Skeleton Jar (Epitaph)
by Scott Deckman
Much like their namesake, Youth Group sing about the travails of school and adolescence and is the kinda band your girlfriend would probably like, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you want her to see your sensitive side. As much Death Cab For Cutie as alt rock, Youth Group, signed to Epitaph, play emotively lush, atmospheric pop with occasional explosive guitar work and plenty of higher-note plucking to boot. On Skeleton Jar, the Sydney, Australia, band’s first U.S. release, Youth Group wear their collective heart on their sleeves.
Singer/guitarist/songwriter Toby Martin sounds uncannily like James’ former front man Tim Booth. But while James burdened under “the next Smiths” tether stone that would be enough to sink the Pequod, the barrier of large bodies of water – namely the Atlantic, Indian, and the Pacific Oceans – have kept Youth Group relatively protected from unfair comparisons.
Opener “Shadowland,” the record’s first single, sounds a bit like Weezer, if Matt Sharp woulda held in place after the Flying Ws’ second record. This may be their best rah-rah stadium chorus to boot, a sweeping thing that aches of powerpop want and need. But on track two, “Skeleton Jar,” you’re introduced to the band’s main modus operandi: Longing for longing’s sake and pontificating on damaged psyches. “Be like the brother I never had/Be like the real son to my dad.” Ouch. Someone’s got familial issues, or is good at role playing.
“Lillian Lies” is a lament which ends with the ominous line, “The sky doesn’t cover/It swallows.” “Baby Body,” another lullaby, is the record’s finest moment. Here, over tender guitar strums, we learn of adolescent Liz who has issues with her developing body and identity both, and we feel the sometimes-stifling, trapped feeling of youth on the couplet directly in front of the roaring chorus: “You wanted everything to change/But you could only change your name.”
Those are the good things about Skeleton Jar: Well-placed jangly guitar, passion, keys that sound like guitar that sound like keys, and the occasional lighter-worthy flagpole chorus. Now the bad. What really weighs down the S.S. Youth Group is their insistence on mushy emo-tinged dirges. I’m all for diversity, but their preponderance for glum is a little much. I mean, it’s up to the band: Do they try and cash-in on their Coldplayish tendencies or rock out? Either way, Youth Group is an emerging band out of the suddenly happening Australian rock scene, and it’ll be interesting to see where they take this.