As has been thoroughly discussed in these pages, Tooth & Nail used to be the premiere Christian rock label, the standard-setters for quality in the industry. Now? Well, not so much. The label hit their stride with the success of a few pop-punk acts (Anberlin, for instance), and so they’ve decided to play the part of a conservative’s Fueled By Ramen—a small company that’s punched out some of the most popular music of the last five years. Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Panic at the Disco: they all came from the same place, and have all made an impact with their derivative but playful brand of punk-lite. So what has Tooth & Nail given us lately?
Not much. At best, mainstream radio has had first pick of much of the material, but even they can’t possibly use every single piece of quasi-rebellious crap that the label pushes out. Enter Children 18:3, a cheesily titled, deceptively presented punk trio from that source of other great “buck the establishment” music—Minnesota. Well, okay, so they’ve got the look down even if their roots don’t lend themselves to selling the Hot Topic-friendly attitude they were going for. What’s interesting to note is that, unlike a greater portion of the recent T&N recruits, these guys (and gal) haven’t gotten a great deal of hype, at least where the label itself is concerned. It’s ironic, really, that they’ve let what could very well be the only positive argument for the future of an increasingly disappointing company slip by without fanfare.
The sound isn’t as polished as most pop punk; in fact, while the choruses definitely lend themselves to that brand of scream-‘til-your-lungs-give-out appeal, the production is so rough around the edges, mixing a lack of a polished sheen with whiny, “nobody understands me” poetry. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not emo, which is a breath of fresh air after all that “cut my wrists and black my eyes” garbage from one-hit wonder bands of summers past.
On “Homemade Valentine,” for instance, an insanely catchy melody has to fight for attention above the garage band-style distortion of the lead guitar; it’s a duel of volume, one briefly lapping the other before straggling behind. Ironically, the lyrics are some of the band’s most poignant of the record, a reflection on love and loss in modern culture. Even with a band like Anberlin, who rock out with the best of the best, it seems likely that they would have used the fragile lyricism as chance to crack out the old acoustic guitar and flash their sensitive, pretty-boy smiles. (Cities‘ “The Unwinding Cable Car” comes to mind.) But Children 18:3 aren’t playing the raw indie band yet—they’re too busy putting live frogs in their teachers’ desk drawers. They blast through the insistent heartache as quickly and indiscriminately as if they were pulling out a Fall Out Boy cover, and the decision earns them a few more points of respect.
Using a term like “highlights” when summing the album up indicates that the debut has at least one weak spot, some crack in the foundation that gives off the impression of room for growth—in this case, it is the inclusion of mini-songs in the track listing. They’re nothing more than filler, half-ideas without proper development, potentially brilliant but unnecessary without some elaboration. Even so, after playing through the relatively short running time, it’s hard to deny that these kids have pulled off quite a feat—honing an oft-channeled, but rarely understood genre, set to perceptive (and I don’t use that word lightly) lyrics about social norms, abortion, love, and loss; all for starters (of course). They take us through the highs and lows of the present state of music—unprecedented emotional honesty, raw presentation, and the mainstream’s love for all things punk—not so much through mistakes of their own, but rather by the lack of them, benefiting by comparison to lesser bands.
It’s rare for a group to sound this musically confident, this conveniently together, so early into their career. Granted, I won’t be doing much shopping at Hot Topic any time soon, and I’ll do my very best to lay off the eyeliner, but there’s no getting past it: Children 18:3 have played the right hand and released one of the most unexpected albums of 2008.
John Wofford is a freelance writer in Fairmount, Georgia.
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