If you melted down a bunch of Decemberists LPs and fashioned them into a bong, you’d have the Front Bottoms.
There’s been a token pop-punk/emo act the past few years at Austin City Limits Music Festival — something in a Jimmy Eat World, say, or a Brand New — but this year the closest we have to a bone for the ex-Warped Tour crowd is The Front Bottoms. (OK, there’s also Conor Oberst … but …) What a succulent bone they were. From opener “Au Revoir,” the crowd brought a shoutalong spirit familiar to anyone who’s grabbed the sweaty shoulders of a black-clad stranger at a hardcore show. In a festival full of bands with matching haircuts and leather jackets, getting disheveled on Friday for the second weekend of ACL was a real treat.
Brian Sella’s nasal cries, at times more oratory than singing, would either comfort fans of Say Anything or afflict anyone whose ears bleed at the sound of that band’s Max Bemis. The Front Bottoms share a musical family tree with bands like Blink-182, with the rolling eyes and cul-de-sac-bedroom lyrics to match. But the laconic, weed-fueled ennui of songs like “Skeleton” makes them a band all their own. Whereas some of the brattier descendants of DeLonge and Hoppus are never meant to be reliable narrators, you also get the feeling that these guys actually have a point most of the time.
On “Twin-Size Mattress,” Sella yelled “I’m gonna help you swim” with the kind of strained insistence you can only feel if you’re young, in love and don’t have much else going on. (See also: most Modern Baseball songs.) “Cough It Out,” unadulterated summer camp punk, showcased Sella’s acoustic guitar as a unifying force of intimacy, despite the crowded festival setting. A girl next to me threw up; that might have contributed to the house-show feel. A little trumpet sprinkled in here and there didn’t hurt the band’s passing spiritual association with classic emo acts like American Football, either.
Behind the brutally efficient drums and subtly deployed keyboards was the kind of witty, depressed lyricism that you can find yourself inside, as long as you’ve been a dirtbag at some point. (We’ve all been dirtbags at some point, by the way.) When Sella sang of the map on the wall of his room and his big plans, or remembered the summer he was taking steroids to impress a girl who liked muscles, or anytime he mentioned summer or a girl who drove him to any number of distractions or a bedroom, faces across the Honda stage audience closed their eyes and let the feelings rip out their mouths.
Never underestimate poor, hungry and desperate, the Front Bottoms warn. Anyone who wrote off this set would have been wise to heed those words.