Pure elation in a West Philly basement. No, it’s not like your scene. Well, actually, it’s exactly the same. Or, rather, it’s what you’ve been looking for. How are you doing, man? Work’s alright? You alright? Someone pulls a six-pack of beer out of a backpack. Well, multiple someones. The bathroom’s upstairs, like in every house here. You can smoke on the porch but toss your butts over there. String up a sheet and some fairy lights, that’s a stage. Watch your head, the ceiling’s low down here. Give what you can for the touring bands. Talk about a house venue that doesn’t exist anymore. Talk about this house. Talk about your hometown. Talk about anything. Try to do better. When’s Modern Baseball on, anyway?
For those of us bitten by their bug, Modern Baseball’s debut LP, Sports, sounds like rapture — gospel through a rented PA, a respectable late-night five-band bill next to someone’s washing machine on Baltimore Avenue. “I wanna start from the top/ Maybe like a do-over.” Before the listener is able to pass any judgment on the Philadelphia band, frontperson Bren Lukens asks for another chance. Or maybe this album is Bren’s do-over. “Replace the voices in my head with blind innocence,” concludes the thought. There’s little room for misinterpretation. Such complete, painful candor would become an identifiable facet of Bren’s songwriting — not a novel concept, by any means, but delivered with such cleverness as to feel novel. Case in point: In the final moments of the opener, Bren quotes the second-best known Motion City Soundtrack song, from 2003’s I Am The Movie, the perfect distillation of untimely anxieties: “The future freaks me out!” There is perhaps no reference more deeply nerdy, and here, devastating — recast by a young person not totally certain they want to keep on living.
MoBo (as they’re known to real heads, or just those of us who spend too much time online) released Sports 10 years ago this Sunday. At the time, guitarists Bren and Jake Ewald, drummer Sean Huber, and bassist Ian Farmer were Drexel University students, barely 20 years old, overwhelmingly earnest and wholesome to the point where there were multiple photos of the clean-shaven band eating ice cream in circulation. Before those early days, Bren and Ewald attended the same high school in Brunswick, Maryland. Ewald played in a pop-punk band called Purple Shanty Shack, fronted by his twin sister; Bren met him at one of Ewald’s shows, and the rest is history. Their name came from a book of “Modern Baseball Techniques” in Ewald’s basement, placing them in a long history of suburban bands who’ve labeled themselves after books they may or may not have actually read (looking at you, Ecstasy: Three Tales Of Chemical Romance.)
Little of that, of course, has to do with their first album’s ascendency. DIY channels — word of mouth, beloved blogs like Property Of Zack, a burgeoning PA music community that made their “Michael Jordan house” an it-venue — fostered support for MoBo early on. This is a band built by friends for friends, and it bled into everything they did (even when they weren’t feeling particularly favorable to friendship; “Most of my old friends I can only stand for the weekend,” Bren chants on “The Weekend,” “but that doesn’t apply here.”) The Sports sound is magnetic — in some moments, rushed (“Look Out” is a prepubescent pub song at 0:55 seconds), but endearing in its amateurishness. What’s not to love?
It’s impossible to write about music like this without looking inward, soaking in the sadness that connects you to a band like MoBo, transforming its melancholy into something mobile, like butterflies in your stomach. In 2015, after spending a year alone in Spanish Harlem, mostly covered in my own depressive filth (beer bottles, pizza boxes, and whatever other welcoming cliche), and a month subletting an apartment in Brooklyn to try and become a person again, I moved to Philadelphia. It was that or Los Angeles — anywhere but NYC — and a friend of mine told me his girlfriend needed a new house mate, the rent was less than $400 a month, what did I think? Would I want to live with her? At that point in time, I could be found routinely taking the Chinatown bus, roundtrip, from NYC to Philly for $14. The bands were good; the price was better. If I was hungover, as I often was, the two-hour trip felt like three minutes — an apneic snooze on sticky seats. I said yes.
I didn’t realize, initially, that I was moving into a house with a couple women who’d been romantically involved with the members of Modern Baseball, and that some songs I’d come to keep close to my heart were written about my new friends. That is an unusual situation to be in: There’s a reason so many musicians, no matter how forthright their songwriting style, refuse to answer unimaginative questions about a song’s “meaning.” They leave it up to the beholder. Once it is out in the world, the song is no longer their own. As histrionic as it may seem, if I was in this situation with any band beside MoBo, I might’ve struggled with it — but it is so easy to make their songs your own.
I became familiar with people in the MoBo universe; it is also easy to connect with strangers who built the music that reverberates in your heart. When you do, self-possessed songs transform like they do live in a room full of cheering, teary eyed fans. It also helps that this was an undoubtedly ambitious and wholly unpretentious band. That last part I’ve always found to be a miracle. You wanted to see them win.
