REVIEW: Modern Baseball mature gracefully with sincerity intact on ‘Holy Ghost’

Modern Baseball Holy Ghost header

Artist: Modern Baseball
Album: Holy Ghost
Label: Run For Cover Records
Genre: Indie-rock, emo, pop-punk, grunge, whatever we’re calling The Killers these days

Sincerity is arguably the most important aspect of the songwriting process. There’s a good reason why the general populous tires of bands who spend years writing the same record over and over again. There’s a reason why hardcore punk dudes get mad whenever their favorites start making money. And there’s a reason why we never want to see our co-worker’s husband’s band play Lynryd Skynyrd covers in a dive bar on Sunday nights (okay, there are a few reasons, but a lack of sincerity is a big one). Sincerity is that intangible connection we feel with the artists on stage that lets us know they care just as much about playing the songs as we do about singing them back. Without it, the magic is gone.

Philadephia’s Modern Baseball are no strangers to sincerity. On their debut record, Sports, released in 2012 on Lame-O Records, vocalists Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald hid their lack of songwriting experience behind the tape hiss and clipping of poor production value. From a lyrical perspective, nearly every song references some obscure social media or text messaging habit that only those ages 16-22 would have any hope of understanding—“locking” text messages, a practice employed in a pre-smart phone world to avoid deleting important texts from girls and stuff, plays an important narrative role in more than one song on the debut. Sports is essentially the musical equivalent of macaroni art; it’s deeply flawed and far from accessible, but the sincerity on display and relatable stories about insecurity, unrequited love, underage drinking, and getting through your first few years of college shot baby Modern Baseball through the ranks of the Philly DIY scene into a deal with Run For Cover Records. It also landed them tours with the likes of The Wonder Years and Say Anything and national indie rock acclaim.

Having travelled the world on their Run For Cover debut, You’re Gonna Miss It All, and selling out bigger venues with each subsequent tour, it’s easy to assume that Modern Baseball are no longer the same scrappy kids who pieced Sports together in a Drexel University recording studio using nothing but instruments and their own bleeding hearts. For the most part, that’s true—the band’s new record, Holy Ghost, represents a sonic and tonal departure that’s sure to leave some fans of their older, acoustic-leaning DIY emo behind. However, Holy Ghost also signifies a gigantic jump in songwriting ability that shows genuine maturation with the same heart we’ve come to know and love, making it the band’s best work to date.

Holy Ghost has a distinct two-sided structure in the vein of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, showcasing the band’s two primary songwriters and vocalists. Side A consists entirely of songs written and sung by the deeper-voiced Jake Ewald, who specializes in more poetic lyricism and the band’s slower songs like “Pothole” and “Two Good Things.” Side B belongs to Brendan Lukens, whose poignant, in-your-face lyricism and endearingly awkward attitude spawned hits like “Rock Bottom” and “The Weekend.” As mentioned in the band’s Tripping In The Dark documentary (which I highly recommend watching before listening to this record), Ewald wrote mostly about the changes in his life surrounding the death of his grandfather and the start of a new relationship. Lukens, meanwhile, deals more with his own mental health issues.

Whereas You’re Gonna Miss It All often resembles Cory Matthews: The Album in its low self-esteem and desperate, if endearing, pleas for romantic love, Holy Ghost is far more grounded. In Lukens’ own words, the band actively attempted to step away from “quirkiness and stuff like that” for Holy Ghost, and the final product shows it. References to Instagram and National Geographic’s Planet Earth are out the door entirely, and while Ewald manages to sneak in a line about asking kids what they ate for breakfast on stage in “Mass,” the bulk of the record is entirely devoid of lyrical humor. However, the band’s penchant for witty lyricism translates wonderfully into the record’s darker themes, particularly on Ewald’s half. Lyrics like “I drove back home when you got sicker / Disputing claims that you still held the TV clicker” and “You need to hide, it’s in your framework / Look me in the eyes and act like I don’t know how shame works” in “Everyday” show Ewald’s careful approach to poetic imagery, while the triumphant opening line of “I’m a waste of time and space” in album closer “Just Another Face” and the helpless belts of “Did you ever love me?” in “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind” display Lukens’ more blatant, extremely relatable approach to lyricism. The subject matter is different this time around, but Holy Ghost certainly features the lyricists behind You’re Gonna Miss It All gems like Lukens’ “Shut up, make out, do something already, I’m waiting” and Ewald’s infamous “asshole with an iPhone” jab. Clearly, maturity is a good look for Modern Baseball.

