The list of rock bands with multiple songwriters is massive. The list of rock bands with multiple frontmen is a bit shorter, but still boasts plenty of strong examples. Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens, the duo at the fore of Philadelphia outfit Modern Baseball, however, chose a different kind of double-fronted LP as the touchstone for their new record: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Outkast‘s massively successful double album is a strange source of inspiration. André 3000 and Big Boi each released a record and packaged them together, two solo artists with wildly divergent styles producing entirely separate material. Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost is neither separated to that degree, nor is it as unified as the group’s first two albums, 2014’s You’re Gonna Miss It All and 2012’s Sports.
As you might expect from a band frequently attached to the emo revival, the two songwriters deal with some heavy shit. The Weakerthans similarities ring loud and true throughout, but Modern Baseball’s songs are more complex than mere imitation, folding in other angsty sub-genres. The record’s called Holy Ghost, after all. Ewald spends the first half parsing the weary relationship spirituality of Mike Kinsella’s Owen and American Football through the nasally indie punk of Smoking Popes. Lukens, meanwhile, is a little itchier, a little wilder, a little more likely to shout out a line than sigh it. As noted in an excellent recent Fader profile, Ewald comes from a line of ministers and wrote while coming to terms with his grandfather’s death and the distance of loved ones. Lukens, meanwhile, was dealing with bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies. While the subject matter is often brutally sad, Holy Ghost burns too bright to be weighed down. It’s the kind of record that will provide plenty of night drives for young people around the world, tears streaming down smiling faces, glad to know it’s not just them dealing with the weight of the world.
Fans of the quartet’s earliest work may be a little surprised by how electric this one is, though they lose none of the fragility, intimacy, or warmth of their more acoustic days. Those looking for the perfectly self-effacing and/or heartbreaking one-liners will find more than their fair share. “But you turned in early/ Left the TV flickering its staged romance across your face,” Ewald intones on “Wedding Singer”. “Planning our future without you, without me at times,” Lukens sings on “Breathing in Stereo”. The former looks out at the world and sees sadness and pain, then finds it reflected in himself; the latter can’t stop finding it himself to begin with. The chugging “Mass” rants out a relationship sunk by distance, Ewald bemoaning circumstances in beautiful consonance and assonance, as surprisingly beautiful harmonies edge him: “My baby’s in Massachusetts/ And all this booze is useless/ Sunset sing my scratched out sighing soul to sleep.” Whatever your style of pain and suffering, Modern Baseball offer an anthem to match it on Holy Ghost.
Ewald and Lukens’ songs are split down the record’s middle, yet their styles aren’t different enough to make that concept pay off. It’s important to note, too, that Outkast’s version of this split record concept encompassed 39 total tracks, while Holy Ghost maxes out at 11. They all sit well next to each other, but that feeling of “next to each other” rather than “supporting each other” can be difficult to shake. I wouldn’t be surprised if fans have already started piecing together tracklists in which the two songwriters are mixed together. It’s true that each individual Modern Baseball song encompasses massive highs and lows, but reproducing that feeling across a composed album could only heighten that.
The Fader profile notes that this is the first record that was recorded by the band as a unit, and the first in which drummer Sean Huber and bassist Ian Farmer wrote their own parts. “I want to make something better/ Something that cannot leave the ground/ Unless we lift it up together,” Ewald sings on “Note to Self”. On “Just Another Face”, Lukens makes some grand promises: “I’ll be with you the whole way … Even if you can’t see it now, we’re proud of what’s to come, and you.” Togetherness seems so essential to this record, and unfortunately the structural concept splits things apart.
Essential Tracks: “Mass”, “Breathing in Stereo”, and “Just Another Face”