photos by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com
It should be no surprise that the word “connection” comes up a lot when talking about The Wonder Years‘ sixth album, Sister Cities.
For one thing, it’s the primary theme that singer and lyricist Dan Campbell wanted to explore this time around — the idea of coming together, while also being further apart than ever before, both geographically and philosophically. The idea of finding common ground between humans divided by cities and continents, by the distance between Kyoto, Japan and Santiago, Chile and Cheyenne, Wyoming and their hometown of Philadelphia. There are Wonder Years fans in all of those places, and by superficial traits, they could not be any more different, but get them in front of a stage and they’ll be equally passionate about screaming along to “Dismantling Summer” or “Coffee Eyes” or “Came Out Swinging” or “Logan Circle.”
That’s the other reason why connection is an enduring theme of The Wonder Years. There’s a distinct feeling, being in the crowd at one of their gigs, an electricity in the air as the lights dim low and the bandmates step to the stage — Mike Kennedy on drums, Josh Martin on bass, Casey Cavaliere on lead guitar, multi-instrumentalist Nick Steinborn, rhythm guitarist Matt Brasch, and Campbell taking the lead vocal mic. The endorphin rush is palpable, the physical rush is sometimes treacherous as the audience surges forward to create as little distance as possible between them and the band. They want to lock eyes and grip hands, they want to share the moment with one another and with the band. To say The Wonder Years have a connection with their fans is an understatement.
And there’s also their connection with one another. Of the band’s six members, five have been in the lineup since first getting together in 2005 in the suburbs of Lansdale; Steinborn is the closest thing to a “new kid,” and he’s been on board since 2009. The band toured its last record, 2015’s No Closer to Heaven, for a solid two years of international dates. Those travels inspired much of the music on the new record, but when they concluded, the band fanned out to their separate lives. These fixtures of the punk community are no longer banging on in a South Philly basement every night; they’ve moved to different places in the greater Philadelphia orbit, many have wives or long-term partners, and the time they get together as a band is increasingly rare and precious. But when it happens, that connection is such a strong one that there’s no warm-up period — they go all in from the start.
That’s exactly what we saw this March when The Wonder Years set up shop in WXPN studios to record a live set for The Key Studio Sessions. After the requisite setup and soundcheck time, the band launched immediately into a thunderous take on “Pyramids of Salt,” a powerful, expansive cut indebted to the atmosphere-shattering post-rock of Explosions in the Sky. The song opens on a trembling synth line and abstract lyrical illusions detailing a desire to help a troubled character: “There’s a bird inside your rib cage, he screams so I never forget,” sings Campbell. “I wanna break open your sternum, I wanna rip him from his nest.” Layers of guitars and a fervent rhythm build and intertwine into an epic soundscape that’s a world away from the Warped Tour punk of the band’s youth, and when the chorus hits, it’s massive. The lyrics sound like they are describing division — “I drew a line in the sand with these worthless fucking hands” — but as Campbell points out, its a song about the frustration of powerlessness, and the inability to help those who you love who are beyond help.
This theme is echoed in the set-closing “Cigarettes and Saints,” a throwback to No Closer to Heaven that Campbell wrote with two purposes: one, to eulogize a friend who passed away after a fight with addiction, and two, to rage against the big pharma industry that arguably caused the crisis leading to their death. This has been The Wonder Years’ show-stopping song ever since it entered their setlist, and they punctuate it with a dual-drumkit coda; Brasch steps to a secondary kit, doubling and expounding upon Kennedy’s primary rhythm, while Campbell grabs a guitar to carry the song home with howls of “You can’t have my friends, you can’t have my brothers, you can’t have me.”
Meditations on connection, both, but dark ones, for certain. For a current of hope — and one that you’ll experience by listening to Sister Cities in full, all the way up to the album’s expansive closer “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me” — turn to this powerful performance of the title track. “Sister Cities” is a song the band wrote in Chile, about an experience playing a pop-up show in a municipal park after getting derailed by a gig cancellation. As the indelible hook goes, “I’m laying low / A stray dog in the street / You took me home / We’re sister cities.” And though the song is steeped in initial fear and uncertainty, its ultimate message is the ability to find community just about anywhere, if you’re willing to look for it.
The Wonder Years wraps up its spring tour in support of Sister Cities next month at The Fillmore Philadelphia with back-to-back shows; the first night, Friday June 8th, is sold out, but tickets remain for night two on Saturday, June 9th, and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Grab a copy of Sister Cities here and stream the band’s Key Studio Session in its entirety below.
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