Merit Maker – Pick Ups And Put Downs

 Merit Maker – Pick Ups And Put Downs

Merit Maker – Pick Ups And Put Downs – Album Review

Well would ya look at that…it was already a couple of summers ago since I was last reviewing the music of Merit Maker…amazing how time flies.  It’s a name I remember though, so credit where credit is due – this Punk project led by Joe Stanton has always had a significant amount of identity to it, even with its cast of continually rotating players.  We’ve experienced what I’d say are mainly positive moments with Merit Maker…a few peaks and a few valleys like most bands & artists tend to have along the way, but I remember siding with Stanton’s music more often than not…so let’s see if that remains to be true here.  The brand-new album is Pick Ups And Put Downs…hopefully I’m pickin’ up more than I’m puttin’ down.

LEMME TELL YA…make sure you know where your volume is set at, because if you left it up LOUD like I usually tend to, the explosion of drum beats you’ll find at the start of “Right Here” will practically give you a jammer as the album begins.  Practically scared my skeleton outta me y’all…damn!  After I got over the initial shock to the system, I settled into “Right Here” – it’s a fiery burst of melodic Punk energy, and it’s a solid start to the album that puts Merit Maker on the right path.  The main hooks of the chorus work extremely well in terms of setting this track apart from the rest of what ya hear in the genre, and as far as the rest goes, it seems like “Right Here” aims at gettin’ ya in the mood to “just go with the flow” and get your dance on…whatever that might look like in the Punk realm.  It’s always tough for this style of music to not feel like its copying itself, to “do it over and again,” but right from the drop you can hear that Merit Maker is bringing a supercharged energy and determination to the way they’re playing the music on this record, and I dig that.  “Right Here” is the kind of impossible-to-miss type of cut you wanna find at the beginning of the record, that grabs you by the collar & somewhat forces you to pay attention.

“False Starts” would be a track that I’m probably a little less jazzed about, but the execution is stellar.  Let’s be real here…Punk can be a seriously choppy-ass genre at times…as in, short lines of lyrics, quick movements…and sometimes you feel the effects of that become like a Jackson Pollock painting, or a wall of sound.  For example – where “False Starts” really made the biggest impact on me, was somewhere around the two-minute mark when things slowed down and spread out for a moment.  I get it, I get it – it’s not at all the most Punk moment you’re gonna find on this record, but it’s undoubtedly more of a vibe that is accessible to all.  This whole genre can get really bent outta shape whenever you deviate from its true blueprint, but I appreciate the fact that Merit Maker has included a lot more than four on the floor and full-speed ahead ideas throughout the course of this album.  “False Starts” shows that there’s diversity to be found inside the songs in this lineup, and ultimately, that’s gonna pay off for them.  It’s still cohesive enough for Merit Maker to keep its street cred, in my opinion.  I don’t mind the Ramones-influenced vibes of the way this track works in its verse & chorus…the energy is there, the backing vocals from Giorgi Ostatishvili make a positive contribution too…but heck yeah, if I’m being 100% real with ya, it’s the breakdown that I felt was the most alluring aspect of “False Starts” to me.

Lukas JP is givin’ it everything he’s got from the throne…Joe’s always done a remarkable job at finding the right players to work with.  While there’s a consistency to the kind of drumming you’ll find in Punk that can make it tougher to discern what’s required in one tune versus another, or what makes a lot of each track unique when it comes to that particular track…the timing is certainly there, and the dude plays his part like a force of nature, putting passion and purpose into every skin & cymbal he hits.  “Look Back” contains a bit more length to it and girth in its versatility…I might still be inclined to tell ya that “Right Here” would be my favorite of the first three tracks perhaps, but I appreciate that a track like this third cut brings a bit more to the table overall.  Lyrically, “Look Back” is arguably not the strongest stuff we’ve heard from Joe’s words, but it has its moments just like the rest of the song does too.  It’s in the new school of Punk when it comes right down to it, as in much more towards the Blink 182 recipe than the Ramones, but I think that ultimately works in Merit Maker’s favor when it comes right down to it.

