Hearts and Vultures

Pop-punk often gets a bad rap, and for good reason. In wake of the ’90s punk explosion lead by platinum-selling bands like Green Day, The Offspring, and Rancid, ‘pop-punk’ became a household term as well as a signifier of both the corporatization of punk and a thorough watering-down of the DIY ethics that animated the underground punk and hardcore scenes that thrived throughout the same decade.

While it has always been convenient for some punks to draw a hard-and-fast line between ‘pop-punk’ and what they consider to be real authentic punk rock, it’s rather arbitrary given that punk has had a pop signature since the Ramones first stepped foot on stage in the mid-70s. With that being said, there are important differences between sub-genres of punk, not to mention punk and hardcore, which make pop-punk simply unlistenable for many people. And that’s probably because for every Crimpshrine or Dillinger Four that has graced us with discographies of heartfelt, gritty songs that mix pop and politics, there are abominations like Good Charlotte and Sum 41, as well as hordes of Blink-182 clones who have proudly waved the ‘pop-punk’ banner over their degenerative strain of vapid mall rock for over twenty-five years.

Despite being a fan of the genre, and having the opportunity to see or play with hundreds of great pop-punk bands in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was sufficiently burnt out on it by the time I took a break from playing in 2006. A few years later, one of my new bandmates copied me some records that changed my mind, including a 7” and a bunch of demo tracks from his good friends back home in Seattle, who called themselves Snuggle! They were raw, loud, catchy as hell, and made me instantly impressed by (and jealous of) their ability to snarl out a love song that would sound utterly cheesy in the hands of a different band. I mean, what kind of self-respecting punk isn’t a total sucker for an opening line of a song like this:

First time I saw you

you were hiding and smiling

with your face under a book

It’s all it took

to know I was hooked for a long while

Without trying to read too much Pacific Northwest punk into their lineage, it’s fair to say that both the melancholy hooks of the Wipers and the DIY pop charm of The Fastbacks are somehow imprinted into a sound that Snuggle! mutates into something that’s a little darker, faster and more desperate than many of the East Bay bands of the Lookout! era to whom they frequently draw comparisons. 

Snuggle!’s members have performed or still play in various other punk bands (Murmurs, Ratbite) and a range of pulverizing hardcore and grind acts (Skarp, Cop on Fire, Consume, Decrepit). Collectively, they manage to bridge crust punk sensibilities with melodic song structures, Rancid-esque bass lines, and choruses that practically beg to be sung along. However, it’s Jerome Sosa’s songwriting abilities and unique vocals that are arguably what’s most noticeable about the band and its work. Like some of the catchier Poison Idea songs that Snuggle!’s music seems to flirt with – especially on their brilliant “Monsoon” – the shouted, strained vocals don’t seem like an obvious fit with a musical style that owes more to Screeching Weasel than the early hardcore bands in which Sosa’s aggressive delivery would be well-suited.

But it’s precisely that juxtaposition of chaotic singing, unorthodox vocal phrasing, über-catchy hooks, and dissonant punctuations that shape the band’s unique approach to pop-punk, which they translate into both recordings and live shows that sound full, cohesive, and yet on the brink of total collapse. That sense is fueled by Snuggle!’s lyrics, inasmuch as they stitch together clashing ideas about beauty and filth, love and disgust, hope and despair, memory and possibility.

What makes it work so well, though, is the fact that Snuggle!’s lyrics are simultaneously direct, intensely personal, and completely unpretentious, which is an incredible feat for any punk band to pull off, especially one that so obviously wears their heart on their (record) sleeve. And it’s a particularly admirable quality for a band who’s genre – despite its gems and aces – has long been saturated with formulaic sounds, lyrical cliches, and the shallow emotional platitudes of young white dudes who are often predictably boring or transparently misogynist. Snuggle!’s lyrics, on the other hand, complement its music in ways that are playful, vulnerable, and, at times, capable of sincerely capturing the sorts of idiosyncrasies and moments we all live for.

Snuggle!’s new release on Dead Broke Rekerds, Holiday Heart, marks the Seattle band’s first record in a decade and their first 12” vinyl to come out since their criminally underrated full-length album, Zero Real Hearts, in 2006. The new EP finds the band returning to the fuller sound of their original four-piece lineup, and to themes of the heart that animate most of their records. It opens with one of Snuggle!’s best songs to date, “Better, Than Air,” which is a high-speed dive into the thorny mess of coping with life and death:

Some of us have left with or without reason

We’ll miss them dearly, in every breath

In every breath

Because when you’re dead, yeah you’re dead and gone

You cannot put your finger on

the reasons why you loved or hated anything

The following tracks, “Just Feral” and “Air ’n Out,” continue to flesh out what is arguably a near-perfect EP, and the latter song is an us-against-the-world anthem that is probably tied for my favourite of the batch. Holiday Heart rounds out with newer, better recordings of solid tunes that were previously released on two of Snuggle!’s split 7”s. “White Knuckle’d” recounts both the messy end of a friendship and the frayed ends of communication – “Smoke rings fill the sky, calligraphy to an eye that understands gibberish” – while “Twinspeak” is a speedy, lyric-stuff reminder of how “self-destruction is such a shitty friend.” (FYI: the last two track titles are accidentally swapped on the digital version of Holiday Heart, but not the vinyl).

For some fans of punk, particularly folks whose point of reference is more Discharge than Descendents, Snuggle!’s music may come across as a little too saccharine despite its rough-and-tumble qualities that are the hallmark of melodic punk songs since the birth of the genre. And, for others, the band might very well be an acquired taste. But unless you’re a misguided cretin or some jaded grump who refuses to listen to anything labelled ’pop-punk’ on principle, I’d have a hard time believing you won’t like something about Holiday Heart.

Given both the long lapses between Snuggle! releases and the infrequency with which they play, you should snatch up this vinyl while it’s still in print and go see them live when they briefly tour of the East Coast this October. The band doesn’t have much of a web presence but you can find them on the FaceSpace and Bandcamp.

Photograph courtesy of Snuggle! All rights reserved.