Ed- This is a counter-review to: this review.
Nearly every song on Souvenir, the fourth full-length from Minneapolis' Banner Pilot, addresses an abstract "you." 10 out of 12, actually. Using the second person pronoun is common in pop music: sing about a person in ubiquity and the song can apply indiscriminately. Nick Johnson is prone to this type of writing: purposefully sentimental, often injecting his own first person pronoun, singular and plural. If the girl on the cover with the flowers for eyes is any indication, Johnson is probably singing about a woman in his life. I don't want to be dense: there are certainly instances where he's shooting for bigger breadth, but if he intended it to be black and white he just as well could have used names and he didn't. After nudging the Midwestern pop-punk envelope (at least for them) on 2011's excellent Heart Beats Pacific, Souvenir is a return to form of sorts, bringing the group back closer to the sound refined on Collapser: big earwormed melodies built on catchy bass lines, snappy drumming, minimal guitar finesse and raspy vocals. Sure, the formula is trite, but they manage to keep it relatively fresh, which is Souvenir's biggest success.
For just guitars and drums, Banner Pilot know how to subsume their instruments to create fantastically relevant music. More often than not songs reside in a midtempo range (not dissimilar to other emotive bands). Occasionally they'll accelerate ("Heat Rash", "Hold Fast"), but typically rely on Nate Gangelhoff's thumbing bass and Danny Elston's crisp snare/hi-hat beats to produce a familiar charging feeling. They're at their best when the mix rhythms, like on the regretful "Letterbox", where they maximize the remorse by dropping the tempo in half during the interlude, and bring it home by speeding back up through the outro. It's a small maneuver, but it works. Banner Pilot aren't trying to recreate the wheel; they just make their own adjustments â?? no doubt with the help of producer Jacques Wait, making his third appearance manning the boards behind a Pilot record. Instead of palm muting the verse on "Heat Rash" they strike each chord a few times and cut them, letting the bass and drums carry the song. The transition to the chorus is a clever 4-chord upward progression, lifting Johnson's message of resiliency and perseverance ("I can walk with broken legs/ I can crawl my way out of sinking ground"). Their proclivity for suspense survives on surrendering sound for restraint. For nearly three minutes, "Dead Tracks" never breaks stride except for the last thirty seconds when the bass exits, leaving a palm muted guitar and tenuously defiant drums to hold Johnson's raspy concession (a vocal quality half abandoned on Heart Beats Pacific) before each part returns to full strength. And of course, the Jawbreaker comparisons have never been more apropos: the first three chords on "Shoreline" are almost identical to the beginning of "Ache" off of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy; it even assumes a similarly bruised, unmotivated cadence.
Johnson's propensity conforms to the musical disposition â?? a trait that turns on as many people to Banner Pilot as it turns off. Yeah, the lyrics can be mawkishly cringe-inducing at times: "What does it take to feel live?"; "Still time to reinvent yourselfâ?¦you want to be from somewhere else." It can come off as emotional sloganeering, at best, and disingenuous, at worst. But Johnson's introspection is both coherent and engaging. There is nothing specific in a line like, "I've made a few mistakes on the way/ I'll make a couple more" from "Dead Tracks", but it's universal appeal is as comforting as it is cathartic. For every less-than-stellar metaphor â?? I wouldn't call relating lucid clarity to falling down a rabbit hole "inspired" â?? Johnson has an equally thoughtful observation ("Every turn and every scar, it all makes sense if you don't think too hard"). Even if some of his postulates aren't the most original, Johnson's impassioned delivery â?? gritty and strained â?? makes the awareness feel novel and esoteric ("We're miles out at sea/ we're miles from where we want to be").
While it isn't always clear who exactly Johnson is speaking to (or for), he's rather explicit in details about time and place. On "Modern Shakes" he soliloquizes a day "on your rooftop in the spring time," describing the rainfall and a "red wine-colored sky." By the end he is walking along the tracks listening for the "faded sound of you." But like the abstract second person pronoun, it's effectively inconsequential when and where these places exist, if at all. References to city streets, sidewalks, railroad tracks, the sea and times of season â?? all are thinly veiled allegories for Johnson's large rumination: getting up and getting on. Souvenir presents an individual torn: on the one hand, he's revitalized and excited by finding himself ("Colfax"); on the other hand, he knows its time to let it all go ("Effigy"). He's experiencing an immense amount of frustration ("I can't remember all these twists and bends/ I'm never leaving, this is it now/ This is where our story ends"), but isn't ready to give up ("I bet it's about time to take this new shot").
Or give it up, because at the crux of Souvenir is just that: a collection of intangible artifacts that serve as reminiscence and catalyst. Taken at face value, Johnson's only mementos are the times he's fucked up ("Turning around, try to remember something good, but I forgot"). But the truth is he understands fully the benefit in acknowledging the past ("nothing's ever lost forever"), and the release in looking to the future ("I know I wont break, but maybe one day, go ahead and burn it up in effigy"). He isn't necessarily prescribing this approach â?? others believe in stowing the artifacts from your past â?? but he does endorse it. If you weren't a fan of Banner Pilot before, Souvenir isn't going to change that. But for those craving more introspective, gritty pop-punk, this will certainly suffice.