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Stomping grounds
Yellowcard and Story of the Year stick with their suburban roots

Like Brand New, Yellowcard scored an alterna-rock breakthrough last summer by releasing a pop-punk album that dared to be smart. Brand New seem content to prosper under the mainstream radar for now, but Yellowcard are moving into full-on crossover mode with their current single, "Ocean Avenue." With the track making inroads at Top 40 radio, the Jacksonville band’s major-label debut, Ocean Avenue (Capitol), has been certified gold and is still surging on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Along with Something Corporate, they’re in the middle of a month-long US tour that hits Bentley College in Waltham this Saturday, April 17, and the Palladium in Worcester on April 27.

When I get Yellowcard guitarist Benjamin Harper on the phone from Kansas City, the band are a day away from performing on MTV’s Total Request Live countdown, where "Ocean Avenue" is entrenched in the Top 10. He says the group realize they’re begging comparison with Good Charlotte and Simple Plan by courting the mainstream, but they’re confident they’ve got the goods to avoid a backlash. "We’re not getting, ‘Oh, it’s just another Good Charlotte,’ because we do our own thing. I just think we’re a little more intellectual when it comes to our songwriting, our performances, and our story — we have a story to tell. Those are the only rock bands that have really gotten any hype lately, on that kind of level. Hopefully, we’ll bridge the gap between cheesy and cool. You can be catchy but not be some kind of little-kid thing."

Directed by Marc Webb (Green Day, AFI), the "Ocean Avenue" video is a suburban-punk hell ride: as the band perform in a parking garage, Yellowcard frontman Ryan Key races through the neighborhood in a blooper-filled chase scene. "If I could find you now, things would get better/We could leave this town, and run forever," they sing in wistful harmony, the guitars hitting hard and the tempo keeping up with the quick pace of the video. The song’s nostalgic kick makes it a foolproof emo anthem, but Harper says the actual object of its sentimentality is Jacksonville, which the group left behind when they moved to California’s Central Coast a few years back. "It’s this place where we used to hang out in Jacksonville. Instead of talking about a girl, it’s talking about a scene and a feeling that we want to get back to: hanging out and writing, before we moved to California."

The members of Yellowcard have known one another since their days at Jacksonville’s Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. Harper, violinist Sean Mackin, and drummer Longineu Parsons released two albums (only one of which, 1999’s Where We Stand, is now in print) with original frontman Ben Dobson on the band’s own Takeover label. When Key joined up, they moved to the West Coast and released their third disc, One for the Kids (Lobster). Bassist Peter Mosely came aboard for the writing and recording of Ocean Avenue, which marks the first time Key has written songs for the band. "The reason we asked Ryan to join Yellowcard was because he had so many cool songs," Harper explains. "This was right after high school. All the Yellowcard records are very layered: there’s the guitar riffs, there’s the solos, there’s really original drumbeats and stuff like that. All of us put our hands all over the songs, but Ryan’s the main writer."

The displaced feel of "Ocean Avenue" carries over to the rest of the album, which is bookended by songs about moving on (first single "Way Away") and longing for security ("Back Home"). "Another sunny day beneath this cloudless sky/Sometimes I wish that it would rain here," Key croons on the pretty ballad "Back Home," his East Coast cynicism getting the best of him. "Way Away" showcases Mackin’s feverish violin, an easy marketing hook that sounds too natural to be a gimmick and never upstages the band’s material. And when you consider the group’s high-school-band geek origins, it only makes sense that they include a violinist in their ranks.

"Sean and I had already been performing: me and another friend on guitar, him on violin," Harper recalls. "We wrote instrumental pieces for school, and we played at coffee shops a couple times just for fun. When the band first started, it was really easy to be like, ‘Yo, Sean, play on this part.’ He was always in the band room, and he loved Yellowcard. He always played with us when we did shows, and eventually he started writing parts."