In certain circles, Sports is a mythological thing. MoBo recorded their debut album in two weeks at their campus studio in Drexel University: Twelve songs in 30 minutes, too clever for its own good, crushingly self-aware, and jittery — all coffee, cigarettes (Did they smoke? Don’t we all when we’re 20?), 40-ounces, insecurity, unrequited crushes, and social media personal politicking, back when that meant writing on Facebook walls, talking to Chloe on Twitter, and living online was reserved for the charmingly awkward, not a collective reality. They managed to find humanity in dated technology, like how “I Think You Were In My Profile Picture Once” begins with a reimagining of Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial.” (At least, to one Genius user. Frost: “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs/ Before she saw him.” Bren: “I saw you from the bottom of the stairs before you knew I was coming/ And though nervous and scared, I lingered on.”) Adolescent quirkiness, it seems, holds its allure when you’re not the one who wrote the lyrics.
Sports is overwhelmingly the brainchild of Bren. Ewald, who became a co-frontperson and an equal songwriting presence over the band’s career, played all the drum parts and wrote only three songs on this release: “Tears Over Beers,” “Cooke,” and closer “Coals,” a folk-y dirge where the end of a semester is a ripe metaphor for a loss of innocence. (And, it could be argued, the earliest foreshadowing of his work in Slaughter Beach, Dog that would follow.)
“Tears Over Beers,” arguably the most popular track on Sports, is post-adolescent, to be sure, but also indicative of Ewald’s greatest asset: He’s a master craftsman at a specific class of lyrics meant to uncover universal truths, the old creed of the greatest country musicians. “When I was just a boy, we’ll call it 15 or so/ I found myself annoyed by a syndrome of sorts in my bones,” he sings, cutting himself off with insecurity. “When I moved away from home, 100 miles or so, I knew a change had grown inside my awkwardly long limbs and bones,” he continues in the next stanza, a brilliant reprise in its own right for a band then in their infancy. Elsewhere, he does something decidedly anti-“emo” in exactly one crucial way: He gives voice to the woman he’s singing about. “She said, ‘All I can hope for is for me to get better/ Because all I can take is no more/ He needed more than me/ I’m friendly and thoughtful and quite awfully pretty/ But he needed more than me.’”
Which brings us to an important point of contention: Sports is, take a deep breath, emo — with the heavy caveat of being a certain kind of fluid and forgiving emo. The three-letter word rarely allows for nuance, so forgive me if it’s not one you wouldn’t assign to the band. (The quartet used to prefer “indie punk,” too broad if the phrase evokes, say, Flasher, instead of Jeff Rosenstock. It might even come across as kind of an oxymoron: Isn’t all punk independent? Bren has said that Christian Holden of the Hotelier refers to MoBo as “anti-pop,” which works just as well as calling Jeffrey Lewis “anti-folk.” But is there anything more tedious than arguing over genre signifiers?) Any desire to relabel the band is an optimistic one: Emo is self-limiting, not yet ready to be co-opted and reevaluated; emo nite and its contemporaries ruined that dream for the rest of us. It also means inadvertently placing the band within the narrow lens the term evokes: selfishness and myopia on the more favorable end, misogyny and ingratitude on the other. All of that feels wrong for Modern Baseball.
The Sports recording, contrary to the opinion of production purists everywhere, is decent for a scrappy DIY punk band most accustomed to West Philly basement shows. If there’s any defense to be made in support of pursuing higher education for music, it’s access to your school’s professional studio. That, and the talent available at college: MoBo attended Drexel while another ambitious young emo-rocker, Zakk Cervini, was doing the same. The band asked ZC to master their record — one of his first projects, ever. It laid the foundation for a remarkable career; he’s become an in-demand mixer in pop-punk and emo (Blink-182, Machine Gun Kelly, Bring Me The Horizon), major “alternative” releases of various genres (Halsey, Poppy, Grimes), even ska (if you count the Interrupters, and I do; “She’s Kerosene” is ubiquitous on radio.)
“Jake was the first friend I met in college,” Cervini tells me over the phone. “I mastered it real quick on my laptop. They paid me $200. I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs. “The thing that made it special is that it was so raw, extremely raw, and that made it real. It was super naïve — just a bunch of friends making music. I remember wanting to listen to them over and over because it sounded like nothing else: vocals were out of tune, instruments were wonky. It had this great feeling to it.” He tells me about his roommate going to one of the first MoBo shows, playing to 10 people, and buying a shirt. They became his favorite band, immediately. “Everyone was rooting for them; everyone loved them.” Instantly.