BY MAX COHEN //
2022 marks the ten year anniversary of Modern Baseball’s first (and best) album Sports. Formed while exploring the Philly basement scene, on this gentle rager Bren Lukens and Jake Ewald kick around passive anxieties and DOA romances with a frustrated yet hopeful sense of arrested development. Sports is the perfect emo debut- a catchy, relatable, sad, punk-lite freak out that faces heartbreak without scorn. What gives it that unique earworm cred isn’t the scream along lyricism but the raw, acoustic feel and chilly edge. Records like this fit the mood best when the weather takes a turn for the cold but there’s a reason this LP specifically is perfect for the holidays.
Sports is a Christmas album.
Those are the first lines of track five, “Hours Outside in the Snow”. Unlike the season’s dominant radio-friendly pop tunes, here and on most other songs Sports gives voice to the lonely parts of winter. Quiet, isolation, and longing, are all baked into the instrumentals (about a third of the songs flirt with close mic’d lo-fi). The guitars have a cold, bright edge, Adrienne Gold’s harmonies are airy and aching, and the cymbals don’t CRASH as much as they flurry. The bassline from “Tears Over Bears” lumbers like a dead tree toppling under the weight of heavy snowfall. The backing vocals and reverb soaked acoustic licks on “I Think You Were In My Profile Picture Once” howl like December winds while “@Chl03k” has the tacky tambourine taps of a caroler who wouldn’t shell out for sleigh bells. The album’s intimate, peppy energy feels like the product of kids locking down to avoid a blizzard- the vibe is anxious, energized and stuck.
To me Sports works in conversation with maybe the best holiday album of all time, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The members of the Vince Guaraldi Trio are not savants- they sling out straightforward festive jazz that’s more utilitarian than improvisational. Caught on tape in two days, A Charlie Brown… carries a subtle energy and heavy melancholy both enhanced by its off the cuff feel. It’s in the brief silences, when Vince pauses between licks or the band holds before a quick dynamic change, that the album comes alive. It’s clever and meditative, brilliant and accessible all in real time.
Likewise, Modern Baseball is not hailed for their groundbreaking techniques or arrangements. We remember them because of their distinct delivery and sparse, vibrant sound. Sports came from just two weeks of recording at Drexel U and has that same immediate brilliance- two chords are more than enough for a basement anthem, simple revelations like “I will never stop falling in love” are underscored perfectly by anxious solo fingerpicking. “Play Ball!” manages to be raucous and light at the same time. Like the Vince Guaraldi Trio at their best, Sports leaves space for you to feel each instrument rather than get lost in a dense jam. Even some of their solo sections sound similar- catch these two fluttery ascending licks on “O Tannenbaum” and “Re-done”.
But more than having a chilly feeling or a tenuous connection to other seasonal music, Sports works as a Christmas album because it tells a story. The LP contains a secret narrative about heading back home from college during winter break and kicking around the shitty town you grew up in.
Picture this: you’ve just spent a semester away at school and before you even realize it, finals have come to a close and you’re homeward bound. You reflect on the past few months. It’s not like everything at college has been perfect, you probably had your heart broken a lot and sulked back to your dorm room crying from one too many parties (“Tears Over Beers”). You think maybe the change of pace could be good. You’ll relax while the temperatures drop, it’ll be a much needed return to your roots. But you’re wrong. There’s a reason you “moved away from home / 100 miles or so” and it’s because those roots have nothing to offer you.
Sports is a guide to restlessly passing the time till January. What do you do to cope with being stuck in this town for now?
Drink with old friends and get tired of them (“The Weekend”), troll around on twitter, avoid hearing the same high school stories again (“@chl30k”), hide out in your room and listen to records (“Play Ball”), scrounge around for a booty call (“Look Out”), get too cold and think about dying (“Cooke”), think about the one from home who got away (“I Think You Were in My Profile Picture Once”), miss them especially hard around the holidays (“Hours Outside in the Snow”), dream about how you could make it work (“Re-Done”), remember that you’ll leave this place and them behind (“See Ya, Sucker”), make new year’s promises to do it all right (“Re-Do”), prepare to see the people back at school you love and do it all wrong in new, exciting ways (“Coals”).
Yeah, yeah the order and details are all fudged and this probably isn’t what Lukens and Ewald were thinking about when writing these tracks. But so what? At this point Modern Baseball’s story is more mythology than history- you can comb through defunct tumblr blogs and reddit threads to find the exact “meaning” behind each lyric or you can play pretend and give the album your own life (maybe a festive one!). Maria Sherman got it right; “it is so easy to make their songs your own” so why not take the snowy sound and bask a little more in winter’s bitterness? Death to the author! MoBo is dead! Long live MoBo!
When the smooth sounds of Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé dominate the holiday airwaves, I take a lot of comfort in the discomfort of Sports. It serves as a reminder that not everyone is enjoying this happiest season. For many, Christmas can be a shit storm of stress and looming hometown baggage. If you’re one of those people, pull up Sports and start from the top. Throw on a big cozy sweater, warm up a mug of apple cider (I know Bren wouldn’t mind!), and take solace knowing everyone else hates being stuck where they grew up too.
Merry fucking Christmas!