My immediate impression of Before the Sun Catches Us All was that Squarecrow was getting serious. I hadn’t had much of an encounter with the band before, but I knew their name from bills of shows I’d never end up going to. I knew they were active, I knew they played some sort of melodic punk, and now, I know they have an album out.
“Six Miles Above Clackamas” paints the seriousness in technicolor. It’s a slow, jammy, singalong, the sort that melodic punk bands write when they’re going for something bigger—when they’re playing with dynamics and examining what it means, to them, to write a punk record. I can’t help but get shades of the Menzingers here, with a little bit of classic rock melody. What it means is that Squarecrow aren’t just releasing some songs, they’ve written a record, and from the first song, they’re intention is announced.
But there’s a certain kind of album that is hard for me to talk about, and it’s the album that is good, but not great. You listen, you nod your head, but ultimately, you’d be fine if you never heard it again. And while that sounds scathing, I wouldn’t say it is—it has as much to do with personal taste as it does the band. What Squarecrow has done with Before the Sun Catches Us All is write a record that hits all the major beats of melodic punk. Down the checklist, we go: right now, we need emotional turmoil. Stuff with lyrics like, “Oh maybe, oh maybe, I’ll find my way out of this open sea.” We need catchy melodies that don’t sound too Ramones-y. Because remember: this is melodic punk, not pop punk. And finally, when you’ve added drama to the arrangement, where the instruments nearly drop out and you can deliver your lyrics in the same painfully plaintive way the other guys do, you’re ready to bill your album as a concept album (in melodic punk, concept albums are a big deal, and unless you’re Direct Hit!, they’re a clear signifier that you are not, I repeat, pop punk).
But—this isn’t a bad album. In fact, this feels like a band pushing themselves out of ‘local band’ and into ‘nationwide touring act.’ The takeaway from Before the Sun Catches Us All, ultimately, is that they are a serious band. And not to make light of it—it is a serious record. The songs were written in the wake of singer Todd’s cancer diagnosis. Imagine the pain, the fear; the looking your own death in the eyes. That’s heavy shit, the heaviest shit. So, there’s no emotion unearned across Before the Sun Catches Us All—but what’s frustrating about it is that in too many ways it’s a mimicry of style, and while the album’s vulnerability is without a doubt earned, the style feels perfunctory in the face of such a profound concept.
I mean—what makes a Squarecrow? What is their identity as a band? How does Squarecrow sound different than say—Western Settings, Typesetter, Russian Girlfriends, or Mercy Music? There’s worse things to be than a competent executor of a popular style, but Squarecrow has something to say, and I wish they’d have pushed their music further to match the fire in their songwriting. There’s shades of power pop in here, a little of (gasp) pop punk, and even a little of skate punk, but the edges have been smoothed down and it becomes an exercise in kinda-sorta. I’d have preferred to hear Squarecrow commit hard to any one or two of those. Wanna do a punky power pop concept album? Go for it. Make it huge. Model it after Tommy or something. Wanna do an aggro-melodic-punk album? Bring out those distorted cowboy chords and go raw, and push the emotion level to its confrontational max—scream every line and make sure the audience hears every fucking word of what you’re feeling. But, don’t do half measures. If this is a serious record, we need Squarecrow to represent a sound or feeling we can put a finger on. In the world of great albums, nothing but transcendence will do.
But, and this is important, the songs are good. Pretty consistently too, and in fact, despite how typical the style is, Squarecrow has a host of great songs across this album. They feel tense and heavy with great melodies and emotive weight. From opener, “Six Miles Above Clackamas,” to closer “Windowless,” there’s a lot of talented, inspired songwriting here. “Walk It Off” is a catchy number carried by chugging chords and a couple of standout lyrics. “Aesthetic” and “Date Me” are a one-two punch of melodic punk bangers, sure-fire singalongs just waiting for an audience. There are no bad songs on Before the Sun Catches Us All and I think that is a department where Squarecrow has a leg-up on the competition, because of everything else I can pick bones with, songwriting is a much more ethereal, defiantly intangible process, and to be good at it is to simply have the right instincts.
Before the Sun Catches Us All will have its fans, and it should. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from hearing it, because it has a great story behind it and Squarecrow may just very well be the next big thing. La Escalera is starting to solidify itself as a west coast Red Scare in some ways, and if that means anything, we might get to see their roster poached by Epitaph and Fat in the next five years. This is an album expressing real shit, and while it doesn’t go out of the way to make the genre its own, at its core—it’s done right, with feeling.