We’re nearing closer to the official end of Yellowcard, as their last world tour concludes in one short month. I’ve wanted to do this piece for awhile, but I figured doing it right after I reviewed their final album might be a bit of overkill, so I think now is as good a time as any to give them the Through the Years treatment.
Yellowcard went through some lineup instability in its early years after forming at the Douglas Anderson School for the Arts in 1997 in Jacksonville. Their first two albums, Midget Tossing (1997) and Where We Stand (1999) were recorded with Ben Dobson as the lead singer and were somewhat different musically than what would come after. I’m not overly familiar with these albums, so I’m not going to delve into them here. Once Dobson left and Ryan Key took over as lead singer, Yellowcard forged their unique brand of punk rock that would become their signature. The band’s lineup that would later go on to stardom consisted of Key, Sean Mackin (violin), Ben Harper (guitar), Longineu Parsons III (drums), and Pete Mosley (bass).
Yellowcard’s first album with Key as the full-time lead singer was One for the Kids (2001). They had done an EP the year before with Key at the helm, and two of those songs were re-recorded for the full-length. Most bands need an album or two to really gel as performers and figure out their identity. This is definitely true on One for the Kids. One can tell that Yellowcard hasn’t quite figured out the right balance between a more metal-ish punk style (complete with rapid-fire “headache drums”) and the more melodic and earnest sound that would come to define them when they cracked the mainstream. Sean Mackin’s violin isn’t as prominent here either. His prominence in the music would ebb and flow during their career.
The band wasted no time, releasing The Underdog EP the very next year. Here, the band’s musical style is much clearer, and they’ve more clearly focused on their lyrics and songwriting. Key’s vocals are also much cleaner and his delivery is better. “Rocket” is probably the song that best foreshadows their future success. Many of Yellowcard’s hallmarks- solid melodies, great vocal delivery, lyrics that are emotional but still sincere- are all over this track. Others such as “Avondale” show that they’ve found a good way to seamlessly integrate Mackin’s violin into their songs to set themselves apart from other bands on the punk rock scene. Interestingly, two of the songs, “Avondale,” and “Finish Line” are about the band’s relationship with other bands that were coming up around the same time they were. “Avondale” is about a feud that Ryan Key had with Inspection 12 singer Dan McLintock, who had gone after Key in one of his songs as well. “Finish Line” talks about the band’s friendship with fellow punk rockers The Starting Line.
The Underdog EP rightfully caught the attention of major label Capitol Records, who threw their full weight behind Ocean Avenue in 2003. Yellowcard is at the peak of their powers in this album, with their fast-paced, yet melodic style reaching full maturity. The title track is their biggest commercial hit as a band, and it’s easy to see why. The guitar part’s crunchy sound is just unconventional enough to draw the listener in, but doesn’t distract from the rest of the song. Key’s honest vocal delivery benefits from having the machinery of a major label behind them. Longineu Parsons’s drums and Sean Mackin’s violin are great supporting players too. But Ocean Avenue is so much more than its titular song. “Life of a Salesman,” with that neat little Arthur Miller reference thrown in there, incorporates the violin as part of the main riff along with the guitar, giving their sound even more uniqueness. “View From Heaven” features what is probably one of Mackin’s best violin solos (and even has a sort of country-like sound). “Back Home” shows a reflective side to the band that would come to define later records.
Yellowcard took a bit of a risk with its next album Lights and Sounds two years later. Critics and fans were divided on what was perceived as a fairly big shift from the band’s previous work. I tend not to agree with that; there’s less emphasis on catchy hooks, but I think there are a lot of songs in here that would fit right in with much of their earlier work (“Holly Wood Died,” the title track, “Rough Landing, Holly”). Where the band diverges the most is in their lyrical content. I doubt many punk bands have tried to pull off a concept album, but Yellowcard did here. The entire album deals with the struggles and pressures that their sudden fame had brought them, which is most clear in the title track. The band relocated to Los Angeles in the inter-album period, and developed a love/hate relationship with the city. This was personified in the character of Holly Wood, who appears throughout the record. One can easily see how the band grew and matured during their sudden brush with fame when digging into the lyrics.
Yellowcard continued to release albums at a rapid pace, following up Lights and Sounds with Paper Walls in 2007, meaning they had released four albums and an EP in seven years. I divert again with conventional wisdom that considers this Yellowcard’s best album. Lights and Sounds kind of meandered in a lot of directions, as opposed to the tighter and more defined sound of Ocean Avenue. Paper Walls kind of does the same thing as Lights and Sounds, only more so. That said, it does return more clearly to the pop-punk sound of Ocean Avenue, and isn’t nearly as dark as Lights and Sounds, so it has that going for it. “Shrink the World” is probably my favorite song on the album, because it resonated with me when I was in a long-distance relationship. “Keeper” is another highlight, returning to the slower, reflective style that I talked about with “Back Home.” “Five Becomes Four” is thought to be about guitarist Ben Harper, who left the band while they were promoting Lights and Sounds and was replaced by Ryan Mendez. Further contributing to this idea is the fact that it hearkens back to the sound of their earlier indie records. “Shadows and Regrets” is the first of two songs about Scott Shad, the Inspection 12 drummer and lifelong friend of Ryan Key’s that died when he went into diabetic shock while driving.