Although Holy Ghost is decidedly more mature than past efforts—there is not a single song about Twitter on this one, guys—it’s still incredibly fun and rarely takes itself too seriously. The whole record clocks in at under thirty minutes, and five of the eleven tracks come in below the two-minute mark. Brevity is on the band’s side here, as the songs get in and get out just before they’ve run their course. With that said, not a single track feels incomplete. “Holy Ghost” is the shortest track on the record, and while it’s easy to write off as the album’s intro, it’s hard to imagine starting the record without it as it bleeds perfectly into the punky, Weakerthans-inspired “Wedding Singer” and nails the atmosphere of the first half. “Mass” is a short, fast-paced jammer about missing loved ones while on tour, oddly reminiscent of Gaslight Anthem Handwritten deep cuts like “Howl,” that ends abruptly once it gets its point across.

Lukens’ half kicks off with “Coding These To Lukens,” “Breathing In Stereo,” and “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind,” three of the shortest songs on the album that show off his new-found Killers influence particularly well. None of these tracks feature any kind of discernible verse-chorus structure, and in conjunction, they work well together as a larger piece of music. The second half of “Breathing In Stereo” feels right out of the Hot Fuss playbook with moderate punk-rock flair, while “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind” leans more anthemic and indie in nature. The latter is sure to be a live hit, concluding with one of the album’s catchiest vocal melodies and a repeating chant of “tell me this is forever, say this is forever.”

Short songs are the name of the game on Holy Ghost, yet the record’s greatest highlights come in the form of the longer tracks. On side A, “Note To Self” shows Ewald at his peak of songwriting—dynamic musicianship culminates in one of the record’s most powerful moments, complete with full-volume belting and the repetition of the chorus: “There will be no more fucking around today.” Side A wraps up with “Hiding,” which feels like a natural successor to the slow, acoustic folk songs like “Pothole” and “Coals” that Ewald contributed to previous releases. The track eventually incorporates the full band, exploding into a big crescendo reminiscent of “The Devil In My Bloodstream” from tour-mates The Wonder Years.

Finally, the record concludes with the longest song on the tracklisting, “Just Another Face,” which is certainly the band’s greatest accomplishment to date. It’s Modern Baseball firing on all cylinders, featuring a huge chorus, uncomfortable lyrical themes, and an emotional resonance unmatched by their contemporaries in the emo scene. Discordant guitar screams and a bass groove reminiscent of Nirvana and the grittier moments from the band’s 2015 Perfect Cast EP lead into Lukens’ assertion of “I’m a waste of time and space” in the verse. “I’m not just another face, I’m not just another name / Even if you can’t see it now, we’re proud of what’s to come, and you.” It’s a head-on confrontation of Lukens’ mental health struggles, as vicious as it is sincere, and it’s hard to imagine the record ending in any other way.

Holy Ghost is a perfect storm of a record. The darker lyrical themes mesh flawlessly with the grittier musical direction, while the deeper narrative behind the songs and the spunky optimism of the band continue to set them apart from their peers. There’s no singular element of the album that makes it so great; rather, Holy Ghost is the culmination of four years of Modern Baseball, capturing everything we’ve come to love about this band and delivering one of the year’s strongest indie-rock records.

SCORE: 9.25/10

John Bazley

John Bazley was raised in central New Jersey by the romantic aura of the Asbury Park beachfront, punk rock, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. He is still trying to figure all of this stuff out.

In addition to UTG, John has contributed to Alternative Press and Full Frequency Media. Follow him on Twitter for pictures of his dog.
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