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Joyce Manor - Songs From Northern Torrance Music Album Reviews

The Torrence, California band’s new and allegedly improved rarities collection is the punk record they always wanted to make, and a chance to redefine their legacy for newer listeners.

Barry Johnson just wants to be a punk. When Joyce Manor released their polished second album Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired in 2012, even he seemed a little unenthusiastic: “I’m really, really happy with it, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time I wish we would have just done a punk record.” Six years later, still seeking to recapture a grittier sound, the band tapped Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou to produce Million Dollars to Kill Me—their most gently melodic record to date. It’s a tension that’s long existed in Joyce Manor’s music, where the wry power pop of Guided by Voices and the fiery, grating screamo vocals of a band like Orchid combine to produce massive hooks. At live shows the band often mines its history, playing early demos to explosive response. What fans who came onboard after 2014’s Epitaph debut Never Hungover Again might not realize is that clean vocals used to be the exception, not the rule, on a Joyce Manor song. With the new rarities compilation Songs From Northern Torrance, they revisit their formative years and finally get the punk record they always wanted to make.
As a band whose early interviews directed readers to Myspace, Joyce Manor’s history isn’t necessarily hard to access. Some Songs From Northern Torrance are already familiar: The record opens with crowd favorite “House Warning Party,” and its second half is taken track-for-track from 2010’s Constant Headache EP. Astute fans noted that Joyce Manor removed a rarities compilation with a similar tracklist from streaming platforms just prior to the new record’s release; the band clarified that Songs From Northern Torrance represents a “thoughtfully curated compilation.” Their second run at a rarities album is a chance to redefine their legacy for newer listeners. These sequencing and song choices are less enamored with the bouncing post-hardcore zeal of early tracks like “My Elise,” more indebted to the embittered anger of folk-punk and screamo. It’s also telling what history the band omits, like Johnson’s early brushes with ska.

The compilation’s abrasive edge evokes the basements, bowling alleys, and backyards that dot Joyce Manor’s southern California home. “DFHP?” (short for “Do Fish Have Periods?”) and “Who Gave You a Baby” rely on acoustic guitar and Johnson’s voice to carry their rhythms, trading the power of distortion pedals for earnest, unfiltered vocals and the brushing of fingers against strings. The inclusion of these pared-back demos, rather than the more robust versions released previously, offers a sense of bedroom-recording intimacy missing from their robust, professionally produced recent albums. For longtime fans—those who’ve continued to find catharsis by screaming along at concerts as the band leveled up to headlining slots—it is perhaps a necessary reassurance.

The remaining new additions to the tracklist are reminiscent of the scrappy folk-punk scene Johnson frequented pre-Joyce Manor. The clipped vocals and loose, jangling guitar of “House Warning Party” certainly recall the defining traits of aughts folk-punk revival. But it’s the lyrics—a vision of romance as a salve against economic depression and broken homes—that sound surprisingly political coming from a band better known for dejected lamentations on growing pains and arrested development. The narrative recalls the brutally bold lyricism of former tour mates AJJ, while “Fuck Koalacaust” serves as a permanent reminder of the days when obscure SoCal band rivalries could inspire whole songs (both Johnson and Koalacaust claim ownership of the opening riff). As with “Who Gave You a Baby,” hearing Johnson express his rage so clearly and pointedly is invigorating. His scream of “Fuck you, Dad” is the quintessence of frustrated anti-authoritarian anger.

The final five songs, all taken from the Constant Headache EP, come closest to Johnson’s elusive holy grail of punk. The rapid cymbal hits and downtuned guitar of “Constant Nothing” convey newfound intensity after half a record of smaller, more anxious acoustic sounds, and the shrieking chords of “Done Right Discount Flooring” build the energy. Other songs, especially popular live picks, lose steam in the studio; setlist staple “Five Beer Plan” lacks ferocity in its recorded version, the long pauses and the absence of a circle pit noticeable even if concerts weren’t indefinitely on pause. There’s also something faintly ironic about listening for marginally higher fidelity in remastered versions of recordings that were often comically blown out in the first place. As a second rarities compilation that shares most songs with its predecessor, it’s hard not to see Songs From Northern Torrance as an effort to hold fans’ attention between new records. But for newcomers looking for a sense of Joyce Manor’s earliest days, these scrappy, bare-bones demos serve as an idealized backstory, one that lends the band a hardened edge as their arc bends further towards pop.

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