After three short years of successfully bringing their self-aware, sing-along brand of poppy folk punk to the masses, New Jersey quartet (and spiritual two-piece) The Front Bottoms signed to a major label and decided to make a few changes to their signature formula. The result of this experimentation is Back On Top, a record that many longtime fans of the band pegged at first as the beginning of the end – all The Front Bottoms needed to do at this point was score a radio hit or land a song in a commercial, and they’d be well on their way to being the next Fun. or Fall Out Boy.
This fear of selling out didn’t seem to worry the band themselves too much, though, as they pushed ahead into new musical territory without so much as a look back over their shoulder. Although they could be semi-accurately described as a folk punk group by their early material, Back On Top pushes them out of that category altogether and into a realm somewhere between the awkward, lovesick musings of Modern Baseball and the grandiose, theatrical style of Say Anything.
There’s only one issue, however large – the pieces don’t quite fit together in the way they ideally should. It’s easy to tell that the band feels slightly uncomfortable writing songs that sound bigger and more elaborate than their previous two records. It’s not that they don’t want to push towards a larger sound, it’s just that they don’t have enough experience with it yet, and as a result the song structure feels choppy and forced most of the way through the album. Case in point: “HELP”, one of the only tracks on Back On Top that sounds fully put-together, would fit perfectly on either one of the previous two Front Bottoms LPs. The fact that the band seems eager to venture outside their comfort zone is admirable, however, they need to consider giving themselves a little more time to practice before going all-in on the idea.
The lyrical side of things has its fair share of flaws, as well. Vocalist Brian Sella had virtually perfected his dry, literal writing style on the band’s 2013 effort Talon Of The Hawk; however, things seem to have taken a turn for the lazy and ambiguous this time around. “’Cause our love’s the only thing that could matter/Take me up and up like a ladder,” he sings on “2YL” (which, on the whole, also happens to be the most yawn-worthy track on the record), likely causing many an avid Front Bottoms listener to wonder if he even gave the line a second thought. Sella does attempt to be thoughtful and quirky at times, however, everything he writes in that respect has a distinct lack of character and soul. For example: The monologue and sing-along chant near the middle of “Plastic Flowers”, although delivered well, feels like it was written by pulling from a hat of awkward emo phrases. All in all, it feels like there definitely could’ve been more thought and effort put forth from both a thematic and lyrical standpoint on Back On Top – which, for The Front Bottoms, is a big step backward.
There’s no shortage of ambition or courage on this record. Taking a formula that’s almost guaranteed to work every time and daring to make drastic changes to it takes a lot of both of those things. What’s really missing is some sort of payoff – it seems as though The Front Bottoms have poured everything they have into making their major-label debut sound polarizing and unique, and didn’t spend enough time on making it actually pleasant to listen to. Here’s hoping they find their groove again before falling too deep down the “trying to please everyone” rabbit hole.