By Jake Dromgoole
I had just graduated high school in San Antonio, Texas, when I started working for a very posh hotel on the River Walk. The Spurs had fought their way back to the NBA finals and were battling Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers for their fourth championship. The hotel hosted a number of patrons from around the country during the San Antonio portion of the finals, and as one could imagine, the hotel was pretty slow during game times.
It was during this down time that I received a text from a friend informing me that two songs from one of my favorite pop-punk bands, the Starting Line from Philadelphia, Pennslyvania, had put some new songs on their Myspace page. I snuck away to office, pulled out my headphones, and proceeded to listen to both new songs: “Direction” and “Island.”
After listening to both songs a couple of times, I got back to work and immediately began thinking about what I had just heard. I remember liking “Island” a little more than “Direction.” It was almost a return to form for the Starting Line after their gritty 2005 effort, Based on a True Story. “Island,” sounded like the band had found a happy balance between their pop-punk sound of Say It Like You Mean It and Story, and in the process, allowed themselves to experiment a little more.
Vocalist and bassist Kenny Vasoli’s voice sounds strong as he sings the open lines, “Let’s sail away, find our own country, we’ll build a house and bed out of palm trees,” pleading to his subject to leave the familiar behind and welcome whatever adventure might come their way.
In a lot of ways, “Island’s” plea to abandon the comforts of the known for the unknown is a perfect metaphor for what would become the Starting Line’s final album. For nearly a decade, the band had been perfecting their pop-punk / alternative sound on records, EPs (2001’s With Hopes of Starting Over, and 2003’s The Make Yourself at Home EP remain standouts of the early-2000 Drive Thru Records sound), and compilations (who could forget the band’s epic interpretation of JLO’s “I’m Real” off of the 2001 compilation, Punk Goes Pop?).
After having perfected the pop-punk sound of the early-aughts (and writing what this reviewer considers one of the top three pop-punk albums of all time), it makes sense that the band would want to experiment with their sound. This can be heard immediately in the jarring first chords of Direction’s title track and opener. This song borders on southern rock at times, complete with both distorted guitars drenched in feedback and hard-hitting drumming from percussionist Tom Gryskiewicz.
The second song on Direction, “21,” is more a return to form for the band. With guitar work from Matt Watts and Mike Golla that is reminiscent of standout Based on a True Story track, “Bedroom Talk.” It’s on the third track, “Are You Alone,” that the band really begins to experiment with their sound.
This slow rocker showcases the piano playing of newest member Brian Schmutz, as he interweaves notes and chords beneath Vasoli’s vocals. Hearing this song twelve years later, I am reminded of The Wonder Years’ Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, and amazed at the influence the Starting Line has had on the genre.
Mid-album acoustic track, “Something Left to Give,” is another standout as Vasoli and company contemplate their legacy as a band. “To all those who loved me so much, I’d like to return to the favor,” sings the vocalist, before an epic group chorus takes over. “Something” is an incredibly moving song that evokes, among other things, a band’s mortality, and the acceptance that all things must eventually come to an end.
Towards the end of the album, the listener is treated with yet another self-reflective song, “Somebody’s Gonna Miss Us.” This somber tune finds Vasoli addressing his listener’s desire to hear more of the band’s familiar sound. “If S-I-L-Y-M-I still is all you want,” he sings while spelling the initials to the band’s first full-length, “then I’m not sure how much in common we got.” When the chorus kicks in, the listener finds a band hopeful that someone will miss them after they have called it a day. “Somebody’s gonna miss us when nobody’s here for this song,” sings Vasoli plaintively.
The band toured in support of Direction at that year’s installment of the Warped Tour. That is actually the first time I caught them live. It was a hot day, and they played, among others, “A Good Night’s Sleep,” one of my favorite songs off of Say It Like You Mean It. I remember thinking that the band sounded sharp as I jumped, sang, and sweated in the Texas heat. Sometime later, the band announced that they would be taking a hiatus to explore other projects (most notably Vasoli’s psych-rock-infused band, Person L). They announced that they would be coming through Texas and were making a stop in San Antonio with Bayside and Four Year Strong.
I got out of class that night headed straight to the White Rabbit, the legendary St. Mary’s strip venue that was hosting the show. There was an energy in that room that I hadn’t seen before at a show. The band played an intense and passionate show, that ended with a crowd sing-a-long of their biggest hit, “The Best of Me.” As the band left the stage, Vasoli jumped into crowd, right on top of my head. He surfed for a while, made his way back to stage, waved to everyone and was gone.
After the show, I waited by the band’s tour bus for a chance to meet Kenny. After a short while, he came out to meet and take pictures with fans. After snapping a pic, I remember telling him “Thank you for the music,” or something along those lines. I drove home listening to the recently released Direction, and thought to myself, “Kenny’s only half-right.” A lot of people were going to miss them.