It seems a little strange that this feels less like a review for Real Friends’ first full-length Maybe This Place Is The Same And We’re Just Changing and more like a State of the Scene Address. After like a year of “outsiders” talking about “our” bands, people seem to be up in arms that an entity like Real Friends are getting discussed at all. Like it somehow ruins this faux-popularity that they didn’t even really like in the first place. Regardless of what you think about Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen and to a certain extent someone like Noisey’s Dan Ozzi, a vast majority of diehard fans have spent the past few months wondering if all of this emo proselytizing is even a good thing. Leave it to the Internet generation to find a new way to condemn bands for selling out, like being good at your fucking job is some sort of cross to bear.
But all of this back and forth, for the most part, has been made with the assumption that every band is, you know, good. That your La Disputes and your Modern Baseballs and Balance And Composures are not just subjectively good, but culturally important. That sad dudes and power chords are new or even inventive. Leave it to our scene to let people who don’t even really care define our importance. Or maybe these music journalists do care, who am I to say. Point is, what they are saying is sort of pointless because we’re already having the conversations amongst each other, and have been since At The Drive-In dried out in the Texas heat.
So that brings us, in nearly impossibly long-winded fashion, to this pop-punk record made by a few twenty somethings from Nowheresville, Illinois. Maybe This Place… is exactly what you expect if you’ve heard a Real Friends song, except better sounding. The 12 songs that run by in about 30 minutes are one late night loner anthem after another, and in fact most of them literally take place at night, in a bedroom, on top of sweat/tear-soaked duvet covers. Lead singer Dan Lambton (and to a bigger extent bassist/lyricist Kyle Fasel) has somehow come up with an album that is not emo at all, but rather just super sad. And not sad in any sort of interesting way, just sad in a sort of sack-up way. There’s a part on “Short Song” featuring the insipid lines, “In life we’re gonna cry / In life we’re gonna lose sleep / We’re gonna feel helpless / But that’s how it’s gotta be,” that completely cancels out the extremely pleasing bridge and thoughtfully-researched pop-punk climax. Sadly this becomes a theme, and as bad as Real Friends want Maybe This Place… to be their The Upsides, they have forgotten the most important part in that equation: the lyrics.
It’s not even that I find Lambton’s voice bad; he’s much improved in a lungs-as-instrument way, but similes comparing himself to trains and, perhaps most egregiously, getting Knuckle Puck’s Joe Taylor to sing the lines, “The only time I feel fine / Is when I’m parked in front of my house with tears in my eyes,” are just too hard to ignore. You want to commend these guys for coming 80% of the way, but it’s that last stretch that makes all the difference. It’s why I tend to lean in on songs like “Old Book,” closer “…And We’re Just Changing” or to a certain extent a slow burner like “To – My Old Self.” There are songwriting chops on these songs. There are drum flourishes and restraint from the 3-chord run-and-gun format that make me want to believe Real Friends have actually learned a thing or two. But at the same time, I worry that these self-described kids still have quite a few life stages to go before they’re adults.
So while the discussion about Real Friends has unfortunately become mostly symbolic; one where half of the people say they suck and the other say who cares get over it, this is a discussion we’re having. Are we turning our back on our roots, or is this band just further proof that the most vocal people in this scene are probably the furthest thing from being “in” the scene? It’s hard to tell, but even now it feels super weird and passé to even say Scene. It feels as phony as me claiming that the Warped Tour is some sort of community campground. It’s not true, and it’s most likely something that only exists on the Internet. So yes, ignore Real Friends if that is your prerogative. But also don’t act like this band has any bearing on what You Blew It! or Dikembe or Citizen are doing. Me personally? I’m mostly cool with these guys sticking around, despite not living in a suburban wasteland. Maybe you see this stuff as a time machine. Maybe it’s a welcome escape from whatever overly wrought bedroom pop you’re claiming to love now. Maybe Real Friends’ lost boys shtick is a wake-up call that it’s time for you to grow up. One thing’s for certain, though: Real Friends exist, and you’re just going to have to figure out what that means to you.