Produced by Neal Avron (New Found Glory), Ocean Avenue alternates between aggressive and mellow with confidence. Homesickness isn’t Yellowcard’s only muse: "Twenty Three" is a galloping kiss-off, and "Believe" is a rousing tribute to the September 11 rescue workers. On "View from Heaven," a vibrant emo hoedown with killer harmonies from guest vocalist Alieke Wijnveldt, the band eulogize Inspection 12 drummer Scott Shad, who died in a car accident at the age of 18. "We wanted it to be uplifting," Harper says of that track. "Yellowcard grew up playing with Inspection 12. Scott passed away and kind of made their whole band take a left turn. They were going to do the same things we were going to do: tour, they had a record coming out the same month our record was coming out. But all of a sudden, that tragic thing happened. It was time to write a song about it. It’s just talking about him being up there looking down on us."

Despite their new-found celebrity, Yellowcard have yet to meet Jacksonville’s most famous contribution to contemporary rock, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. "We would assume that’s right around the corner with this new MTV thing going on. We got invited to our first Playboy party, so maybe he’ll be there." But Harper turns respectful when I bring up the city’s all-time favorite rock sons, Lynyrd Skynyrd. "There’s a lot of connections with Skynyrd, to tell you the truth. I’m friends with Judy and Melody, Ronnie Van Zant’s widow and daughter. Judy had a son, Matt, with Jack Grondin of 38 Special. Matt was in my guitar class, so I became close friends with him and ended up working for the family for a summer job. Judy’s really cool to us. We used to play the Freebird Café [Judy’s Jacksonville nightclub, now known as Freebird Live] all the time."

LIKE YELLOWCARD, fellow alterna-rockers Story of the Year have a current breakthrough album, Page Avenue (Warner Bros.), that gets its title from their adolescent stomping grounds. The St. Louis band, whose disc is named after a main thoroughfare connecting their city’s downtown to its Western suburbs, have a big hit on their hands with their debut single, "Until the Day I Die." They just appeared on the cover of AP, and they’re on a six-week North American tour that makes no fewer than four stops along the New England coastline this month, including a date at Avalon in Boston this Wednesday.

Story of the Year are the latest discovery of producer/A&R man John Feldmann, who fronts LA punk mainstays Goldfinger and also started the Used on the path to success. His work on 2002’s The Used (Warner Bros.) was nuanced without sacrificing heft, but the extraneous drum loops and synthesizers (none of which is listed in the credits, but I hear them) on Page Avenue are straight from the Linkin Park school of overproduction. On top of that, Story of the Year haven’t much history to fall back on: they don’t have any other albums in print, and most of the buzz surrounding them in their previous incarnation, Big Blue Monkey, involved the phrase "new metal." No wonder parts of their AP cover story felt like a hatchet job.

With its serrated melodies and its lyrics of violence and empathy, Story of the Year’s "Until the Day I Die" is screamo at its most generic: "Until the day I die/I’ll spill my heart for you." But like the Used, the band have a frontman, Dan Marsala, with enough charisma to carry them on his back. Unlike many of his alterna-rock peers, Marsala is a natural singer, and he’s enough of a showman to list Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach as his "biggest musical influence" on Story of the Year’s official Web site. And despite its radio-baiting electronic flourishes, "Until the Day I Die" has at least one floor-rattling metal riff that should make Deftones jealous.

The band get extra sensitive on "Anthem of Our Dying Day" ("The stars will cry the blackest tears tonight/And this is the moment that I live for"), a Saves the Day–style power ballad and Page Avenue’s probable second single. On the late-album rocker-ballad combo "Page Avenue" and "Sidewalks," they put some of their sharpest hooks behind two big-hearted odes to the streets where they grew up. The closing "Falling Down" is an unexpected foray into straight-up hardcore, pitting Marsala against NYC mosh titans Toby Morse and Ray Cappo. It’s a welcome departure from a band who are still figuring out their own identity.

Yellowcard perform this Saturday, April 17 at Bentley College (781-891-2000) in Waltham; on Tuesday April 27 at the Palladium (508-797-9696) in Worcester. Story of the Year perform this Sunday, April 18, at the Hampton Beach Casino (603-929-4201) in Hampton Beach; this Wednesday, April 21, at Avalon (617-262-2424) in Boston; this Thursday, April 22, at the State Theater (207-780-8265) in Portland; and next Saturday, April 24, at Lupo’s at the Strand (401-831-4071) in Providence.

Issue Date: April 16 - 22, 2004
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