The Front Bottoms commit to new maturity, beginning of new era with ‘Ann’

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Dedicating an EP to your grandmother doesn’t seem like the most on-brand decision for an emo revival band — a band that is also at times folk-punk and, in more recent releases, veering toward indie rock — but the Front Bottoms did it anyway. The dedication is a little bizarre, a little cute and actually not that surprising.

And true to form for an EP named after a grandmother, it’s admirably mature.

The conception of Ann — named after frontman Brian Sella’s grandmother – can be traced back to 2014. That year, the band released its first “grandma” EP, Rose, which was dedicated to the eponymous grandmother of drummer Mathew Uychich.

While Rose is a definitive part of the band’s early music, it’s also a perfect example of the unpracticed sound the band tried to move away from with its releases of the past year. In “Jim Bogart,” off the Rose EP, Sella foreshadows the band’s progression when he sings, “I would play more than just four chords / If it’s a song that you might like.”

Four years later, the band demonstrates a mastery of more than just a couple nifty new chords. Ann is a six-song extension of the experience that originated with the band’s 2017 album Going Grey — both feature a drastically more complex sound than that of Rose. There is an increased amount of instruments and synths to pick out in each song, a stark contrast to the band’s early music, which relied on the tried-and-true rock equation of guitar, drums, bass and vocals. Back then, the band only ventured into uncharted territory with the occasional trumpet or tambourine to shake things up.

All but one song on the EP have been around for years now, never released officially but occasionally played live. In deciding to update the songs, rerecording them and giving them complete makeovers in terms of sound, the band is asserting that it’s trying its hand at something new.

“Tie Dye Dragon” was the only song off the new EP to be released as a single. The song is beautiful and cinematic, its most striking aspect being its violin use, a choice uncharacteristic for the band. This song and “Pale Beneath The Tan (Squeeze)” are the highlights of Ann, beautifully showcasing the best parts of the band’s updated tone.

In “Tie Dye Dragon,” Sella sings, “I guess I’m older now / I am caught in between who I am / And who I’m supposed to be.” While the lyrics further the conversation about age that began in Going Grey, Ann isn’t about finally settling down — it’s about approaching the same lifestyle with a different sense of awareness.

The sound is far more developed than in previous releases, lacking the messy guitar strumming that once characterized the band’s style. At the same time, the songwriting feels familiar. 11 years into the band’s career, Sella is still writing about many of the same things.

This isn’t a bad thing. Sella’s commitment to raw, unpolished lyrics played a major role in the band’s success. His songwriting and half-talking, half-singing vocals are reminiscent of Max Bemis of Say Anything and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, placing the band in the outskirts of the mainstream.

With Ann, the Front Bottoms stay loyal to a major part of what sets the band apart in the first place. Yet the band is also moving forward and experimenting with a sound that is cleaner and more in the vein of contemporary indie rock bands. It hasn’t completely mastered this sound yet — the beginning of “I Think Your Nose Is Bleeding,” for example, features a series of unnecessary synth sounds that don’t smoothly transition into the synthless rest of the song.

As a whole, however, Ann is impressive. It is bold and unabashedly experimental while still retaining the essence of the band’s identity, as shaped over the past decade.

But the Front Bottoms have always been your older brother’s garage band, clumsily fumbling around and trying to figure out what it’s doing. It hasn’t completely left that garage yet.

While Ann is in part the product of a much less clumsy rock outfit, one that that has now invested in a synthesizer, it is still reminiscent of what the band has already established. Sella is still singing about chaotic relationships, drug experimentation and staying out too late — he’s just doing it with more instruments, more advanced production and more self-awareness.

If Going Grey was the band’s declaration that it is growing up after a decade of relative consistency, then Ann is the debut release of its new maturity. The band might be “going grey” and feeling its age, but in embracing the inevitability of growing up, the band is allowing itself to move forward.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected].