For the cover art of the band’s eighth full-length studio album, Teenage Bottlerocket has opted for more of the same—their iconic skull-and-crossbone logo, this time in shades of stark white and silver. This reiteration from the Wyoming pop-punk stalwarts is intended as a nod to punk rock forebearers such as Descendents, but it also feels a bit indicative of the pop-punk genre, and TBR themselves—a return to a popular and time-trusted formula, one that upon first glance feels simple and familiar. With the utilization of a few clever tweaks, however, much is done to instill a hint of freshness and growth.
This being their return to Fat Wreck Chords after a one-album stint at Rise Records, TBR are once again at home with the San Francisco-based label, taking comfort in the place and the people who rocketed their band to the status of pop-punk headliners. It is also their first output of original material since the tragic death of drummer Brandon Carlisle in 2015. Behind the goofy jokes and relentless, four-chord compositions, Stay Rad! is at its most effective when balancing the band’s trademark, cartoony levity with genuine emotion.
Teenage Bottlerocket do not stray far from what has worked in the past, though there are minor touches here and there—the guitars are a tad cleaner, toning down the usual barrage of distortion the band employs, and new drummer Darren Chewka does a great job of pounding out the beat while staying true to the spirit of Brandon Carlisle’s unrelenting drumming style.
The band is at its best on Stay Rad! when stepping outside of their comfort zone. “Everything to Me” is Ray Carlisle’s ode to his son and to fatherhood and is a clear album highlight. I imagine many a punk rock dad dropping tears onto the bald heads of babies strapped to their chests as they listen. “The First Time That I Did Acid Was the Last Time That I Did Acid” is an interesting change-up in the formula, with a hardcore vibe and tripped-out vocal effects, leading to a refreshingly poppy chorus that relies on more than just furiously downstroked power chords.
Some of the tracks that stick to the band’s guns also prove effective. “Night of the Knuckleheads” sounds like one of the better tracks off the band’s previous album It Came From the Shadows, and “Wild Hair (Across My Ass)” will please fans of Kody Templeman. His voice has never sounded better as he hollers the chorus. “I Want to Kill Clint Carlin” is a funny song in which Templeman fantasizes about different methods of murdering the band’s good friend and roadie in increasingly vivid and hilarious detail. “I Never Knew” closes out the album and surprisingly is the only song about a girl, a topic which at one point was TBR’s bread-and-butter.
The formula does run a bit threadbare at points, however. “Death Kart” feels a little stale, perhaps being too reminiscent of the song “They Call Me Steve” from the band’s last album, Tales From Wyoming. “Creature from the Black Metal Lagoon,” while amusing in its not-subtle-at-all jabs at the band Deafheaven, also holds a similar theme and vibe to material visited by this band several times.
Stay Rad! closes out with “Little Kid.” It’s a more somber track that touches on the loss of Ray’s twin brother and again is one of the more quality moments on the album. “I can’t figure out how to be a little kid again,” Ray sings, and it’s impossible not to feel for his unimaginable grief.
It’s been a turbulent few years for Teenage Bottlerocket, a period in which they’ve faced adversity as well as maturity. This growth is evident in the more powerful tracks on Stay Rad! and goes to show that Ramones-style pop-punk has the ability to age with something like grace without completely abandoning its bratty soul.