It was always going to be interesting to see how The Front Bottoms would follow up their major label debut. Back On Top wasn’t their best material to date in that it was more of an extension of their already established emo / indie-punk sound than a real advancement, but with a bit of time to become accommodated with a new home, and an inherently larger budget to create something further from their own boundaries, the next step certainly has exciting possibilities. Unfortunately that new home is also Fueled By Ramen, a label who’ve garnered something of a reputation lately for taking unshakable control in the production of its roster, to the point where any grit or texture left in could be seen as accidental, and for an act like The Front Bottoms whose homegrown sound relies on that grit to really survive, that could pose a serious problem for Going Grey.
Sadly, that’s pretty much the case here, with Fueled By Ramen’s house production sandblasting away so much of that rough charm to turn yet another band into a bankable pop-rock act. To be perfectly fair though, there does seem to be a considerable effort made to preserve some of the ramshackle nature that The Front Bottoms have become synonymous with. The rattling acoustic guitar is still the driving presence in Bae and Everyone But You, and with the trumpet on Vacation Town and the organ on Raining that gives it a decidedly Weezer-esque vibe, there’s a feeling that at least some of the rustic nature of The Front Bottoms has remained on Going Grey despite how many other changes have been made.
And when it comes to those changes, that’s a particularly sore subject seeing how much of an effective sound has been kneecapped here. That’s not an indictment on this sound as a whole though, as in isolation this can definitely work, like in the cleaner piano, jangling guitar and accordion of Don’t Fill Up On Chips, which emerges as a genuinely potent, heartstring-tugging pop song. The real issue comes when these slicker elements try to fuse with more traditional Front Bottoms material, either swamping it out completely or just feeling so clumsy and poorly managed. Right from the first track You Used To Say (Holy Fuck) this is made abundantly clear, with a rickety guitar line that’s drowned in gurgling electronics and taut, produced drumbeats. It’s an awkward sound, and even though the intrusion here doesn’t feel as involved as previous releases from the label, it’s clear to see that the intention is to turn The Front Bottoms into a slightly wonkier pop act, but a pop act all the same; just look at the glassy synths and vocal manipulation throughout Trampoline, or the trap beat subtly rattling through Vacation Town that might only be minimal but is still totally unnecessary.
The whole thing screams of a label having no clue how to manage their own act in a way that puts them in the best light, and for The Front Bottoms, that light is simple, heartfelt tracks free of any unneeded meddling or studio trickery. At least no such cap has been put on Brian Sella’s lyrics, frequently the standout weapon in The Front Bottoms’ arsenal, and on Going Grey, they’re even more of a saving grace than usual. It’s refreshing to see that the cleansing hasn’t leached down this far just yet, considering Sella’s writing still drips with awkwardness and irreverent half-humour that’s always made him such an endearing character, from dorkier love songs like Far Drive and Everyone But You that play into Sella’s broad bleat of a voice almost perfectly, to more introspective cuts like Don’t Fill Up On Chips which serves as the optimal middle ground between the band’s past and present.
If more of Going Grey was like that track, this would be a much better album than it currently is, rather than one that proves why a band like this shouldn’t be micromanaged in any way, shape or form. The sad thing is that this isn’t even The Front Bottoms’ fault for the most part, rather that of a label who clearly don’t believe a band like this can be profitable without any sort of huge compromise. And the compromises made here are sizable, to the point where so much that was charming and endearing about The Front Bottoms has just been swept away. It’s not all bad though – Going Grey arguably has some of the catchiest moments in the band’s catalogue to date – but it’s not exactly worth singing the praises of either, which is especially sad for a band whose track record barely had a scratch on it up to this point.
For fans of: Weezer, Diet Cig, SWMRS
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Going Grey’ by The Front Bottoms is released on 13th October on Fueled By Ramen.