Philip Morgan ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Ask any random person to describe the sound of the typical indie/emo band at any point in time in three words or less. Chances are “funny” will not come up at all. No surprise there, given emo and post-hardcore’s long track record of being an atmosphere-driven genre. Some bands may be more cerebral in nature, others more partial to pop-punk tendencies, but the common denominator between them is the all-encompassing sense of dark introspection and catharsis. Even when the band’s live persona is more light-hearted, the odds are that their lyrical and music content is anything but.
Enter Philadelphia, PA’s Modern Baseball, the glaring exception to that rule. At first glance, they don’t look or carry themselves any differently than most emo bands touring today, but then frontman Brendan Lukens (featured prominently frowning in the video above) warms up with a guitar medley of every horrible vintage pop song he can think of. That, along with the rest of the band mock-dancing along in response, pretty much sets the tone for their whole live persona. The quartet never takes themselves too seriously, comfortable in the logic that being incredibly tight as an ensemble affords them space to goof around on stage. That mentality bleeds into their crowd interactions too, with Lukens hilariously flaring up in the face of a crowd-surfer dressed as Santa Claus, roaring “You’re not Santa! YOU LIAR!!!!” at the top of his lungs and then immediately laughing along with everyone else at how over the top his outburst was. Most of the humor comes from Lukens’ constant riffing on himself, his bandmates, and the show overall, but he’s also the first to announce he’s having a kickass time and check if everyone else is too. Their jokes are dry but never mean-spirited, and the constant thanking everyone in attendance (including all four opening acts) along with how much they openly enjoyed thrashing about on-stage betrays a humbleness amongst the quartet. They’re just as stoked that they’re playing as everyone else is, and their apparent shock that “anyone of sound mind would pay actual money to watch us play idiotic music” reflects a deep appreciation few live acts are willing to expose.
Make no mistake, their jovial nature does not mean their musical performance is lacking. In fact, you might say Modern Baseball’s music lends itself to such quirkiness. They embody all the calling cards of your standard indie/emo band, but always with a twist, and even if that’s not inherently funny, the subtle curveballs that permeate their music are certainly intriguing and worth return listens. Drummer Sean Huber does pop-punk proud with uptempo beats, but he can switch tempos and styles almost instantaneously, switching from smooth jazz rides to hyperactive blast beats without ever falling out of sync. Meanwhile, the rest of the band more than keeps up with him, with bassist Ian Farmer mixing doses of walking jazz and rockabilly bass lines into his surging punk drive. Lukens and guitarist/secondary vocalist Jake Ewald also seem to have a soft spot for rockabilly and alt country, as their melodic portions and even their more reverb-laden passages always come with a slight twang reminiscent of The Gaslight Anthem or even The Dead Milkmen. Embracing their cowpunk influences wholeheartedly gives their more aggressive songs and bouncy, almost danceable feel and their mellower tracks a stripped, folky sensitivity that is both rare and refreshing to see in any band in the emo spectrum.
Vocally, the only major difference between Lukens and Ewald’s delivery is Lukens’ higher pitch tendencies, really only noticeable during the few times Ewald completely takes over lead vocal duties. But combined, along with support from Farmer and Huber, their singing reflects the “nerdy, nasally barbershop quartet” aesthetic of bands like Weezer and Andrew Jackson Jihad, causing even their meek nasally voices to sound completely fleshed out. It’s a style that syncs up with their jangly music well and lines up with their lyrics even better. In true emo fashion, there’s talk of unrequited love and self-loathing a plenty in their lyrics , but the band’s sardonic sense of humor and self-awareness prevents them from ever expressing one-sided sadness or heartbreak (again, much like The Dead Milkmen before them). The sudden, muffled declaration of “I could not muster the courage to say a single word to you” right before the tempo surges forward in the song “Apartment” feels like a bad punchline, a reflection of Lukens’ acknowledgement that his social anxiety is stunting his personal growth and that his daydreaming and inaction is only hurting himself, leading him to finally ask the girl in question out at the song’s end.
The social commentary doesn’t end with their own flaws, however, and their drop-dead sarcasm is just as scathing when employed on others. Here they playfully skirt around their near-complete contempt for the shitty people they encounter throughout their lives as punk musicians and as recent college students. The faux-riddles that make up the verses in “Going to Bed Now” outline their dread of having to deal with arrogant kids no matter where they go, and the clever phrasing in “Fine, Great” betrays their frustration with the self-absorption of much of their generation. Just to cement their point, often Ewald and Farmer will voice such people through shifting to hilariously exaggerated young adult voices. These characters are usually either listening to Lukens’ narrative, such as Farmer’s plea of “Oh, come on!” in “Tears over Beers,” or actively participating in the dialogue, like with Farmer and Ewald’s back and forth in “Charlie Black.” They seem to have a great deal of fun with the voices too, as it gives them the chance to portray the blunt stupidity of the people discussed in their songs as well as directly voice their own thoughts, and watching them continue playing the music while “in character” is pretty entertaining by itself.
Regardless, it’d be easy enough to just lose yourself in how quirkily upbeat and memorable every single song is, but given how many of the attendees shouted every single lyric at the top of their lungs, it’s pretty apparent that Modern Baseball is a band that’s leaving a lasting impression on both their fans and peers (supposedly “the guy from Bowling for Soup” stopped by to see them play, but declined to reveal himself, much to Lukens’ chagrin). Their uniquely humorous twist on emo cuts a massive swath between them and their contemporaries, and their new LP You’re Gonna Miss It All is more than sufficient evidence that they’re as talented and intelligent as they are fun to watch goof around. So, if you have a taste for upbeat indie rock and are willing to laugh at yourself and your emotional distress while also taking quick jabs at everyone that bothers you, Modern Baseball is the band for you, especially if you happen to know any members of Bowling for Soup.