole LP. But regardless of how the music is parsed out here, it is rich and compelling.
“(You Will Score The Winning) Goal” starts the album, a snippet of a song that pulls the central thesis of album closer “(You Are Very Good At) Sports” and renders it into a distant, reverb’d and hypnotic introduction. On the face of it, the lyrics seem sarcastic at best, seemingly equating the band’s efforts to high school athletes who can’t let go of the past.
“You will score the winning goal,” they sing, “because you are very good at sports. You’ve got several trophies that all recognize you as being the best in your town in 2003.” Later, they add, “You will write the greatest song because you’ve been working on it so long. You’ve got a catchy chorus and two solid versus. You’ll let someone hear it as soon as you finish the bridge.”
The plodding single “Rafts” doesn’t follow that prescribed structure, painting a bleak picture of “an ocean full of chum” swirling beneath a group of people with “total compassion” that the band has handed the titular safety device to. The band showcases a more pointed shift in gears here, offering a more grinding, mid-tempo rock sound (the band has compared it to The Constantines, but that might be a bridge too far). The aggression is a good counterpoint to the slinky guitar parts and acoustic-guitar backing of the following “Three Whole years.”
In interviews the band has acknowledged that these songs have taken time (their last record Idle Ages came out in 2011), but there is definitely a continuation of the theme of rigorous self-analysis happening here. It runs through every song; “Three Whole Years,” for example, sees songwriter Aaron Zogel asking some pointed questions:
“Have you never felt alone in a roomful of people, with everybody on their phones seeking some validation?…When someone asks you what you do, do you tell them your day job? Or do you say you’re really good at making people feel at ease when they’re with you?”
Pessimism and self-doubt are often go-to subjects for this band, and that continues in various degrees throughout this record. Previously-released tracks “TPS Reports” and “Believe It Or Not, George Isn’t At Home” (they comprised a two-song cassette sold at No Idea Records’ FEST music festival in Florida [although I did manage to track down a copy somehow]) see Zorgel wallowing in some self-pity, feeling lonesome and isolated. It’s unclear if the chorus of the latter (“All the things you used to say are better off forgotten because you drink too much and just talk shit and no one wants to hear it”) are being directed internally or externally, with the verses alternatingly suggesting he’s excoriating himself or that he’s desperately trying to get through to some else, crying, “You won’t even talk to me anymore.” The former is all about futility: “Take whatever you’ve got and just stuff it down the drain, make whatever you want and it doesn’t mean a thing; everything that you got ends up circling the drain.”
Thankfully things get lighter after those tracks. “Assholes On Rollerblades” is more or less the polar opposite of the entire record so far, a bright and sprightly stab at something akin to folk-pop-punk that layers boisterous acoustic guitars and chiming, distorted electric lead guitar. It’s what Against Me! might have sounded like around the time of Reinventing Axl Rose if Tom Gabel ever smiled. It feels a bit manic at times, as though Zorgel is lashing out at anyone and everyone he sees in the immediate vicinity, albeit with good reason. The song retains the strongest portion of the sense of humour that is apparent in varying degrees in all of their work, culminating in a pure pop moment of cascading falsetto harmonies that shows one more wrinkle this amazingly-talented group hadn’t yet exposed.
As tortured as the lyrical content may seem up to that song, however, the real emotional centre of the record comes in a couple of minutes that are gone before you realize exactly what’s coming at you. “27th Floor” is a bit of acoustic noodling that will be written off as a tossed-together track to flesh out the track listing, but which serves as an important transitory element: without it, the fragile, tender “Architecture II: Future Music For The Children Of The Future” would be entirely too jarring and out-of-place.
Indeed, “Architecture II” speaks to the core of the band better than any of the twitching, anxious tracks in their catalogue. It echoes the nearly-whispered acoustic interlude “Architecture” from Idle Ages, even bringing back lyrics from another Idle Ages song to kick off the track. But the message here is that regardless of how quickly the years pass and how drastically their adult reality has deviated from their youthful dreams, music continues to be the providence that sustains them.
“It’s not about the songs you write to watermark these years: it’s an old archive of tapes and CD-Rs of all your fears…Everything you can build is just dirt in the ground, so play every song you love fucking loud,” Sam Sutherland sings, before the whole band and more join in to plead, “Bury us out in the suburbs or scatter our ashes in Lake Ontario.” While they may not always have faith in themselves, the band seems to remain resolute in the belief that everything will be okay as long as they keep the music alive.
When Junior Battles return to the structure of the song that opened the record it’s in a full-band context, a riffy mid-tempo number that would fit comfortably on their self-titled EP. But 90 seconds in, after a fairly downtrodden, self doubting chorus, the band eases into a bridge composed of some tightly-intertwined and expertly-arranged horns. A cynic might call it the kind of stab at “maturity” one expects to see on a “sophomore” record, but that would mean ignoring the ambitious emotional texturing, saxophone and accordian and piano, and caustic guest vocals on their first record (and earlier on this one) that showcased their maturity as songwriters.
It’s their willingness to just go for it that makes Rally work so well, even if it is a somewhat cobbled-together hodgepodge with a couple previously-released songs and a side of recycled material. The members of Junior Battles are students of music, and the time they’ve spent bowing at the altars of their heroes has given them an edge: their arrangements are clever, they take a perverse glee in subverting the expectations of the pop-punk genre, and they put every ounce of heart they have into the product. This record may contain numerous elements that have already popped up in their catalogue, but it doesn’t matter; they know how to use them in a new context and make you want to hear them, again and again.
That’s the real accomplishment of this recored: listening to Rally makes me want to listen to Rally more, and then put on Idle Ages and “Basements” and “Rip It Up” and “Boats.” It makes me want to celebrate that these guys have stuck together and committed to making this band a thing and not walking away after that first full-length. It makes me want to yell at them on Twitter for never touring west of Ontario and it makes me want to drive to Toronto just to see them play live once. It reminds me how much I love music and how big an emotional trigger it is for me. What more could you ask for?
You can pick up this fantastic record from Paper + Plastick Records in Florida. If shipping costs are a total bummer for you (like they are for me) then you can also access the digital album via iTunes.