Artist: Real Friends
Album: The Home Inside My Head
Label: Fearless Records
Genre: Starting Line-influenced pop-punk, the last pop-punk band that’s not ashamed of their genre
Due to either the Pop Punk Defense Force dying with Man Overboard this Spring, blatant over-saturation of the market in 2013, or all of the good bands rebranding as “emo” to stay hip, the resurgent brand of pop-punk that stormed your local basement scene in 2011 seems to be on its way out of favor. Formative bands like Transit and Major League have called it quits in the past few months, while the subsequent wave of pop-punkers like Sorority Noise and PUP have taken the genre in new and exciting directions, far from the Through Being Cool worship of years past. Suddenly, it’s far harder to make the case that pop-punk’s not dead than it was just a few short years ago.
With that, on the heels of their label debut and breakthrough release Maybe This Place Is The Same and We’re Just Changing, Real Friends are in something of a difficult postilion. See, the Chicago five-piece is perhaps the most pigeonholed band of the new pop-punk wave, likely due to their playful adherence to genre stereotypes, like pizza, and basement shows, and friends (oh my!). It would have been safe to assume that their sophomore release would follow the wave of the genre and mark a significant leap away from the pop-punk tropes of yore, but seemingly while no one was looking, Real Friends pieced together their best release to date and one of the year’s strongest pop-punk albums. The Home Inside My Head is full of the type of introspective pop-punk we expect from Real Friends, mastered.
Most of the record’s impressive first impressions come from the smash-up engineering work, courtesy of Steve Evetts (The Wonder Years, Saves The Day, Every Time I Die). Vocalist Dan Lambton’s voice is far more controlled and less grating than his work on past releases, and guitars ring and echo with a charming buzz over punchy drums, not unlike the tones present on The Wonder Years’ Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing. The Wonder Years comparison is apt for most of the record. In fact, just about every song on The Home Inside My Head, with the possible exception of the two downbeat songs, could fit in on Suburbia. That’s a good thing, as Real Friends have long lived in the shadow of their Philadelphia friends, often regarded as the watered-down version of The Wonder Years’ tried and true formula. Yet with The Home Inside My Head, the band has clearly tailored songwriting to play to their own strengths, and the results show.
Despite the leaps in quality and successful experiments present on The Home Inside My Head, the band occasionally falls into familiar pitfalls, albeit in a far less egregious manner than on works past. “Eastwick” is an easy skip of an acoustic track that doesn’t play to any of the band’s strengths, musically or lyrically, while opener “Stay In One Place” is the least memorable track on the album, filling the air before highlight follow-up, “Empty Picture Frames.” Most distinct amongst the awkward stumbles, however, is “Mokena,” the record’s centerpiece and quite likely the most stereotypically predictable song on the record. Lambton croons about reminiscing on his years as an unhappy kid, graduating high school, and feeling lost before launching into the big chorus about “fucking up and getting over it.” It’s not particularly unlistenable, but Real Friends have written variations on this emotional ballad a few times now, playing on nostalgia and the concept of feeling unhappy. It feels one-size-fits-all in its empathy by design, and it never manages to evoke the type of emotive response that it seems to promise.
Thankfully, “Mokena” leads directly into the album’s crown jewel and the best song Real Friends have released, “Mess.” The Starting Line influence is heavy here with a vocal melody that’d fit right in on Based On A True Story, and Lambton’s vocals have improved to the point where he’s able to pull it off flawlessly without relying on his exasperated upper register to keep up with the band. “Last year I was a train wreck, now I’m just a mess,” sings Lambton over the infectious, bouncy rhythm of staccato guitars in the chorus. Just in case you forget you’re listening to Real Friends, there’s a fun Death Cab For Cutie name drop in the second verse (preferable to the Dashboard Confessional reference in “Basement Stairs”) and the pre-chorus gang vocal references “Lost Boy” from Maybe This Place Is The Same And We’re Just Changing.
Tracks like “Mess,” along with the aforementioned “Empty Picture Frames” and the absurdly catchy closer, “Colder Quicker,” prove that Real Friends are more than capable of writing next-level pop-punk and pushing the envelope in a genre that’s continued to decline in creativity and sheer consistency of output in recent years. Consistent and catchy, Home is proof that Real Friends carry the pop-punk torch in 2016…even if the torch is beginning to burn 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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