We only rip on the bands we love and, as such, I must take Motion City Soundtrack to task for 2015’s Panic Stations. The 11-song offering, a project with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth producer John Agnello, lacks the intricacy and vulnerability that endeared listeners to the band’s previous offerings. The album shimmers with a silver lining: Frontman Justin Pierre seems reenergized in recent interviews, and with good reason. This year marks 10 years since Motion City Soundtrack’s tour-de-force Commit This to Memory, an album that delivered pop-punk canon entries “Everything is Alright” and “L.G. FUAD.” Furthermore, Panic Stations resulted from fourteen days of furtive recording in Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studio, birthplace of Nirvana’s In Utero among others. By all indicators, Motion City Soundtrack should be enjoying a dignified position atop the pop-punk upper echelon.
Even though Motion City Soundtrack flew through Panic Stations in a burst of energy, the record is anything but inspired. The group took up the same skeleton of past records — fast, uncomplicated power chords, squealing synths, Pierre’s unadulterated vocals — but the songs remain skeletal. In pop-punk, lyrics are everything and Pierre long eked out a niche between Pete Wentz’s poetic acuity and Brendon Urie’s pseudo-intellectualism. The Pierre who crooned, “let’s get fucked up and die,” however, has disappeared and his replacement sings with an abundance of positivity and inoffensiveness. The dearth affects the whole group: The chord progressions impart no emotion and the synthesizer rarely does more than distract.
The album kicks off with four measures of pure power chords and from there, the group jumps no-holds-barred into “Anything At All.” Musically, the opening track is a promising mission statement. The band moves through many pop-punk tropes in less than three minutes — tom-tom fills layered on top of guitar tacets, “oh-oh-ohs” on double bass rolls — and does so unflaggingly.Panic Stations’ second and third tracks, however, comprise its musical peak.
Motion City Soundtrack reels in the tempo and arrangement to craft “TKO.” As a track, it sounds uncharacteristic for the group, but compelling and catchy regardless. The lyrics remain forced — Pierre tortures sixteen syllables from the word “out” – but the chorus evidences a subtle ear for arrangement. The drums nearly drop out of the track while the guitars launch a palm-muted attack from both sides and Pierre even pulls back his pipes on the first refrain. The resulting track has some compelling surfer-pop cred, despite its strange appearance on a Motion City Soundtrack album.
“I Can Feel You” also excels by the merit of its instrumentation. The bouncing, brooding guitar riff and pulsing drumbeat that open the track conjure Forget and Not Slow Down-era Relient k. The track’s bridge, specifically, stands out as a high point of the entire album. Motion City Soundtrack abandons their short, fast and twee approach for an ebbing vamp of oceanic proportions that drives the song for over three minutes.
Just as rapidly as they ventured into creative territory, Motion City Soundtrack unfortunately snaps back into their comfort zone. “Lose Control” plods through an utterly uninterested verse, only to tease what could have been a thrashing guitar-and-keyboard duo after the second refrain. Just as the guitar gets ready to tear through the track, the instruments drop back to a support role behind Pierre’s vocals. “Heavy Boots” features an opening that could’ve been lifted from any Motion City Soundtrack track from the Commit This to Memory period and the song never truly moves off of it.
“It’s a Pleasure to Meet You” dredges the absolute bottom of the album. Over a saccharine and jarring chord progression, Pierre layers meaningless encouragement and juvenile cliché. The title lyric plays like a non sequitur after the preceding line: “We’ve all had our battles with darkness and shadows/It’s a pleasure to meet you.” A pop-punk bad commending a faceless listener for their perseverance panders just as much as any boy-band telling a listener that she doesn’t know her true beauty. A decade later, the intelligent but unpretentious lyrics that drove I Am the Movie andCommit This to Memory have entirely disappeared. “Over It” slightly breaks up Panic Stations’ mediocre second half with an overdriven, guitar-heavy chorus and great drumming from recent recruit and former Saves the Day drummer Claudio Rivera.
Panic Stations’ last track — “Days Will Run Away” —however, sums up the repressed heart of the album: a love letter to the dying scene. Fall Out Boy is making pop hits, Panic! At the Disco is making pop hits, Brand New is making indie rock. It rings all too true and way, way too sad when Pierre admits, “Saw the whole scene slowly dissolve/Nobody wins.” It is hard to write about Motion City Soundtrack without writing nostalgically. I was in the fourth grade when Commit This to Memory came out, younger even when I Am the Movie brought us “Don’t Call It a Comeback” and “The Future Freaks Me Out.” Motion City Soundtrack’s refusal to leave pop punk for more creative territory or reclaim their hardcore-inspired, smart-aleck roots left them holding the bag of played-out tropes and cloying lyrics. Their next release, if one ever comes, will hopefully take up the wistfulness of “Days Will Run Away” and spin it into the dark, mature album Motion City Soundtrack may have in them.