Album Review: TFB’s signature sounds mature on Back on Top

After indie rock/punk band The Front Bottoms officially signed to major label Fueled By Ramen in June, fans like me waited with bated breath to see what impact working with the label would have on the band’s distinctly idiosyncratic and often unpolished style.

With the Sept. 18 release of their heavily anticipated third studio album Back on Top, however, The Front Bottoms have shown that this switch isn’t a negative one—in fact, it made the group stronger.

In my opinion, this is the band’s best album to date. Some die-hards might resent the new, cleaner production sound, but I don’t think it’s a problem. It doesn’t alter the known “The Front Bottoms” quirkiness—it enhances it. The professional recording allows the unique talents of the band—especially of lead vocalist and guitarist Brian Sella—to really shine through in a powerful way.

Back on Top is just that: a testament to why TFB has surged in popularity and rests fairly high up in the indie/alternative music scene. There are still TFB’s signature profound and tongue-in cheek lyrics mixed with a variety of captivating melodies, but there is also sense of increasing sophistication unlike anything on any other TFB album or EP.

This is most apparent with the development of Sella’s vocals. His distinct tone is still there, but he shows off a much wider vocal and emotional range with noticeably improved control. It is wonderful and one of the best parts of the album.

The album focuses heavily on classic TFB themes such as the pains of growing up, young love, lust and heartbreak, loneliness and the struggle to find meaning and to find oneself. On the surface these topics are quite trite, but TFB explores them in poignant, laughably honest and creative lyrics that keep listeners hungry for more.

For instance, on “The Plan (Fuck Jobs),” amidst upbeat guitar riffs, Sella sings, “Never underestimate poor, hungry and desperate/My body is a temple/How much you think I could get for it?” As someone who has jokingly discussed selling her organs on the black market to pay for college—as I’m sure many of us have—I love TFB’s ability to take real issues that us 20-something-year-olds struggle with and present them with both humor and insight.

The musical variation on this album is refreshing and really shows off the innovative talent of TFB. While previous albums like Talon of the Hawk and The Front Bottoms play it a little safer in terms of musical diversity, Back on Top showcases a fantastic myriad of instruments and beats.

While I genuinely love all of the songs on Back on Top, some tracks are superior to others. “Plastic Flowers” is heavier, but there’s a powerful sense of hope present as Sella passionately sings, “I believe that someone’s got a plan for me/They got a plan for me/Even if I don’t know it yet.” I’m a sucker for a good crowd-singer fusion—when the music reduces to drumbeats with Sella and a crowd sing the line together, I get chills.

“Cough It Out” is also a more serious track, but this single is one of my favorites. Its music is gorgeous, to start. I also love Sella taking the repeating lyrics “I cough it out” and switching to “I just don’t care” toward the end of the song with the same beat—a simple move that adds even more depth to the track.

In contrast, “Laugh Till I Cry” is much lighter. Fast-paced and fun, this is a great one to play in the car with the windows down. We can really see Sella’s developed vocals stand out here—he doesn’t sound whiny, he just sounds good. “HELP” is another standout track with its catchy chorus and brilliant shifts in musical/lyrical tone.

I love this band and I love what they created with Back on Top. It’s honest, it’s well executed, it’s different and most importantly, it shows off all the very best parts of TFB.