Perfect LP: Taking Back Sunday

featured / News / Perfect LP / Special Features / May 15, 2017

Perfect LP is a feature in which the Modern Vinyl writers take on the tall task of summarizing an artist or band’s career in an LP-sized selection of tracks. Bypassing what was the single, what was the “hit” and what fans call for throughout shows, it’s time to decide what makes up the Perfect LP.

The Rules

The selections will total no more than 50 minutes.
The selections are arranged in logical fashion, as in how you’d like to hear them in a real tracklisting.

The Subject

Amityville, New York’s Taking Back Sunday. Over the course of several lineup changes and sonic challenges, the outfit — normally configured as a five-piece — has released seven full-length records, beginning with 2002’s Tell All Your Friends (considered by many to be a high-water mark in pop-punk’s early courtships with emo) and most recently continuing with 2016’s Tidal WaveMost notably, those lineup alterations dealt with lead guitar and secondary vocalist, John Nolan’s tenure halting after Tell All Your Friends and picking back up at the band’s self titled effort. In between, Fred Mascherino (The Color Fred, Terrible Things) and Matthew Fazzi would take on the role.

The Tracks

The Explanation

Let’s just get this out of the way: Tell All Your Friends is not Taking Back Sunday’s finest moment. (Imagine if I also told you that your peak was at 18 years old. You wouldn’t like that much either, would you?) When the band left Victory Records for a recording contract with Warner Bros. — in an era where major labels saw the appeal of alternative rock’s latest direction, but not necessarily the sterling approach — the group survived its latest lineup shakeup and actual-finest work (2004’s Where You Want To Be, their last for Victory) to continue playing with genre formats and dynamics. The results, 2006’s almost-platinum smash Louder Now, 2009’s New Again, and 2011’s self-titled record, showed a band sampling different balancing acts of energy and emotive songwriting that confused and endeared. Including the band’s first for indie behemoth Hopeless Records, 2014’s Happiness Is, this is a way to consolidate the chaos into one cathartic disc. (2016’s Tidal Wave is notably absent. Sorry, y’all. Most of their singles, too. I live to troll.)

The Selections

Sink Into Me (from New Again, 2009)

Taking Back Sunday is a band whose sequencing shines near the front ends of their records. The one-two punches reserved for the opening slots push out their anguish, their excitement, and their unrestrained melodies, creating some of the most memorable material. However, that reality makes it fairly difficult to choose which of these tracks best kick off a shortened tribute. “You Know How I Do” (off Tell All Your Friends) would be too easy; “What’s It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?” (off Louder Now) too overblown. I chose “Sink Into Me,” New Again‘s second track, which actually eclipses its first, primarily because of its time-tested duality between Adam Lazzara’s vocal firepower and the caffeinated instrumentals. Also, revisit that chorus, which drops the track’s angst down a notch to focus on melodic strength. Welcome.

Liar (It Takes One to Know One) (from Louder Now, 2006)

Also a track 2 (and as it happens, chosen singles), “Liar” is a good example of TBS’s Frankenstein-like composition. Never mind the outfit is now two LPs deep with vocalist and lead guitarist Fred Mascherino, who added a gentle counterpoint to Lazzara’s unapologetic whine. This song marries together flavors of sanitized R&B (those ragged chords, bass pushed to the forefront, and Adam’s taffy-stretched phrasing) with the band’s pop-punk gymnastics (the choruses), whispered allure (the post-choruses), and screaming intensity (the bridge, or more appropriately for its urgency, the breakdown?). Even if Taking Back Sunday isn’t maxing out the original lineup at this point in their career — wait until 2011 for that to return — they’re firing on all cylinders with their best.

