MxPx has been a pivotal band in the punk rock world for 20 years now, and after a five-year hiatus between full-length albums, has come out of the blue to unleash a phenomenal ninth studio album, titled Plans Within Plans. There have been many criticisms leveled against MxPx over the years. Everything from the band's Christian background to Mike Herrera's seemingly juvenile level of songwriting has been the subject of much debate among punk rock fans. These criticisms do have some level of validity, after all MxPx isn't a perfect band, and like any band that has been around for 20 years has had its share of ups (Life In GeneralSlowly Going the Way of the Buffalo, The Ever Passing Moment), downs (Before Everything and After) and near misses (Panic, Secret Weapon).
However, the truly jaded listener is over looking the fact that MxPx specializes in putting out fast, simple, infectious, upbeat and accessible pop-punk music that isn't meant to be overanalyzed and dissected under a microscope. Instead, Herrera's ability to write infectious and accessible pop-punk gems is the driving force behind what has made MxPx an introduction to punk rock for two decades worth of teenagers now. If Plans within Plans happens to be the first punk rock album that a teenager picks up today, then he/she is in for a treat because MxPx's songwriting hasn't sounded this energetic and focused since the turn of the century. Plans Within Plans is an album that will turn impressionable teenagers into punk rock fans over night, and it will remind older fans of a time when MxPx used to produce pitch perfect pop-punk albums in the mid to late '90s.
Plans Within Plans opens up with what will soon be the second single on the album, "Aces Up." As first tracks go, this is a classic MxPx opener, with an upbeat tempo and lyrics that tell a story of dealing with life's hard ships, all wrapped up nicely with an inspirational metaphor that tells the listener to deal the cards and hope "you get aces, and when you play your hand, put on your poker faces because life just don't deal aces." The simplicity of the lyrics and polish to the song are highly reminiscent of a cross between a sped up version of Tom Petty's "The Waiting" and the classic MxPx opener "My Life Story," from The Ever Passing Moment. The only puzzling aspect of this song was the use of a cheesy sounding drum machine at the 1:47 mark. Considering the exquisite style of drumming that awaits the listener on the album's closing track, the drum machine just seems tacky.
The second track on the album, "Screw Loose," is a return to the hardcore sound that MxPx dabbles in with a song or two on each album. Fans of songs like "Get Me Out," from Panic, and "Fist vs. Tact," from Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo, will feel right at home here. The only minor complaint with "Screw Loose" is its sequencing on the album. It seems kind of jarring for this song to follow the mid-tempo, power pop, folksy, Tom Petty-like opener "Aces Up." The album would probably flow even better if "Screw Loose" were moved down in the track listing. In fact, the single "Far Away" is such a scorcher that it's a shame it doesn't inhabit the second slot on the album. If "Far Away" followed "Aces Up", then Plans Within Plans would have an opening one-two punch that would rival the opening of the Flatliners' exceptional Cavalcade album.
After the minor track sequencing and drum machine stumble, Plans Within Plans settles into an exquisitely nice flow. "Nothing Left" and "The Times" give off a Life In General vibe, instrumentally, mixed with the power pop found on songs like "Here's to the Life" on Secret Weapon. The bass solo that opens up "The Times" is going to inspire as many kids to learn the bass as "Chick Magnet" did more than a decade ago.
"Best of Times" follows, and it should kick off a wave of nostalgia for MxPx fans. This song is a nice companion piece to other nostalgia-themed fan favorites like "Where Will We Go?" and "This Weekend." In fact, the slower pacing of "Best of Times" should actually please fans of MxPx's side project Arthur.
Fans of the goofier, yet crowd pleasing, MxPx songs such as "Chick Magnet" and "Responsibility" will find one of their new favorite songs in "Lucky Guy;" a song that contains such cheese as "I don't have a Ph.D. but she still loves me…I'm a lucky guy, and I'll tell you why, because after all she still loves me." Oddly enough, the song also seems to give off a tone that is similar to Descendents' "Nothing With You." Basically, if you're looking for a fun song, and can look past the cheese, "Lucky Guy" will be pleasurable to your ears.
Luckily enough, again, Plans Within Plans fails to falter for very long. Before the jaded old man in all of us can even begin to scoff at the naivete of "Lucky Guy," the first single from the album, "Far Away," starts to blare out of the speakers. "Far Away" is the natural evolution of the more stripped down punk sound MxPx was going for on the Left Coast Punk EP, only mixed with the power pop tricks the group has been attempting to refine since The Ever Passing Moment. This is easily in contention for the best single MxPx has ever released, as the members seem to have learned from any mistakes they made on Before Everything and After, Panic and Secret Weapon in order to create what will be seen as the new prototypical MxPx song.
"When It Comes To You" and "Nothing's Gonna Change" are two exemplary songs that round out the end of the album nicely. "When It Comes To You" is yet another song that echoes the sound quality of The Ever Passing Moment. Lyrically speaking, it seems like a long lost song that should have logically followed "Here With Me" and "Without You", from The Ever Passing Moment, but with a stronger songwriting structure that can be found in songs like "One Step Closer to Life" and "Unsaid" off of that same album. "When It Comes To You" is destined to become the underrated song on Plans Within Plans, that true fans will cherish, but will more than likely take a backseat at live shows to songs like "Lucky Guy" and the single "Far Away," in order to appease the casual fans. Make no mistake about it, "When It Comes to You" is to Plans Within Plans' what "My Mom Still Cleans My Room" is to Life In General.
"Nothing's Gonna Change" is a soaring closing track, in which Yuri Ruley's drumming is out in full force. The closest comparison to this song would be "Misplaced Memories," from The Ever Passing Moment only with choruses that could have been ripped out of "South Bound" from Life In General. It's the most rip-roaring closing track this side of the Lawrence Arms' "Like A Record Player," and it makes the statement that MxPx has returned to relevancy in the pop-punk world, and despite the fact that Ruley has retired from touring, he is still a driving force behind what makes the band really fire on all cylinders.
Ever since the decade ticked over, from the late 1990s and into the 2000s, MxPx has been struggling to define who it is as a band. The group strived for a New Found Glory or Ataris level of mainstream popularity on 2003's Before Everything and After, and ended up losing many long time fans in the process. On 2005's Panic they tried to return to their punk rock roots, but may have tried a bit too hard, resulting in a sound that seemed forced. 2007 then saw the band attempt to blend Panic's punk rock roots and Before Everything and After's pop sensibilities, which led to a very uneven record in Secret Weapon. So, if Plans within Plans is any indication, perhaps the five-year hiatus since Secret Weapon was highly warranted. It seems as if Herrera did some soul searching in that time, reflecting on what worked and what didn't work on the last few albums, and finally found the true essence of what made MxPx such a popular punk rock band in the first place. Plans Within Plans is a 35-minute blast from the past, combining the best elements of The Ever Passing Moment and Life In General, in order to create the most energetic, exciting, cohesive and effortless sounding album the band has released since the late '90s.