Pop-punk is an almost inherently funny thing. The term alone is contradictory: if you're so "punk", then you shouldn't care about pop sensibilities. And pop-punk bands-of which there are many, so many that it seems as though we're growing them on some California farm-sound more or less interchangeable with one another. Simple Plan sounds like Sum 41 who sound like Blink 182. No Use For a Name sounds like NOFX, and so on. These pop-punk bands also almost defiantly stick to making music for immature, sexually frustrated 13-year-old boys (The Warped Tour crowd, if you will) while sacrificing good hooks for the sake of looking cool or saying a word like "boobies".
What's cool about Midtown, though, is that, sure, that crowd is going to like them, because once again, they do sound the same as every other punk-pop band out there, but they write better, more "mature" (in a loose sense) songs. The emo crowd could like them, because the guys in Midtown aren't insensitive a-holes, the power-pop crowd could like them because their songs display a greater understanding of the hook and how to swing it than many of their peers. In short, if you buy a punk-pop record this year, Midtown's Living Well Is the Best Revenge should be it.
That isn't to say that this is an innovative record, of course. The production, courtesy punk/pop/emo veteran Mark Trombino, is in line with his work with bands as diverse as Jimmy Eat World, Finch, and Blink 182: crisp, clean, Pro-Toolsed instrumentation and vocals that are about as crisp as the new Celene Dion record. It's professionally written and recorded stuff all the way through, a far cry from real "punk" in the 1977 sense. I mean, heck, Trombino produced the Moffatts, too. How punk is that? This particular sound also does seem to have its days numbered at this point, with fans being more obsessed with the sloppy imperfections of the White Stripes, the Strokes, and the Hives (although one wonders if the garage movement will sound as dated in five years as the whole swing revival sounds now) than with teeny-punker fare like this.
Ignoring all of this, however, is important to unlock Living Well's attributes. One of the first things that a listener might notice is that the lyrics are actually quite throughtful. Not in a stodgy sense, but in the sense that emo kids could understand: instead of singing about scoring on the first date of screaming "hooray for boobies," Midtown are fundamentally pretty nice guys. They like girls, but they don't want to score and have them as trophies. They look for meaning in a relationship. It's not surprising that Living Well is one of those sounds-happy-but-is-lyrically-downbeat records, since that's a fairly standard blueprint.
"Like a Movie" is a fairly good example of Midtown's comparatively strong songwriting. It's a fairly simple tune about a woman in a vulnerable situation after some traumatic event. A sample lyric: "The reason her life did not turn out / More like a movie / She's trying to forget it all / She tries to erase / She tries to replace / How it feels but I / Know she can never go on." Maybe it's not Dylanesque poetry, but the song does have some emotional resonance. Oh, and here's the kicker-the song is married to a massive, massive hook, the kind even a picky pop fanatic could get into. And while "Like a Movie" is perhaps the best song here, these infectious hooks exist on nearly every other cut. Hear "Become What You Hate" or "Perfect" even just once and it will stay with you.
Some may cry that this is disposable, canned pop music, and in some degree they're right: the pop punk bands that have thrived in the past five years have done so as an alternative to even-more-canned teen pop like 'N Sync and Britney Spears, and at their roots, the punk-pop hits of this half-decade haven't differed much in style or substance from the teen-pop hits of the same time. Likewise, one could say that Living Well Is the Best Revenge came at just the wrong time, as the pendulum is swinging towards the more nakedly emotional Coldplays and Ryan Adamses as well as the rougher, more tossed off works of the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, and White Stripes.
Midtown isn't an MTV power like Blink 182, though, as their fans are amongst the moderately more advanced members of the Warped Tour crowd (those who go beyond New Found Glory and are into Good Charlotte and similarly hooky punk-pop acts). This means they may not need to sell millions, they just need to please an audience. Thankfully, Living Well Is the Best Revenge is a record that will both please this audience and will likely please others that hear it, because it shows a level of craftsmanship that is uncommon to modern punk-pop.