The Front Bottoms
From: Matt Uychich and Brian Sella went to high school about as far north in Bergen County as you can get without crossing into New York. That imaginary border makes all the difference: The Front Bottoms get to be part of the great tradition of lyrical, ironic, emotionally forthright New Jersey pop-rock. Put them 10 minutes up the Parkway, though? They’d be New York State musicians. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Format: Six-song EP; roughly 20 minutes of rock. According to the group, Rose is the first in a projected series of releases of re-recorded older material from the combo’s early years. The projected series suggests a completist urge common among artists who’ve decided they’re going to be in it for the long haul — and whose self-regard is big enough to accommodate a certain amount of presumption about audience demand. You’ve got to believe that listeners are interested in your Body of Work to plan not one but several juvenilia collections. In their defense, the Front Bottoms call these the songs that the punters call for at shows, and this is surely accurate, because 1) the band has built a base of extraordinarily excitable, loyal fans, and 2) the way excitable fans demonstrate loyalty is through calls for rarities. The Front Bottoms had cut and self-released at least two albums’ worth of material before signing with Bar/None Records: I Hate My Friends and My Grandma vs. Pneumonia plus an EP that I’ve never heard. These albums make it clear to anybody with discerning ears that the act is something special, but they aren’t recorded very well, and the band is a nascent version of the explosive outfit we’ve come to know. The playing is sloppy and, far too often, the lead vocal is eclipsed by the instruments. Even a label as quirk-friendly as Bar/None wouldn’t have put out those first two albums without some major reconstruction. Yet even before coming together in the crucible of national tours, the Front Bottoms were endearing, and Sella was born a firm hand with an evocative epigram. “You’ll be the distance that I fell,” goes an early chorus that could have gone on Talon of the Hawk, the best album released by any New Jersey band in 2013. And once you put out the best album in the state, naturally, people are going to want to get the whole story.
Genre: Pigeonholing the Front Bottoms is impossible to do, God bless ’em. Sella likes to strum, but his outfit is too abrasive to be a folk band; drummer Matt Uychich hits his skins with the intensity of a pop-punk musician, but the band won’t conform to the strict rules of pop-punk songwriting. Sella’s understanding of melody and chord structure — which he has apparently had since the word go — might push him in the direction of classic rock, but he rejects the perfectionism characteristic of musicians who aspire to modern-day classic rock status. Yet fans of classic rock, and folk-rock, and pop-punk have put aside whatever reservations they’ve had and embraced the group, which ought to please those of us who harbor a secret desire to give the marketing department fits. The Front Bottoms have made it this far without picking a side, so breathe out: there’s no incentive for them to do it now. There are sharp, wordy songwriters out there who are Sella-ish, and it can’t be a Front Bottoms review without mentioning them by name, so let’s just get this over with: John Samson of the Weakerthans, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and Gordon Gano of the Violet Femmes, possessor of a similar yelp. But he’s not as outré as Gano can be, or as traditionalist as Finn, or as sentimental as Samson. In his rather cold-eyed appraisal of his relationships and the offhand wickedness of his asides, he reminds me most of another rattlesnake in the grass — Scott Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit.
Arrangements and Sound: Way better than the original versions, but not quite as full as Talon of the Hawk. Six years after My Grandma, these songs probably sound pretty raw in the heads of the musicians, and it probably would have felt dishonest to give them the 30 Seconds to Mars treatment. That makes Rose the first new release by the Front Bottoms that doesn’t feel like a huge leap in professionalism. But maybe these guys have leapt as far as they want to go, and the next jump is a lily pad too far. Notable: Rose was cut at the Lake House in Asbury Park. That studio is riding a hot streak.
What’s this record about? I think I once wrote that Sella’s lyrics sound like snippets of conversation overheard from the backseat of a speeding car. What I came to realize is that there’s a good reason for the indirection: he’s not going to get the girl by presenting a mystique-free case for himself in proper, buttoned-down, linear order. And he’s always trying to get the girl — even when he’s singing about doing steroids, or dreams in which he kills his dad, or calculating the cost of an abortion, he’s determined to generate intrigue. Front Bottoms songs flatter, and cajole, and wheedle and insult, and duck the pigtail in the inkwell, and run the entire range of options for a slacker courting a woman whom he’s convinced he’s outclassed by. What made Talon so gripping, and delightfully derogatory, too, was Sella’s certainty that he’d already lost— the girl had gone to France while he was stuck home in Jersey, attempting to untangle a snarl of desire, jealousy and self-loathing. Rose traces the story back to the beginning, and although the young Sella hasn’t entirely riddled out exactly why he’s doomed, he’s sure he is. “You are water 12 feet deep, and I am boots of concrete,” he tells a woman who is already wising up and drifting away into the bigger world. “Maybe college won’t work out, and I can come live at your house,” he sings, like he already knows the answer, which of course he does. “I’ve got some words to share/she won’t pick up her phone,” he sings on “Lipstick Covered Magnet”; a few songs later, on “Be Nice to Me,” he confesses that “I’d love to tell you stories, but I can’t remember how they went.” As is always true in Sella’s writing, the deterioration of the relationship also figures as a plain old critique of growing up, and an accusation hurled against adulthood: he and his girlfriend are going to be wedged apart by material conditions and there’s nothing he can do, but he’s going to get his kicks in before his batteries run out.
