REVIEW: Freshman Underdog – Turning Leaves [EP/2020]

Artist: Freshman Underdog

Album: Turning Leaves – EP

            A lot of personal, human experiences are associated with seasonal change—and for good reason. As snow melts and gives way to vibrant Spring colors that intensify through the summer and fade throughout fall, each transition represents a balance between death and life; stagnation and maturation. As the seasons change, so can we—and with each cycle of change (that’s a year if the metaphor is eluding you) things grow and become different, but still comforting and familiar. This sense of growth, change and familiarity all existing simultaneously captures the essence of the debut effort by Michigan pop-punk act Freshman Underdog, aptly titled Turning Leaves. With songs that capture the rambunctious energy of a warm spring or blistering summer (minus the COVID Pandemic) transitioning into and out of songs with a cooler, more melancholic and bitter demeanor, Turning Leaves distills the many sides of a broad genre, giving listeners something emotional to lose themselves in as aptly as it gives listeners something energetic, angsty and catchy to becomes ensnared by.

            Pop-punk is one of those relatively enigmatic genres that covers everything from late 90’s-tinged bands like Blink-182, MEST and Simple Plan to contemporary, moody acts like Balance & Composure, Transit and more. In between, there are several bands that clearly fall on one side of the fence or the other, a few bands that bounce hither and to between them and even fewer that combine elements of both on a single release—that last category is where Freshman Underdog just so happen to fall. Emerging from a humble beginning as a straightforward easycore act, Turning Leaves sees the band embracing some of the sharp, angsty tones of acts like Handguns and mid-career Neck Deep without omitting more melancholic elements akin to pop-punk’s more subdued acts. While “End of May” and lead single, “F.O.M.O.” are unmistakably “summer” style songs, boasting fast riffs and faster drumming that segues into choruses so catchy there should be a social distancing order issued alongside them. Meanwhile, “ILYStill” and the record’s title track are more moody and mellow (well, the title track might fall along the lines of downright depressing if we’re being honest), highlighting the band’s ability to tackle opposite extremes within their genre. Here, more moderate drumming serves as a foundation for sparse chords and low, rumbling bass—all moody and a little cold, reminiscent of a bitter Midwest fall. Where “ILYStill” isn’t without a little bit of pep, the same as “End of May” begins on a somber, sullen note, these songs embody the very notion of turning leaves—or seasons changing—giving depth and dynamic to Freshman Underdog’s sound.

            Just as the instrumental elements within pop-punk can take on a myriad style and sound, the vocal elements may as well. Freshman Underdog’s vocal component is as varied as the groups’ instrumentation, although perhaps not as successful throughout. “F.O.M.O.” and “End of May” are, simply put, immense songs from a vocal and lyrical standpoint, thoroughly catchy and incredibly adept at being exactly what a listener would expect out of a pop-punk record. “ILYStill” follows that trend, although with sections throughout the closing segments where the vocal patterns and range demanded by the musicianship feel as if they’re more than what can be delivered, forcing their impact to be immensely lessened. Other songs, “Something More” and the titular track, are lyrical beasts with vocals that fall flat about as often as they hit home. “Something More” boasts a chorus that could be as catchy as anything thrust forth on “F.O.M.O.,” but the vocals feel as though they overpower the instrumentation, allowing their flaws to become glaring. The same thing occurs throughout “Turning Leaves,” where the vocals simply feel too loud and moments where they become disjointed from their subtle, acoustic base become spectacles and break the listener out of the otherwise immersive experience they provide.

            Turning Leaves isn’t perfect—it isn’t without its weaknesses and pitfalls, for sure—but it also hits its mark when It comes to establishing Freshman Underdog as a youthful, energetic and ambitious band in a genre that’s been on the decline in recent years. Catchy, hook-filled and vibrant, Freshman Underdog’s Turning Leaves is enough to make you want to get out and drive with the windows down as winter finally thaws into Spring—even if you can’t really go anywhere while you do it.


For Fans Of: Transit, Neck Deep, Handguns

By: Connor Welsh