Released: 14th August, 2012
Considering their last album, 2011’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, only dropped eighteen months before this new record, many people would expect Yellowcard to sound very pedestrian on Southern Air. Assuming they wanted to milk the critical and fanatical success of an album that was a shot in the arm for the pop-rock scene with minimal effort.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth as this ten-track opus begins with a racing pulse that would suggest work akin to Usain Bolt’s recent exploits. Awakening blows the cobwebs out with a frantic pace, some palm-muted riffing and Sean Mackin’s expertly complimentary violin playing.
Singer and guitarist Ryan Key credits this energy, and incredible productivity, to his reconnection with his roots during the band’s well documented two-year hiatus. The opener is a four-minute disownment of the west-coast lifestyle that anchored Key and his band mates and a welcome hello to the freedom and contentment he found in the southern states he calls home.
The opening refrain speaks volumes that echo throughout the album: “Bottoms up tonight, I drink to you and I, ’cause with the morning comes the rest of my life. And with this empty glass I will break the past, ’cause with the morning I can open my eyes. I want this to be my awakening.”
Upon this renewed confidence and positivity the entire album absolutely soars. In Southern Air they couldn’t have found a more apt title: the melodies connote the glorious summer heat of which Southerners boast, and the buoyancy and vastness in the production suggest it’s coming from the air all around you, stretching throughout the sky between the horizons.
Surface of the Sun continues at an even faster pace with its incredibly urgent chorus that echoes the aforementioned vigour in its heavily harmonised lines “there’s a fire inside, it burns like the surface of the sun.” Lead single Always Summer follows and is another A-list hit that matches the quality of For You and Your Denial and classic breakout Ocean Avenue.
So far, so Yellowcard. Ever reliable, brilliantly melodic. However, if Yellowcard have been guilty of one thing it’s probably that they haven’t pushed their comfort zone since 2006’s Lights and Sounds. Whereas WYTT, SY might have harked back to their more punkish beginnings with its opener The Sound of You and Me they haven’t expanded their sound as much as some might hope
Enter: upcoming single Here I Am Alive. While Yellowcard have never shied away from a mainstream sound, they have always kept a weight to their sound and certainly a punkish intensity to their rhythm. Here the beat is very laid back and the vocal hooks are brought right to the fore. It’s a simple, mid-tempo, straight-up pop song that displays a craft that middle-of-the-road bands who churn out this type of song just don’t ever match.
If the song itself isn’t enough to ensure massive radio/MTV/iTunes exposure (which it sure as hell is!) it should certainly ride the popularity of its guest vocalist, Tay Jardine of We Are the in Crowd.
In fact, the wealth of pop-punk talent who have leant their voices to Southern Air should give it a strong sales head start regardless as four new fan bases have a vested interest in it. Alex Gaskarth (All Time Low), Patrick Stump (Fall Out Boy) and Cassadee Pope (Hey Monday) are also credited for providing guest vocals – though trying to identify any additions other than Jardine’s wonderful harmonies on Here I Am Alive is just like playing Where’s Waldo.
With so much, uh, endorsement surrounding Southern Air there was a fear of it overshadowing the songs themselves but their additions only reinforce Key’s vocals rather than build upon them.
The rest of the album is more typically Yellowcard, but there is still something fresh in the breezy swing of standout track Sleep in the Snow. It’s an understated tune with a surprisingly huge chorus that easily matches their biggest hits despite being hidden in mid-album obscurity.
Telescope is a half-ballad about Key’s hugely influential late aunt however the acoustic Ten gets the prime seat just before the final title track. Its intimacy is utterly disarming and despite the very personal subject matter listeners will easily find a place in their heart for its memorable chorus to call home. It does the perfect job of scaling down the listener’s world so the closer Southern Air sounds huge by comparison.
There’s a somewhat predictable nature to the running order of Southern Air. Looking at Yellowcard’s discography, each release tends to follow the pattern of a fast-paced opener followed by the usual lead singles and towards the end there is a soft, emotional-charged song that paves the way for a grand, rousing closer.
While this sounds like a critique it’s really not a bad thing. This doesn’t mean that the songs themselves are formulaic, rather it shows that Yellowcard have known the secret to presenting their songs to maximum effect for a long time. It’s a certain trick that many musicians might not realise even twenty years into their career.
A special mention needs to go to Ryan Key as with each album he appears to improve his vocal prowess in leaps and bounds. On A Vicious Kind, for example, he hits some sublime pre-chorus notes that absolutely make the song; not to mention the power he displays on Surface of the Sun. His vocals adapt to invoke exhilaration, joy, yearning and solemnity in equal measure to great success.
His lyrics have also reached a peak, finding an elusive efficiency which balances depth and accessibility. His solid metaphors on Awakening overcome the constraints of a tight rhyme structure while remaining tonally lucid whereas the fully exposed lyrics of Ten achieve a spine-tingling poignancy.
While Southern Air is very vocally-focused credit must be paid to every musician in the band. Longineu Parson’s drumming is probably more relentless than ever on Surface of the Sun and Rivertown Blues, but his beats are still vital to the more reserved songs such as Here I Am Alive. Josh Portman’s bass is allowed to wander on Always Summer when it’s not usually providing the strong spine of the album whereas Ryan Mendez gets some hard-nosed lead riffs into the heavier outro of the title track and a beastly solo on Rivertown Blues.
All of this is very hard to pin down though as the band write as such a cohesive unit. Something exemplified by Sean Mackin’s wonderful violin playing throughout. Only after a few listens will you identify his often very subtle but absolutely integral input. His strings add melodies that guitarists wouldn’t write and an extra layer here or there that allows the guitars to double-up for a richer texture. And if all else fails he can always squeeze in a killer violin solo, ala Always Summer. Magic.
Southern Air should have a similar impact to last year’s When You’re Through Thinking… Where that album re-established their relevance, this album should make their presence even greater. After all Southern Air is the epitome of a pop-rock album: the ideals on which it was built are the very foundations of the genre and its diamond-hard melodic shell will ensure a lasting charm for years to come.
This is your entire summer in forty minutes. Scratch that, it’s every summer.