I’m not going to lie -- I really do like quite a lot of radio pop-punk. Yellowcard are easily one of the best acts you’ll find in the Hot 200 as far as I’m concerned. With Paper Walls, Yellowcard have taken their sound to a new level. The slow songs soar higher, and the fast songs have so much more energy. Paper Walls is exactly what pop-punk radio really needs while in the midst of the Fall Out Boy trend. Too many bands playing music too similar just isn’t good in any situation. Hell, mainstream pop-punk is so cornered by the Fueled by Ramen sound right now that even a Simple Plan record would be a refreshing change of pace at this point. Right...but anyway, enough of that, onto the music.
There is only really one big miss here, that being “Dear Bobbie,” a love song about vocalist Ryan Key's grandparents. However well-intentioned this song is, it simply throws the pace of this album off too much. It would make a great B-side, but it really hurts the album itself, a mixed bag of slow, powerful ballads, punchy, fast pop-punk, and mid-paced rock.
As far as ballads are concerned, we have “Keeper,” “Shadows and Regrets,” and “You and Me and One Spotlight.” “Keeper” provides soaring vocals from Key over a prominent, beautifully light guitar riff. “Shadows and Regrets” is a spectacular song about times gone by, opening with simple acoustic strumming, opening up to light violin, eventually building up to a huge chorus, with bells and electric guitar. “You and Me and One Spotlight” is a personal favorite, if only because of the allusions to theatre. Nonetheless, Key provides equally awesome vocals on this track. Really, these songs were designed to make him shine, and it really works. How much of this is Pro Tools' work I don’t know, but it does sound great at least.
Pop-punk is always what Yellowcard did best, and reasonably enough, songs of such structure represent the majority of Paper Walls for a reason. Here we have “The Takedown,” “Fighting,” “Afraid,” “Five Becomes Four,” and “Cut Me, Mick.” The former three are standard relationship-based pop-punk fare, but that’s not to say they aren’t well-executed -- they’re actually some of Yellowcard’s best songs to date. “Five Becomes Four” tackles their relationship with former guitarist Ben Harper, putting violinist Sean Mackin to great use with an instantly memorable violin track. “Cut Me, Mick” relies on a New Found Glory (think Catalyst)-style “huge” guitar riff, creating a wholly enjoyable song that sticks out from the rest of the batch.
Of course, what would Yellowcard be without a solid rock base? That's how they became so huge. Yellowcard bring “Shrink the World,” “Date Line (I Am Gone),” and the lead single “Light Up the Sky” to the table. While “Light Up the Sky” is a perfect take on alt-rock radio, the other two simply come off more as filler. Not that they are bad, they just get lost in the rest of the album.
The whole deal closes out with “Paper Walls,” which kind of takes the best elements of Yellowcard’s pop-punk, rock and ballads, and combines them for an excellent closer. The title track opens with a cool though cliché children’s chorus chanting lyrics of the song, quickly opening into another New Found Glory-style riff, going out into a light, sort of acoustic section, which builds into a huge rock chorus. “Paper Walls” is an excellent way to wrap this album up.
Besides “Dear Bobbie,” the greatest fault of Paper Walls is also one of its greatest strengths. While Neal Avron’s production makes Ryan Key sound amazing, it often finds Mackin’s violin sounding distant, and totally separate from the rest of the band. Besides that, there really is nothing to complain about on Paper Walls. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but with it Yellowcard have made an amazingly competent pop-punk/pop-rock album that rocks a lot harder than most of their peers' current releases. While Yellowcard doesn’t quite reach the greatness of the now (in my opinion) genre classic Ocean Avenue, and while I don’t think they’ve proven they can write a song better than my personal favorite “Breathing,” Paper Walls certainly is a welcome return from 2005’s Lights and Sounds.