Bike Scene (from Tell All Your Friends, 2002)

Another second track! (This time was an accident, I swear.) Tell All Your Friends, with its many defenders and critics, is Taking Back Sunday’s most one-dimensional take on relationships, no matter where loyalties lie. “Bike Scene” documents interpersonal disintegration with as much melodrama as was legally allowed in 2002, with this lineup’s bread and butter (a song’s bridge) introducing a third vocal line into the fold, John Nolan’s sister Michelle. The triple threat on display here — Lazzara’s soaring self-pity, Nolan’s straight-man anchor, and Michelle’s light choral accent — adds enough build to break into the final verse, which begins with Lazzara’s clipped breaths and final admission of helplessness: “you’ve got me right where you want me.” This is TBS at their most naked, or at least, most unapologetically sincere.

Stood A Chance (from Happiness Is, 2014)

“Bike Scene” and “Stood a Chance” are close cousins. This 2014 cut is more upbeat – Mark O’Connell’s drums are bright and snappy when they’re not run through a million filters. Whereas the former finds Lazzara and Co. locked in a tense battle between heart and head — the release more imprisoning than remaining silent. (“You’ve got me right where you want me” sounds like a romantic hostage situation the way Adam cries out, anyway.) “Stood a Chance” finds Lazzara singing to someone else being alone and “kept in the dark,” and for once in his career, the subject isn’t necessarily himself. In an instrumental break, the now-Southerner can be heard exclaiming, “Hot damn! Tell me I don’t feel good!,” so the misery isn’t shared. Nevertheless, the messages are similar: broadcast from two sides of a dark place, one streaming from an object and the other, a subject.

Great Romances of the 20th Century (from Tell All Your Friends, 2002)

No song in which a narrator “slowly falls apart” can be complete without some string embellishments, which on Tell All Your Friends, sound like they’re chirped through a keyboard. Despite this goofy production choice (echoed on the sped-up piano intro of “The Blue Channel,” but forget that), the atmosphere matches the authorship. Guitars whoosh back and forth between channels before they poke out behind a wall of chords. Gang vocals accent implied quotation marks (She says, “Come on! Come on! Let’s get this over with!”) and the Lazzara/Nolan call-and-response imitates a conversation between jilted lovers. (Unlike their contemporaries, even their best friends Brand New, TBS didn’t cash in on their love songs, just their lovesickness.) Taking Back Sunday’s most cinematic moment (before their actual appearances on big-budget soundtracks) is another caked in melodrama, but at least it’s delivered with a quiver — not a wink.

Where My Mouth Is (from New Again, 2009)

Taking Back Sunday are masters of three things: the bridge, vocal tradeoffs, and the jarring slow burn. Where You Want To Be may have been the first to champion this twice in its running order, and Louder Now may have quieted its amplifiers to insignificance, but New Again struck a better balance by only delivering one definite energy suck smack dab in the middle of a tracklisting. (Perhaps this is a better theme for this Perfect LP: the jarring transition.) This track is one of the band’s best and boldest genre swaps, veering left of New Again‘s alternative rock into deliberate, sharp radio rock. Even the plinky piano that fades the track out reeked of Grammy nominations, but you were too busy burning your copies of Alternative Press’ five-star album review to care. Shame.

Number Five With a Bullet (from Where You Want To Be, 2004)

In the age of fake news and a buffoon president, let me deliver an indisputable fact, backed by science: Where You Want To Be is the best Taking Back Sunday record. Simple chemistry distilled the band’s formula into a winning one: take the best bits from Tell All Your Friends — the captured conversations, the jumps back and forth between talking and wailing — add a splash of peripheral visions, throw in a few Fred Mascherino cherries, shake until your knuckles blast white. Tickled by synthesizer and Fred’s poisoned-honey phrasing, Lazzara’s shout-along mission statement (“We’re gonna die like this, you know, miserable and old”) is more a rallying cry when the guitars add weight to his words, proving there’s strength in numbers. Or plugged-in guitars.

