In the two years since the Indiana-bred quartet the Ataris released End Is Forever on Kung Fu Records, not a lot has changed in pop-punk. And that’s part of the problem with the genre. White, angsty suburban mallrats can choose from dozens of bands (Midtown, blink-182, New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional, etc.) who sing interchangeable songs about how nervous they get around girls and how girls just don’t understand them. Not getting laid is a time-tested song theme (especially when a band’s core audience consists of horny teenage boys), but the preponderance of songs devoted to it is threatening to suffocate pop-punk.
God bless Ataris frontman Kris Roe, then, for upping the thematic stakes of the genre while keeping all the elements that make pop-punk fun in place on So Long, Astoria. As he recently told Alternative Press, he “was sick of writing songs about girls” and returned to his hometown of Anderson, Indiana, for inspiration. That trip home forms the backbone of the new record. “Summer ‘79” recounts the waning days of a teenage summer spent sneaking into drive-ins and blaring Queen’s “We Are the Champions” while driving around town. Even with a large chunk of the Ataris’ fans not alive in 1979, Roe makes it easy to draw parallels to 2003. The song captures that moment in teenagehood when you’ve conquered your hometown. Listen for it at a high school graduation near you this June.
That said, most of So Long, Astoria isn’t as chipper, but the tracks are equally as strong. The title track (and album opener) rings out with Johnny Collura’s clean guitar lines, but is lyrically doused in regret and ennui. “Takeoffs and Landings” pushes the airplane metaphor a tad too far (“I slept through your International Date Line”? C’mon…) before fading into the ether. The album’s punkiest song, “All You Can Ever Learn You Already Know” manages a few well-placed guitar squawks around Roe-homilies like “Please don’t forget who you really are”. Lines like that scream Pop Philosophy 101, but Roe knows the kids eat ‘em up.
It’s the middle third of the album where the band makes their boldest move to unseat Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carraba as king writer-of-lyrics-to-insert-in-an-AOL-Instant-Messenger-profile. “In This Diary”, “Saddest Song”, “Unopened Letter” and “My Reply” come across as epistolary and also comprise the darkest part of the album. “In This Diary” reveals the album’s conceit: “Being grown up is half as fun as growing up / These are the best days of our lives”. (A line destined to become a fixture in high school yearbooks, no?) Quit worrying about girls, Roe urges teenage listeners, and enjoy what you’ve got now, because it’s all downhill from here. (Amen, brother.) “Saddest Song” features some minor-key piano work before becoming an open letter to the 5-year-old daughter Roe rarely sees. The album’s darkest valley, however, is “Unopened Letter”, which deals with the death of a friend. Collura’s bright guitar belies the subject matter, but the song’s abrupt ending hints at the tune’s dark nature. “My Reply”, the album’s unabashed rah-rah anthem, is there to pick up spirits. In it, Roe implores a friend to “hold on for just one more second”. These four songs create a cohesive heart of an album seldom heard in today’s pop-punk.
The Ataris do get goofy, though, by album’s end. “Radio #2” is a pretty good channeling of Teenage Fanclub’s “Radio” for a band that has spent most of So Long, Astoria sounding like Jimmy Eat World and Saves the Day. With Roe singing “Call the request lines and tell them it’s over”, it’s a worthy addition to the anti-radio canon. Meanwhile, their cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” isn’t one of those snarky pop-punk covers; it fits on the album and even nails the watery guitar, but something is lost in the translation with Roe’s snarling vocals. The tune really needs Henley’s world-weariness. Bonus points are to be awarded, however, as Roe updates the “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” line to “Black Flag sticker”.
“Beautiful Mistake”, the album’s lone relationship song, boasts the album’s best guitar solo and its most piercing line: “Don’t wanna fall asleep alone / But do I wanna wake up with you”. It’s a good thing the Ataris haven’t abandoned boy-girl songs entirely, because “Beautiful Mistake” is a keeper.
With pop-punk firmly entrenched in the hearts and walkmen of America’s teens, one can only hope that these kids are willing to grow up with a band like the Ataris. For those of us already grown, So Long, Astoria is a fine trip down memory lane that celebrates the complexities of growing up.