The singer: “Awkward Conversations” will not go down in the record books as the Front Bottoms’ masterpiece, but as a demonstration of what makes Sella such an effective singer, it can’t be beat. The frontman gives himself a mouthful of a couplet to deliver, over and over, accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar. “I, personally, think it’s too cold to have the windows open,” sings Sella, with all punctuation implied, “but you want to smoke your menthol cigarettes.” In order to make this work, Sella has to strike a balance between protectiveness, condemnation and sheer annoyance, which he does by varying his delivery, changing pitch and strategically missing a few notes. It’s actually for the best that it doesn’t rhyme. Turning offhand conversational snippets into singalong hooks is what Sella was born to do. He is a master of found poetry, even if that poetry is found in the bucket-seat cushions of his own brain.
The musicians: Rose possesses two assets that Friends and My Grandma did not — bassist Tom Warren and guitarist Ciaran O’Donnell, whose presence on Talon of the Hawk gave that album drive and depth that the band’s prior music lacked. The older songs don’t avail them all that much latitude for expression, but they do their best to punch them up: O’Donnell breaks out his trumpet and an assortment of toylike synthesizers, and Warren anchors the first half of “Twelve Feet Deep” with a few firm, carefully selected bottom-end notes. Those two are fine musicians, and a band that has not always led with its technical prowess needed their contributions. But Rose is really a celebration of the rise of Uychich, a now-skilled drummer who, six years ago, could be inaccurate on record. Uychich has turned himself into a storyteller in rhythm, and like an elementary school teacher disciplining hyperactive kids, he grabs these old numbers and sets them straight. Brand new fans might be surprised to learn that the Front Bottoms, who are about as far from techno slickness as it is possible to get, used to employ a laptop onstage. If Talon didn’t make it clear enough, Rose is the final word on it — the laptop is gone and it won’t be coming back.
The songs: A fair criticism of early Front Bottoms is that the band was writing punk rock songs but lacked the muscle to perform them properly. Instead, Uychich and Sella tacked toward the twee, compensating with charm (and rinky-dink synthesizer sounds) for what their group lacked in effrontery. Exhibit A in this argument is the re-recorded “Lipstick Covered Magnet,” which gets a supercharged punk-rock rebirth on Rose that suits the song’s attitude far better than the threadbare arrangement on I Hate My Friends. But not every Front Bottoms song requires a spike in aggression. Where Sella differs from most punk-rock songwriters is in his unwillingness to settle for verse-chorus-verse predictability. The songs on Rose are more conventional than those that made the two Bar/None albums, but a refrain can still come anywhere, and anything can be turned into a refrain. It’s often hard to tell where the chorus is, and I mean that as a compliment. Sella also loves the dramatic effect of leaving a lyrical or melodic line unresolved, and choosing not to rhyme exactly when you’d expect him to, which is another technique he shares with utchinson. When singing, he often lands on notes that sit in funny, intriguing places within the chord, sometimes in passing, and sometimes at the ends of phrases. It’s the compositional equivalent of a rising inflection — musical question marks inserted into the songs at appropriately awkward moments.
What differentiates this record from others like it? From the beginning, Sella has been a total original — one of those frontpeople, like Morrissey, or Jenny Lewis, or Rodney Anonymous, who imprints his personality on every line he sings, and who’ll never be mistaken for anybody else. Songs he wrote in the shower when he was 11 probably had that distinctive Sella stamp. He’s gotten way better at his craft since the band began, but Rose confirms that the elements were always there, and he just needed the execution to catch up with his ideas. As everybody who has seen the Front Bottoms in concert can tell you, Uychich is an original, too, and at this point it’s not always easy to tell if Sella is responding to the imaginative drumming or if Uychich is reacting to his singer. That’s a dynamic that could only have developed over time. Again I think of Hutchinson, and his relationship with his brother and drummer Grant. I don’t want to lay it on too thick: Sella and Hutchinson are not too tough to tell apart. Hutchinson’s got the Scottish accent, and Sella has the Jersey brogue.
What’s not so good? I do wonder, however, if now is the time for the Front Bottoms to begin raiding the vault. The band’s trajectory so far has been, as Lucille Van Pelt once memorably put it, from an up to an up to an upper up. The Front Bottoms now have their own set of epigones: check out You’re Gonna Miss It All by Modern Baseball, for an instructive example. Sella and Uychich have realized their potential and then some. Warren and O’Donnell have solidified the lineup and brought just enough professionalism to the project to bring the chops snobs around. Now they’re going to halt the forward momentum, look backward, and dedicate themselves to an entire series of re-recordings? The six songs on Rose are lots of fun (and the Front Bottoms are, above all, good clean fun) but the only one I’d rate with the very best from Talon and The Front Bottoms is “Jim Bogart,” a track that points directly to the lyrical and musical advancements that the group would make on the pro LPs. Sella is a prolific guy, and I’m sure he’s working on Bar/None full-length No. 3 while he’s at the Lake House banging out the old ones. But I’m a greedy jerk. If this EP series robs the next chapter of a single paragraph, well, I’d beg the band to reprioritize.
Recommended? This is where the group began. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is where You the Listener should start. Taste is subjective and memory rules desire, but if these are the songs you’re calling for at a Front Bottoms show, I think you’re bananas. Now, there’s no such thing as inessential Front Bottoms — even the rough early recordings that Sella and Uychich are now in the process of reworking are worth hunting down on YouTube. Nevertheless, if you’ve got the two Bar/None full lengths, you’re probably hungry for more, and here’s more. If you don’t know the Front Bottoms yet, and you’re interested in New Jersey pop-rock, you’ve got some pleasurable work to do. I’d advise you to try Talon first, and then the self-titled debut. After that, you’re bound to reach for Rose. In other words, this EP is highly recommended to everybody — just not, in all cases, immediately.
If you’re from New Jersey, or if you grew up in New Jersey, or if you like New Jersey, and you’re interested in getting your music reviewed in this space, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.