Five and half years go, Blink 182 announced their reunion at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Since then they have released a critically panned LP and a mediocre EP. Yellowcard, despite giving their fellow pop-punk stalwarts an 18 month head start (Yellowcard announced their own reunion in August of 2010) have still sufficiently lapped the California trio for the award of Best Reunion. Having already released critically acclaimed full-length albums, 2011’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes and 2012’s Southern Air, as well as two full-length acoustic re-imaginings (one of When You’re Through Thinking, and one of their classic Ocean Avenue) in the years since their reunion, what exactly does Yellowcard have left to say?
As it turns out, quite a lot. The Florida-based pop-rock outfit is back with their astounding ninth studio album Lift a Sail, the first without longtime drummer Longineau “LP” Parsons III, who left the group last year. To fill the hole left by the heavily contributing member, Yellowcard enlisted Nate Young of Anberlin to record the percussion for the album.
And what an album it is. Lift a Sail begins beautifully with “Convocation” an intro of sorts that sets the stage for the richly evocative music that will follow. It sounds like the score to a beautiful panorama shot in a the opening moments of a film, and it works precisely this way on the album, segueing beautifully into the hard-hitting rising action of Transmission, its massive, reverberating floor tom drum beat exploding forward into a delightfully intricate guitar riff. The song becomes Yellowcard’s version of the sound that Hit The Lights crafted on Invicta. The track’s bridge crescendos into a cathartic final chorus.
The following track, Crash The Gates is where Young’s contributions to the record first begin to shine fully though. Those who have followed his band Anberlin’s career closely know that Young has a penchant not just for getting absolutely spacious drum sounds out of his recordings, but he also has become a technician with creating great electronic drum beats and atmospheric sounds as well. “Crash the Gates” combines both of these skills into a pulverizing, heavy, rock song. The prechorus is full of airy synths and a glitchy electronic beat, which then immediately kicks into a fittingly incendiary drum-beat as Key sings the chorus’s opening lines’ “Sing, “Oh oh oh oh, whoa oh oh”/ Crash the gates, light a fire, and watch it burn.”
There are other moments where Young’s unique talents are used on the record. It seems as though the drum beat in the verse’s of lead single “One Bedroom” was lifted almost directly from the Anberlin song “Armageddon,” which came out back in July, while the most “pop-punk” track, features an instrumental bridge which seems to be specifically put there to highlight Young (it even has the “distant drum” effect most obviously used by Young in Anberlin’s mega-hit “Feel Good Drag.”)
Though Young is a welcome addition to the band (and one that unfortunately won’t last as Young was enlisted as a one time only contributor) the rest of the band also brought their craft forward beautifully here as well. Ryan Mendez turns in the best performance of his career, shredding all over the record, including during the closing seconds of lead single “One Bedroom,” in which he gets to live out his greatest 80s fantasies with a guitar solo that would make even Slash pride.
The record is not without it’s faults by any stretch, however. Violinist Sean Mackin is such a constant positive force in this band that it feels wrong to even criticize him. But although he turns in a tremendous performance overall, the backing violin of “MSK” is particularly frustrating because it appeared to be the same, or almost the same as the main violin line of Southern Air lead single “Always Summer.” Call it an homage to the band’s previous work if you want, but the song comes off redundant to me as a result. And although “My Mountain” is one of the better written tracks on the record (more on that in a moment), the Foo Fighters “Everlong” meets “Lights and Sounds” palm-muted guitar line of the song’s bridge is a bit too cheesy for me to take seriously.
Key, though still an accomplished vocalist and lyricist, lays it on a bit too heavily with the melodrama and sentimentality, to a fault at times. For example, on the album’s nadir, “Madrid,” Key sings the near cringe-worthy line, “Now I fear I might freeze, so I’m asking you please / Would you let me inside?” It’s lines like these that elicit many an eye-roll and threaten to overshadow some of the more affecting songs on the album. Luckily, however, I said “threaten to overshadow;” there are still some absolutely chilling moments, such as the chorus of Lift a Sail’s clear highlight, “Illuminate.” Key sings directly to his love, with and optimistic eye to the future, “Do you picture me, what do you see? / Maybe a future full of on ramps / And thinking hope tonight from what’s been done.” Then there is “My Mountain,” inspired by Key’s grandfather, who passed away before the release of this album. Key sings beautifully in the track’s chorus, “And if you need me I will never be too far I’m always with you / like a child in your heart,” beautifully evoking the spirit of his grandfather through song.
If the first track is Yellowcard’s call to action, as the title “Convocation” conveys, then the title track, “Lift A Sail” is the band’s affirmation of faith. “If a cold wind starts to rise / I am ready now, I am ready now / With the last sail lifted high, / I am ready now,” sings Key in the track’s chorus. Key has been forthcoming with the information that the album has been influenced a great deal by a significant injury his now-wife sustained in a snowboarding accident. The title track then, seems to be a realization for Key, that although this terrible accident may have represented a cold wind of change in his life, he has what he needs, a single sail of faith to continue to move him forward.
Move forward, Yellowcard has. They’ve come a long way from that simple pop-punk band who blew up the radio eleven years ago. The maturity in their approach to songwriting as well as their experimentation is evident. Hopefully Blink 182 is taking notes.