The late-’90s, early-2000s punk-fan hierarchy is as follows:
A. People who openly liked pop-punk bands. They owned Green Day's Dookie and proudly listened to it on their Walkmans in spite of any verbal abuse heaped upon them.
B. People who were more into hardcore and professed to hate pop-punk bands but secretly owned Dookie and listened to it at home.
C. People in twenty-hole Doc Martens and mohawks who said things like “Dead Kennedys are too commercial,” or “I only listen to a punk band that played one show in a basement in Milwaukee in 1983 that no one attended, not even the band.”
For the record, the people in category C were full of shit and also owned Dookie. It sold ten million copies. People were buying that record, even if they wouldn’t admit it. In summation, pop punk might not bring the anti-social fury of FEAR destroying the stage at Saturday Night Live in 1981, but that’s okay. It’s not that kind of music, but done properly, it’s just as much fun.
Case in point: Community Locker, the debut full-length from The Mazlows. The Lakewood-born quartet brings fourteen tracks of energetic pop punk that never strays too far into the urgent, frenetic pace of hardcore, but instead recalls all those songs that graced — some might say plagued — the soundtracks of teen comedies circa 2002.
Community Locker owes some of its sound to a kind of music that definitely peaked twenty years ago. But it’s a genre we can look back upon fondly. In terms of listenable radio hits, pop punk was the only available option during an era soaked with the soulless demon sweat of rap metal.
The themes on Community Locker are familiar: girls, love, longing to leave your home town, late nights and that feeling of youth beginning to fade away. The soaring guitar leads are present along with the palm-muted rhythm guitar, mildly snotty vocals and wild man drumming. It may not be the hardest-sounding record in the punk realm, but tracks like “We’re Not Dead Yet” wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-’90s Fat Wreck Chords compilation. The song is reminiscent of Big Choice-era Face to Face. It’s the sole punk banger (“Head First” gets pretty close) on a record of mid-tempo anthems.
The Mazlows — the members are all around thirty years old — play around with the push and pull between youth and adulthood, always to good effect. “Echoes” comes from the perspective of an adult who feels lied to about adulthood by the adults who came before him. It seems like no accident that it’s followed by “Thrown Away,” which recounts youthful missteps and their unintended consequences. “Nightcaps and Goodbyes” is an ode to saucy late nights and an unnamed significant other.
That’s not to say that the band is just regurgitating an already done sound. While there might be echoes of bands like Blink-182, the Mazlows expand upon pop punk as a genre while also paying tribute to their forbears. A parallel exists in hip-hop producer El-P, who manages to look to the future while also evoking the spirit of classic ’90s boom-bap beats and sampling ’80s post-punk bands like Gang of Four or Wall of Voodoo.
Community Locker’s opening track, “Best Days,” pulls a listener in with a swell of synthesizers while the guitar progression evokes Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309,” a catchy tune unfortunately lost in a sea of bad ’80s compilations. The Mazlows revisit that vibe in the intro of “Last Call” with another thick pile of soothing synthesizers that feels like falling slowly from space but not really minding. “Breakfast Epiphanies” starts off as a weird, slowed-down moody tone shift in an otherwise upbeat album. For anyone who's ever pondered why a pancake appears to be smiling, the song might offer answers, or at the very least some solace. The sad, haunting guitar lick at the opening of “Forever And” owes more to ’90s alternative than punk, and the song as a whole smacks of sad, subdued Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Though it nods to the past, Community Locker never feels warmed over, and the songs are constructed well enough to warrant repeat listens by anyone looking for the subtle details he or she might have missed the first time around. That’s usually the mark of a good record, and is definitely the case here.