Having reviewed more than my fair share of pop punk CDs this year, I have no qualms announcing that too much of the scene is a vast wasteland. Granted, bands like, say, Wakefield, are geared towards teenagers, not twentysomethings like yours truly, but good music is good music. But for every nondescript band getting blared in mom's minivan on the way to the mall Friday night, there's a handful of mainstream acts that remind you that some bands still care. These artists' albums have their flaws, and maybe they won't win any awards, but they show a willingness to experiment and grow. For example, AFI turned in one of the genre's better efforts this year on Sing the Sorrow, mixing goth with punk, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention strong albums from Brand New and Alkaline Trio. Now add to the list of bands worth noticing SoCal quintet Yellowcard, who do their part to stand out in the pop punk scene on their Capitol Records debut, Ocean Avenue, by adding a violin to their punky mix.
Every so often a fiddle/violin pops up in a rock band -- Camper Van Beethoven, Dave Matthews Band -- and its appearance reminds you how versatile an instrument it is; nobody would mistake Jonathan Segal for Boyd Tinsley. So too it goes for Yellowcard's Sean Mackin, who brings his own sound to the table, whether it's through the edgy flourishes of "Empty Apartment" or leading on the Whiskeytown-goes-SoCal-punk of "View from Heaven".
But here's the mildly astonishing part about Yellowcard: They'd be a solid band even without their calling card/gimmick (and let's be honest; that's what Mackin's violin is, even if it is entertaining and well-played). Maybe it's a product of the band being slightly older than many of their contemporaries on the scene -- guitarist Ben Harper is the baby at 22 -- but it's refreshing to hear an album that's not bogged down with party odes and rants about mean girls. Yellowcard frontman/songwriter Ryan Key focuses instead on thoughtful topics like fatherhood ("Life of a Salesman") and growing up (cliché, yes, but "Twentythree" puts blink-182's "What's My Age Again?" to shame). When they do fall into thematic genre ruts, Mackin's violin separates Yellowcard from the pack, if not elevates them above. "Only One", "Miles Apart", and "Believe" don't say anything that hasn't been said before, literally -- "There's just no one who gets me like you do", "I'd give it all up for one more day with you", and "everything is gonna be alright" could just as well be the Faces, the Corrs, and Bob Marley instead of the three aforementioned songs -- but in Yellowcard's case, it's not what they say, but how they say it. Mackin's violin gets most of the ink, to be sure, but the other musicians are no slouches either. Guitarist Harper effortlessly swings from heavy and punky ("Believe") to jangly ("Empty Apartment") to acoustic (the wistful "One Year, Six Months" may be the closest any pop punk band will ever come to channeling Crosby, Stills and Nash). Meanwhile, drummer Longineau Parsons entertains himself with all manner of tricks, stuttering and punking out.
The kids are alright, and Ocean Avenue arrives at a time when pop punk's audience is maturing beyond the typical puerile fare that too many bands offer. Yellowcard and their violinist aren't entirely the answer to what is ailing pop punk, but they're not part of the problem either.