Summer, Man (from New Again, 2009)

Any list that has the words “Perfect LP” and three tracks from New Again should be illegal, I know. In that case, get your pitchforks ready: much like “Sink Into Me,” “Summer, Man” injects a burst of energy into the record’s front half, so I’m experimenting with its placement in the back half. In its original state, the active rock of “Lonely, Lonely” seems too caustic, and “Swing,” which follows, marries the same snot-nosed tenacity with more technical prowess – the guitar lines bend without their break. “Summer, Man” finds this strange middle ground. An uptempo rocker by design, but sprawling, intense flirtation with arena rock by ambition, “Summer, Man” is more asphalt-kissed than smooched by the beach, which is probably what 2004 Lazzara would’ve wanted, while Miles Davis teased out of his car radio.

Call Me in the Morning (from S/T, 2011)

As a return to form in title and personnel (this is the record marketed as the one that got the Tell All Your Friends band back together), Taking Back Sunday was a misstep rather than a blank slate for many. With that said, this is another necessary member in the “Taking Back Sunday’s attempted ballad” club. Its proof of membership comes in the guitars which waltz with its many-toothed iterations (plucked harmonic, acoustic, strummed electric) and Lazzara’s improved vocal dress-ups, even if this is the record where his faux Southern accent peeks through the most. More entries in that realm to follow from more beloved albums. But first…

Better Homes and Gardens (from Happiness Is, 2014)

Of all the songs about relationships, latter Taking Back Sunday is the only version to explore life after initial squabbles. (I’d argue the first instance of this is on New Again‘s closer “Everything Must Go.”) “Better Homes and Gardens” opens with a suggested crumbling marriage and a reimagined first home, now more a haven for horror than heartstrings. Lazzara’s whine travels into soupy, incoherent Southern drawl at times, but it’s the perfect mediator for this latest argument: a stung, sweet delivery that ignores all pain, if just for a moment. The nuances in the production — the guitar feedback that backs up into the song’s explosion, the slight echo on Lazzara’s vocal highs — heighten the drama, but not the duress.

My Blue Heaven (from Louder Now, 2006)

Whether named after the 1929 popular standard for RCA Victor or the 1990 Goodfellas parody starring Steve Martin, “My Blue Heaven” neither smirks nor simmers. (This goes back to my point that Louder Now is overstuffed with softer moments, past the point of power.) Despite the album’s unfortunate situation of diluting power stances to weak footings, “My Blue Heaven” stands out without telegraphing its every move by borrowing from old ones. The strings from “Great Romances” return, but they seem real! Those aren’t triple vocals like on “Bike Scene,” but the double Fred is doubled for the same ghostly effect! Lazzara’s vocals seem to crack and grow tired, but that only reinforces the lyrical stress! If Taking Back Sunday’s Louder Now is their best-selling melting pot, “My Blue Heaven” can be taken as a case study of what that album sought to achieve: a multilayered study in human, flawed emotional intelligence.

Little Devotional/…Slowdance on the Inside (from Where You Want to Be, 2004)

If this seems like a cheap ending, Taking Back Sunday closers are as hard to divorce from the source material as openers. This is why Where You Want to Be is hard to best: a template where most bands after 2004 gained their top-notch LP sequencing. (Even Brand New’s best record, 2006’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, has much of the same DNA despite an upgrade in tone and circumstance.) If “Little Devotional” is the potent, unforgettable high bolstered by shimmering guitar and that fragmented bridge, “…Slowdance on the Inside” is the hesitant, tender comedown, its snare rolls a tether to security and uneasiness all at once. This pairing only works together, much like Lazzara/Nolan (sorry, Straylight Run) or Lazzara/Mascherino (sorry, The Color Fred). That hits harder than any Tidal Wave.

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James Cassar
James Cassar is Modern Vinyl's Managing News Editor and a co-host of The Modern Vinyl Podcast. He is also an artist manager, co-owner of the record label Near Mint, and can be found in bed before 9 p.m. James lives in Philadelphia and no, he won't check out your band if you add him on Facebook.

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