The Front Bottoms first found an audience in New Jersey’s all-ages underground with the geeky, self-deprecating songs on their self-titled 2011 debut album. Teen audiences fell in love with Brian Sella’s post-adolescent angst, his twangy acoustic guitar and those oh-so-sincere vocals, coupled with Mat Uychich’s power drumming. In Sella’s shaky, uncertain voice, they heard their own fears and hopes.
The band began to find a wider audience with 2013’s Talon of the Hawk and signed to a major label (Fueled by Ramen, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) for their third, the ironically titled Back on Top. But Going Grey and In Sickness & in Flames followed, often sounding as if the band cared more about potential radio play than satisfying old fans. Instead of songs about drinking beer out of a coffee cup or pondering the future from the bottom of a swimming pool, the songs delivered bromides about love and impending adulthood swathed in synthesizers and dense layers of production.
You Are Who You Hang Out With, released Aug. 4, splits the difference. Old fans will be happy; much of the album marks a return to the old Front Bottoms sound. It’s catchy and bouncy and, unlike most of its two immediate predecessors, happy. Sella’s acoustic guitar opens several tracks, and while there is a full band in effect, the album eschews much of the experimentation of the last few outings. (Much but not all; more on that later.) If anything, the album may seem too familiar in spots, but it definitely sounds like the Front Bottoms.
Sella still casts himself as an indie-rock Peter Pan, whining about neck tattoos, failed relationships and unfulfilled promise; in “Clear Path,” he sings “I head back to your apartment/The only place I ever felt cool/I drive around the parking lot/I swim in the community pool.” Sella came of age listening to Jersey’s emo underground and, in his mid-30s, to borrow a line from Saves the Day, he’s still through being cool.
By choice or fate, he’s writing to and about the same audience: “Waking up at strange times, all these kids got no hopе/Living their whole lives to an accidеntal overdose,” he laments on “Emotional” (watch video below). A “young American mechanic” who can’t escape his blue collar existence takes center stage on “Outlook”; the Front Bottoms do Springsteen (or maybe Mellencamp). On another track, Sella smokes too much weed and “feels like I’m in Paris.”
“Fake Gold,” with a melody as twee as “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” feels like a confession. It’s a big happy singalong anthem, but with disquieting lyrics: “The name of this band was gonna be Mass Shooter/But the tone felt too spot on/You got to be careful, especially as a loser/What you project yourself on.”
On “Not Joking,” Sella spills the beans: “This is a character I play,” he sings. “This is the theater I was born into.” But he adds a caveat, repeated again and again in a typically catchy chorus: “Don’t laugh, it’s not funny.”
For a band that turned songs about emotional growth into a cottage industry, the Front Bottoms don’t seem to have grown much at all. The question becomes, is that the band’s greatest charm, or its biggest curse?
“Punching Bag” and “Batman” double down on the outward strengths of early Front Bottoms, with singalong choruses and catchy melodies, but without the specificity that made those songs so compelling. The former confronts anger management without really saying anything, while the latter uses the caped crusader as a metaphor for the same lost, wayward kid trying to grow up that Sella has sung about so often before: “Truth is, I have always been sort of an embarrassment.” We know, dude. We know.
And while You Are Who You Hang Out With mostly sounds like a Front Bottoms record, the heavy vocal distortion on the album-opening “Emotions,” the autotune on “Paris” and the synth-heavy “Finding Your Way Home” represent either misguided attempts at experimentation or a ham-handed producer looking for something “radio-friendly.” Friendly, it’s not.
I remember Loudon Wainwright III, back when he earned a living playing colleges, making the observation that he got older every year but his audience always stayed the same age. That’s the world the Front Bottoms live in now. The fans want to hear Talon of the Hawk forever; the band needs to make them happy but keep moving forward, too. You Are Who You Hang Out With feels like a compromise. The band rehashes old themes and sounds while taking an occasional plunge into the future: a weird blippety-boopy break in “Brick,” the Weeknd-like complexity at the end of “Paris,” the cosmic synthesizer headiness of “Finding Your Way Home.”
Are those songs the Front Bottoms’ future, or a label looking for radio play? “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in his novel “Mother Night.” “So we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
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