One of Stereogum’s weekly columns is the Tuesday special Album of the Week. No, Modern Baseball didn’t get it for their week (it went to Kvelertak instead), but in writing about Diarrhea Planet for their week, editor Tom Breihan led with how important it is that DP’s great live, because sometimes live shows aren’t the best. That part struck a chord with me because I had just opted to not see Diarrhea Planet live at Bunbury on a festival day that reminded me that maybe live music isn’t all that some times. Watching Dead-Mow-Five from a distance can change a person.
But then I was reminded that live shows can be kind of the best.
Everything just seemed to go right on the way to Bogart’s. To wit, I’m normally an anxious ball of GoogleMaps and watch-checking nerves between leaving my place and getting to the venue, but everything worked perfectly that night. I got to the area on time, didn’t have any will-call problems, the pizza joint across from Bogart’s made a great pie, the bartender was wearing a Hamilton shirt, and he knocked one of my drinks off because we talked about how he got to see the show. It was the smoothest pre-show you or I will ever have.
And then I got inside just as openers Thin Lips were starting their first song. My lucky streak continued with Thin Lips: they were the only band on the bill I’ve never heard of before, but their flavor of Philly indie pop-punk is so in my lane that I was a little hacked off I hadn’t come across them sooner. They looked genuinely happy to be there playing songs off last year’s Divorce Year and Riff Hard that came out in May: songs that were wiry and frantic, but had room for big choruses with big hearts. Sadly, they didn’t have any CDs at their merch table, but pointed me to their online store, and mentioned they’re on SRB Productions’ stacked comp for Orlando. Give’em a try, I left as a fan.
I came to Bogart’s as a Joyce Manor fan, and the next half hour or so only confirmed it. At least I think it was half an hour? Forty minutes? I honestly lost track of time; Joyce Manor’s stock and trade is in songs that maybe average two minutes, so they buck the usual song-to-time ratio. Okay, that and after everyone around me started going nuts during opening number “Heart Tattoo” (they opened with one of my favorites–it’s like they knew), I dropped any pretense of record keeping, and joined one of the most adorably overeager but disorganized mosh pits I’ve ever been part of.
It might have meant a lot of jumping kids and getting covered in the last of my beer, but the high energy mimicked the band’s performance: Joyce Manor are, to put it simply, a lot of fun live. The genius of their short songs is that they’re fully realized constructs with peaks and valleys and tension and payoff, only they’re stripped down to the essentials; all killer, no filler. And the band’s been playing them long enough that they know how to build a setlist that never blurs together and always keeps the momentum going forward. Their set drew heavily from 2014’s Never Hungover Again, but plenty of deep cuts and fan favorites (including “Constant Headache,” which at 3 minutes long is Joyce Manor’s own “Only In Dreams”) made it out, too. Their live show didn’t have stage thrills, but it didn’t need them either because they had the songs. And lots of them.
This was technically my third time seeing Modern Baseball live, and each go-around so far has acted as a snapshot of where they’re at in their career. The first time…I’ll be honest, I barely remember them playing. They were touring with Candy Hearts (one of my favorite bands) and a pair of other bands, so two of friends of mine and I went to a bar on the west side of Cincy just to see Candy Hearts play; anything else was decoration. This was 2013, so Sports would have been out for awhile, and if I strain hard enough, I can remember hearing parts of “Hours Outside in the Snow” and “The Weekend.” But at the time, they were just a band not called Candy Hearts. Time number 2 was sizeable rock shed Bogart’s, but they were opening for The Wonder Years. It was 2014, so TWY weren’t touring behind a record, but MoBo were on the upside from releasing You’re Gonna Miss It All a few months back. They still sounded like a young group, but one that was sturdier and had more confident material. It was material I didn’t know that well, but the minor breakthrough that was YGMIA–an album of neurotic but free-wheeling pop-punk–led to a big fan reception. I bought the album that night, and it ended up as one of my favorites of the year.
It’s hard to talk about the difference between Modern Baseball then and now without talking about their most recent album Holy Ghost and the circumstances around it. Sports and You’re Gonna Miss It All were emotional crush records, to be sure, but their worldviews came through smirks or bashful smiles: primarily, they were concerned with being awkward at parties, chatting up girls, or shit-talking condescending jerks. Holy Ghost, meanwhile, deals in self-doubt, a death in a co-frontman Jake Ewald’s family, and co-frontman Brendan “Bren” Lukens’ very public mental health troubles with anxiety and bipolar disorder last year. The band had to process a lot in the second half of 2015 before recording Holy Ghost, and you can hear it all over the album–not just in lyrics like “Pretending we feel safe right here gets harder every day” and “Planning our future without you, without me at times”–but in how resilient yet battered the album’s instruments sound, especially on Lukens’ frantic back half.
All of this just made people fucking thankful there was a Modern Baseball to headline 1,000+ capacity venues in 2016. Even though the house music was still playing and the lights were up, Lukens got a major cheer just when he walked on stage to adjust his gear. I cheered too, because the difference between Lukens now and when I’d seen him previously was striking. Gone was the nervous looking kid with a buzzcut and ball cap, and in his place was a longhair who still looked a bit withdrawn (tour’s gotta get sapping after a while), but nevertheless moved with an open confidence. Once Ewald and the other members came out–all sporting long hair and/or facial hair themselves–they stood tall, as well, as Holy Ghost‘s title track played over the PA so they could rip right into “Wedding Singer.”
It was back into the pit for me, but things moved with a better sense of pacing during MoBo’s set. And they played damn near everything over the next hour or so: all but two songs from Holy Ghost appeared, as did a majority of You’re Gonna Miss It All, and even a few homers from Sports like “Re-Done” and “The Weekend” showed up. The new stuff sounded great, and the older songs carried more weight juxtaposed with Holy Ghost than they ever did without it: “Apartment””s earnestness or the yearning of “Re-Done” felt more significant and almost pure standing next to heavy tunes like “Everyday” or tears-in-your-eyes closer “Just Another Face.” The band was in rare form, too, with Ewald sounding more natural and easy going as a frontman, and bassist Ian Farmer settling further into the “Backing Vox and Rock Out” bassist role.
The emo revival’s been written about so much that handwaving the excess of thinkpieces on it is the new cliche; instead, we should look think about the future of these bands. I think MoBo’s track record indicates that the future looks good, and not just because all their fuckin’ problems are based around the past. They’re now three consistent albums in, the line-up has solidified, and they’re beloved in a few different scenes because underneath it all, their music is approachable. Within the emo boomlet right now, maybe The World Is a Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid to Die or The Hotelier are bigger, but Modern Baseball seems more sustainable. As much as I love both of them, The World Is… builds their songs almost exclusively on constantly escalating, cinematic “holy shit” moments, and The Hotelier are so intensely personal that listening to them can be like staring into the sun of your emotions. Their potential for burnout is too high. Modern Baseball has that potential, too–even with treatment and support, a mental illness will never go away–but the approachability of their live show and Holy Ghost imply this band has more to offer. It all comes down to the last lyric on Holy Ghost and one of the night’s biggest singalongs: “We’re so proud of what’s to come from you.”