I grew from my pop-punk roots into a deep admiration of Sufjan Stevens’ intricate arrangements and Death Cab for Cutie’s use of all band members on Transatlanticism. Sufjan is self-explanatory, but the latter album’s careful maximization of every band member’s skills is now something I seek out in music. If you can apply both of these elements to pop-punk, well, that’s nigh on heroic.
Signals Midwest is that band. Latitudes and Longitudes is easily the most carefully crafted album of punk rock I have ever heard. I don’t even want to call it punk rock, because the audience for this band is far greater than guys and girls who love three-chord stomping (and trust me, there’s great love for that in my heart). Signals Midwest has put together a statement, and that’s impressive.
It starts toward the end of opener “In Tensions,” which is a perfectly-chosen descriptive title to set the tone. The band drops out, and vocalist Maxwell Stern is left alone over an finger-picked acoustic guitar: “I was counting the miles/You were counting the days/And it’s strange that the numbers we wanted/were moving in opposite ways.” The lyric and melody appears twice more in the album: once in the next track “Monarchs” and once in closer “The Weight and The Waiting.” So there’s an intro, then a re-statement of theme, then the body, then a reaffirmation of theme as the closer? Yes, this is that organized.
The sound is incredible as well. Two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer give all they’ve got on these ten tracks: Rarely does the band drop into four-on-the-floor, pound-it-out mode. The songs all feature a rhythmically and melodically unique lead guitar line, backed up by rapidfire bass and heavily patterned drums. “Family Crest” is mind-boggling in its construction, as each member seems to be maxing out his capabilities. And it’s not even the best song, because technical proficiency is only one of the things that makes this band. Oh, and just to overawe you some more: they recorded most of this thing live.
But the melodic capability and corresponding vocal fury really set this apart from other bands. Single “The Quiet Persuader” opens up with a neat guitar line that recalls early 2000s pop-punk before snapping into martial rhythms and delivering the lead to Stern, who just rips the song apart with his passionate vocal performance. His voice is permanently halfway between singing and yelling, in that zone that seems exclusively the domain of punk rock. He may persuade quietly, but that’s the only thing he does without volume. “I Was Lost” has a wiry groove to it; “Memo” is crushing in its tension and release. “Limnology” is a how-to on mid-tempo rock.
But Latitudes and Longitudes isn’t all throwdowns: “January and Seven” is a poignant, acoustic ballad that doesn’t go maudlin or sterile, as is the sin of many punk acoustic tracks. It’s a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the toughness of being. Turns around every corner: closer “The Weight and The Waiting” casually throws in a horn section to cap off the album. It’s a perfect way to sum up the message of the album: it’s a tough life, especially when your friends are far away. But when those friends are all in one place, it’s a celebration of life. And with the hope of those future meetings in place, we press on.
Latitudes and Longitudes is what happens when four men at the top of their game get together and think hard about how to best use their skills. This is easily one of the best of ’11 in any genre, and I’ll be listening to this long into ’12. Do yourself a favor and check it out.