“Faster Times” begins with a faster grind, and it’s a bit of a deeper cut in some regards.  Like…I’d put this track in the category of songs for people that really dig their Punk…it’s gonna be a very tough sell to the rest of the folks outside of the genre when it comes to this particular tune.  Ain’t nothing wrong with that of course – Merit Maker as a project, knows what it wants to get out of its sound…Joe’s had a vision for what this band is gonna be like, and in many ways, you can hear how its evolved to be precisely that.  “Faster Times” is less of a compromise in that regard…you buckle up, hang the fuck on, and if you can’t, chances are you’re gonna get left behind real quick.  To me, “Faster Times” has a lot of versatility to it, and a whole ton of twists and turns as it rips by.  It’s innovative y’all…kind of a cue for the dimension and depths you’ll find creep into this lineup of songs even more as the album plays on…”Faster Times” doesn’t quite become the structural departure that a track like “By Design” will prove to be in the second half, but it’s largely because they’ve got cuts like “Faster Times” in the set-list early on that get us prepared for the creative deviations you’ll find exist later on throughout Pick Ups And Put Downs.

In contrast, I can hear a track like “Sparks Ignite” is more geared towards attracting a large audience.  It’s a bit on the Sum 41 side of the genre’s style and sound, but the incorporation of more melody is always an asset in my opinion.  Merit Maker gives “Sparks Ignite” an inviting and welcoming sound that’s bound to earn the attention of most ears out there, not just the Punk crowd…and I’d probably go as far as to say that within the first half of this record, this would be the track I’d be looking at directly as the single to put out & represent this new album.  Not a doubt in my mind that “Sparks Ignite” would be the track you could put on in a crowd and find yourself being asked ‘who is this?’ many times over for all the right reasons…it’s the kind of song that’s got real gravity to it…it’ll pull people right in.  When it comes to this particular lineup on Pick Ups And Put Downs…I’d honestly be surprised if any of us hear this differently; I’m always of the mind that when we hear what’s genuinely universal sound, we tend to agree on that, by definition.  So if you’re NOT hearing “Sparks Ignite” as the single for this album, I’d ask ya what you think a single is supposed to sound like…and then argue with you until I’m blue in the face.  This track has it all, right up to and including the ability to pull people in from outside of the genre – that’s no easy task y’all, especially in the Punk realm.  For real though…I’d not only tell you that “Sparks Ignite” has all that single-worthy potential AND that it’s probably ALSO the best song on this album – but I’d definitely be inclined to put this right up there with the best I’ve heard from the entire Merit Maker catalog so far.

As the second act begins, “Falling Out” restores the more traditional Punk direction and gets them beats pumpin’ out just as fast and furiously as you know the genre to provide.  I ain’t here to hate on it…to be truthful, I think this is really the most well-executed record I’ve heard from Merit Maker so far when it comes to this whole lineup of material.  I might not personally love “Falling Out” as much as the majority of the set, but that’s definitely not to say that Merit Maker has dropped the ball.  That extreme drum roll from Lukas JP inside the first thirty seconds is always worth tuning in for, trust me on that.  They hit this whole track with a potent dose of pure energy and I’d imagine that longstanding Merit Maker fans will certainly dig this.  Love the backing vocals as we head towards the second minute…love the guitars in the breakdown…there are lots of positives to be found here.  Lyrically, I’m probably about as much onboard with this track as I was with “Look Back” earlier on, but full props to Joe – he’s singing his songs with real commitment & conviction, and at the end of the day, that matters to me more than words do.

