By Jonah Krueger, News Editor
[Don Giovanni Records; 2020]
Key tracks: “Drown”, “Racehorse”, “Turn Right, Goes Straight”
New Jersey power-punk collective Teenage Halloween may have just served up the sweetest existentially-concerned cocktail this side of Jeff Rosenstock. One part Pacific Northwest indie, two parts California ska/pop-punk, with a dash of Springsteen and modern folk-punk for garnish, Teenage Halloween’s self-titled debut is a satisfyingly melodic crowd-pleaser.
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The record offers 10 decorated, driven and slightly aggressive pop songs that are knee-deep in DIY aesthetics. Charmingly messy, yet well-layered, each track is bursting with life thanks to a healthy portion of horns, piano embellishments and overlapping guitars. The resulting songwriting fits snuggly within the pantheon of the punk and indie. “Sweat” contains guitars that could have lept right off of an early Built to Spill record, where the lead melodies of “Summer Money” and “Figwit” fall somewhere between Operation Ivy and Social Distortion.
It is frontperson Luke Hendricks’ vocals, however, that gives Teenage Halloween a voice of its own. Impassioned, dramatic and alternating between sardonic and genuine, Hendricks’ personality is front and center, which is perhaps the album’s greatest strength.
While the chord progressions and song structures stay well within the established boundaries of the style, the ferocious performances and earworm melodies cement Teenage Halloween as being far from forgettable. The Nana Grizol-esque “Drown” and bombastic “Clarity” are familiar enough to be instantly enjoyable, yet just novel enough to remain interesting. Similarly enjoyable, the closer “Turn Right, Goes Straight” builds in intensity and energy for a fittingly climactic, almost too perfect ending.
This delicious drink of an album isn’t devoid of nutritional value, however, as these sugary instrumentals are backing emotional, often politically charged lyrics. Predominantly a queer-identifying group, themes of gender, mental health, trauma and identity run throughout the album’s quick 24-minutes.
Sometimes Hendricks’ tales are darkly funny, like on “SMH City”, a story of enlisting in the armed forces to both stifle and reinforce queer feelings. Other times Hendricks is portraying the confusing and often conflicting feelings of gender dysphoria and gender euphoria in an informed, honest manner. All the while, the phrasing is clear and natural, inviting listeners to sing along with lines like “Can’t be yourself with all the feds around / We’re in the gay part of town.”
Teenage Halloween might just prove to be the exact distillation of catharsis that fall 2020 requires. Fun enough to serve as light-escapism, while also emotionally-intelligent enough to add to discourse surrounding queer experiences, the album’s appeal covers late-night solitary sessions just as well as it covers DIY basement shows. This drink is as filling as it is intoxicating, and it likely has the power to become someone’s new go-to indulgence.