Review Summary: CBOF play pretty awesome, well-crafted pop punk. They're also teenage girls.
Raise your expectations. When a band of girls still in their teens - a demographic normally associated with chasing Justin Bieber and drooling over Robert Pattinson than with NOFX concerts -- releases a punk EP that garners serious attention from audiences and critics, you can feel fairly certain this is not a novelty. They are not being humoured. They are proving themselves. These girls know their craft. They play more sophisticated, menacing riffs than many pop punks bands I grew up with. They've got the punk sneer and stance down. And most importantly -- this will be valuable when they're older and still making records, which I hope is the case -- they have a great ear for material. They're writing righteous, ticked off, but also clever and observational songs, with memorable, effective hooks that really highlight the skill and talent in this band. This isn't some cute, precious novelty act. It's a real deal.
The downloadable 5-track EP (retailing for $4.99 -- I could think of worse uses for 5 bucks) comes with three bonus music videos, bringing the track listing to 8 with one repeat. The music videos "Barbie Eat a Sandwich" and "Everybody Else" are straightforward, blunt, and fun pop punk tunes. Odes to non-conformism you'd expect from teenage punk rockers, especially girls who feel the pressure to meet stereotypical beauty standards. The sentiment isn't new. Hell, the idea of underage punk rock girls harkens back to the Runaways (and who could forget Cherie Currie's menacing "Hello Daddy, Hello Mom!"" Or Dakota Fanning's re-enactment, even.) But nothing about these songs seems imitative of that. Just like Punk has moved on from the 70's heyday, CBOF don't need to be compared to the Runaways. This song is also a little less subtle than the similarly-themed "Barbie Girl" by Aqua, which is saying something for its bluntness. It doesn't mince words, and it's effective, spiced up with a new wave buzz. "Everybody Else" has a brief solo that makes me think of the Strokes doing the Clash doing the Bobby Fuller Four. The squeak in Sophie's voice when she sings "Good girl" is an incredible vocal tool, roughing up the prettiness of her vocals in the opposite direction of her raggedy guitar-playing, emphasizing the meaning of the song, which comes along with enough "na-na-na's" to get thep oint across. (I've always been a big fan of well-used nonsense words.)
Those two tracks seem to predate the other five. The production on the new ones is a lot cleaner, the instrumentation a bit more ornate, the vocals more mature. There's still that sarcastic girlishness to them, but it's a difference. These songs also showcase an incredible gift for songwriting, which, if they're that much newer, indicates a crapload of artistic growth. The blistering "What I Could Be," which sets the tone for the set, is about seeking yourself and standing apart from others. The hook in that chorus is strong, and it has that edge of realness... that ineffable "authenticity" sought by most punk acts, and with effortlessness and grace. Again, Sophie's vocals are the key, along with the steady pounding beat and growling guitars, which sound just clean enough for radio but not so clean as to lose their edge.
"Red Lights" gives us a steadier beat, and Sophie delivers the vocals with a note of admiration for the subject, leading to a lovely dreamlike chorus (that again, does not sacrifice a punk stance) making this song a standout here. "ATM" is a cleverly-phrased bitter relationship pissoff, backed by a charging verse and another great hooky chorus. Then "Ask Me How I Am" wonderfully hits the ambivalence of its shrugging "Satisfied and okay" chorus. Best of all may be the cover of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," which shows (as Me First & The Gimme Gimmes have often proved) how any song can be made into a punk song with the right attitude. They bust this one out with such gusto, yet such casualness, it feels completely natural. And the song is of course strong enough that its sentiment is still relevant, even still a little startling from the mouths of young girls.
It could've been even easier and poppier and still been good, like the music from the 2000's Josie & The Pussycats movie (underrated.) Instead, we get reminders that they are not as innocent as they appear: they're punk prodigies with real fire. The concept of these Care Bears on Fire as young girls still learning the world is subverted constantly throughout the album as they prove they've got their eyes open to the world and their fingers on the fretboard. A good punk album is as thrilling as anything you can name, as the past decade has sadly seen the genre tamed on the radio and pushed past extremes in the underground. This EP finds the sweet spot, the same area occupied by another great punk album I reviewed this year, the Exploding Hearts: smart and sweet, with fire and soul. It gives me hope for the future to think these girls are just getting started. Hell, it excites me.