Perhaps feeling the pressure from the constant album release and touring cycle, Yellowcard departed their label and went on an extended hiatus, with Ryan Key pursuing a side project with Sean O’Donnell, the bassist for the band Reeve Oliver. O’Donnell would later be recruited to replace Pete Mosley, who left the band permanently during the hiatus. The albums released during the second half of the band’s career are criminally overlooked, in my opinion. Their songwriting is at its best, while still maintaining their characteristic sound. While When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes (2011) may not be their best album musically, it’s always been the one that’s stuck with me the most, mainly because three of the first four tracks on the album have intensely personal meanings to me. “For You, and Your Denial,” describes a struggle I was going through with a friend to an astonishingly accurate degree. “Hang You Up” reminds me a lot of another friend where I had to maintain the friendship while dealing with unrequited romantic feelings. “With You Around” was “our song” between me and an ex-girlfriend. “See Me Smiling” is the second song Key wrote about Scott Shad. “Sing for Me” also deals with death, as it was written from the perspective of Key’s aunt on her deathbed, speaking to her son. Once again, he is able to convey sincere emotion without wallowing in it, as many punk & emo bands do.
In case anyone was wondering if the band would slow down a bit in the second half of their career, they pretty quickly dispelled that notion, releasing Southern Air one year after When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes. The band finally relocated back to the South from Los Angeles, which probably had something to do with the fact that this is arguably their most uplifting album. “Always Summer,” along with the title track, are the kind of songs you can run a marathon to. “Here I Am Alive,” conveys the importance of never giving up and following one’s dreams. Even “Awakening,” a breakup song, has a sort of determined energy that makes it feel much more inspirational than sad. To be sure, there are still some wistful moments on this record, such as “Ten,” which describes regret that followed years later when a young couple decided to terminate a pregnancy. “Telescope” deals with death again, and “Sleep in the Snow” describes a feeling of being left behind. Josh Portman became the bassist for the rest of their run during the making of this record.
Another characteristic of the band’s later years is a love of the acoustic format. They remade entire albums in acoustic, starting with When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes in 2011, the same year the original album came out. Ocean Avenue received the same treatment in 2013, the tenth anniversary of its original release. Both albums offer another interesting perspective on the songs. For instance, it’s interesting how much more peaceful and placid the song “Ocean Avenue” is when the crunchy electric guitar riff is absent. The band also recruited Cassadee Pope before she became famous as a country singer on The Voice to lend her vocals to the acoustic version of “Hang You Up.”
Just when it seemed like it would be smooth sailing (no pun intended) for the band, tragedy struck again in between albums. Violinist Sean Mackin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, longtime drummer Longineu Parsons III left the band, and Ryan Key’s fiancé was in a snowboarding accident that was so bad they were forced to have their wedding vows in the hospital. The trauma of these events can be heard on Lift a Sail (2014), which probably is their biggest stylistic shift from anything that came before. There aren’t really any fast songs on this record, which is quite unusual. Many of the songs also have a sort of “distant” sound to them, as if the band is playing from afar. “Transmission Home” and “Crash the Gates” are probably the biggest examples of that. While Mackin’s violin isn’t as prominent on this record, he has a prominent role in the instrumental opener “Convocation.” The band had done a similar opening to a record before in Lights and Sounds, but this one is absolutely beautiful, and sets the tone of working their way through difficult times that pervade the album. “Make Me So” is probably the closest they come to a classic Yellowcard song.
I am generally of the opinion that the personal drama the band went through during the Lift a Sail sessions contributed to their desire to bring the band to a close. I don’t think that there were any hard feelings between the members, but sometimes events like that can put a strain on a band, and can prevent them from continuing. As stated above, I already reviewed Yellowcard (2016) a few months ago, and my general thoughts on this album remain the same. It takes a hard right turn back to their classic sound, perhaps more so than any album since Ocean Avenue. Everything that’s good about the band is shown off one last time on this record, and it serves as the perfect goodbye letter to the fans after fifteen years. I dare any true Yellowcard fan to listen to “Fields and Fences” without tearing up. “Got Yours” is another one that took on a personal meaning to me.
So there’s the story. The cool thing about this band is that most of the members have many good music-making years ahead of them. Ryan Key, Sean Mackin, and Josh Portman are only 37, so I’d be interested to see what they do post-Yellowcard. I’m afraid that now that he’s built his own recording studio, Key may fade into the background of producing and such, and not make as much himself. For the good of all music, I hope all the members keep making it for as long as they can.