You can hear the uniqueness of a track like “By Design” instantly as it begins, and it continues to display tangibly different qualities in its structure and sound as it rages on, at least until the melodic switch gets thrown just prior to the first minute is finished and brings it into more familiar terrain.  Full marks and a big salute to what is achieved with this track…”By Design” is by no means any kind of song that would be easy to play – this takes a significant amount of skill and precision to pull off, and they give it everything it needs.  Again, I can hear the odds are stacked against a song like this reaching the masses compared to the ease a song like “Sparks Ignite” will be able to…but like…c’mon y’all…LISTEN to the seamless fluidity of the transitions in this track will ya?  I ain’t gonna lie to ya, Merit Maker is practically defying the odds in that regard on this song, and it speaks serious volumes on behalf of their musicianship.  Do I think this will challenge the Merit Maker audience, or listeners in general?  HECK YES I DO!  And that’s a good thing.  This kind of innovation creates obstacles and barriers between music and the average everyday listeners out there, but it also invites evolution at the same time…so yep, I’m all for it.  The reality is, Merit Maker is trying different things on a track like this one, and you got it – I appreciate the effort even though I know real creativity in music is one of the hardest things to sell to the masses.  You don’t go into making a track like “By Design” feeling like it’s gonna be the single – you make a track like this because you want to challenge yourself as an artist, and create music that simply does more than what you typically find in most tunes.  While a track like this is always tougher to convince the people of, the dedicated musicians out there in the audience know exactly what they’re hearing in a cut like this, the complexity it contains, and how involved it is…game recognize game y’all – this song takes real skill.

“Mixed Messages” sounded like it’d be the kind of cut that I’d dig right away.  I go back and forth a bit when it comes to Joe’s vocals…the quality is always there, the confidence too…I’m not always in love with how he chooses to phrase his lyrics in terms of patterns & whatnot, but I do really like the constant commitment I hear from him on the microphone.  Dude never half-asses anything when he’s singing or shoutin’ at ya, and he should be commended for that completely.  Sometimes a singer makes the right choice by enlisting the right backup too.  Need further proof?  Listen to the spot around the 1:50-2:00 mark on “Mixed Messages” and you’ll hear Giorgi screamin’ atcha to the point where you can feel the air push outta your speakers along with it.  Joe’s bass deserves a shout-out as well…I felt like it got more of a presence on the final three tracks of this record, and I’d certainly encourage that to come out even more – it really adds beef and definition into the material if you ask me.  I gotta admit…the screamin’ is not only a wicked addition to this song, but insightfully appropriate.  I’m a big fan of when writers and performers connect with the words they’ve got in front of them, and to get the strength of that moment in “Mixed Messages” across the way it was meant to be, Ostatishvili had to yell that out until the man’s poor throat could take no more…because that’s what it’s about, reaching the breaking point at that moment.  It’s a tiny fragment of this song overall, but undoubtedly what should be considered to be its most effective and noticeable moment by everyone out there listening.

I like the depth in the low-end that’s been coming into the music though…that’s where I’m at for sure.  “Mixed Messages” has it, and “Hang Ups” right afterwards makes it a priority too.  Love the guitars from Mitchell Layton on this track as well, he adds some significantly dynamic stuff into the mix on this one and it helps diversify the sound overall.  It’s an powerful track…and it’s got some great ideas like the breakdown around the 1:25 mark before the bring-back occurs around ten or twelve seconds later in the middle of this cut.  Lots of potential in “Hang Ups” too if you ask me…I’d still tell ya that “Sparks Ignite” is unquestionably THE single of the songs in this particular lineup, but “Hang Ups” definitely ain’t too far behind…there’s a lot of widespread appeal to a track like this.  A bit closer to the Gob style of sound this time around, which is really like Sum 41 with a bit more of a chip on its shoulder, some serious bite and edge to it – but I felt like this came out as compelling AF and suited Merit Maker brilliantly.  What’s truly impressive to me, is that I’m not always a fan of the tracks that I’d consider to be the singles or the most accessible cuts on any given record…or at least, I don’t always feel like this equates to the very strongest material.  On Pick Ups And Put Downs, I think that I do…I not only believe that “Sparks Ignite” and “Hang Ups” are the most undeniably single-worthy tracks you’ll find in the lineup, but also the record’s best.

So…don’t get me wrong…I know you’re gonna find more shorter tunes in the realm of Punk than you will find longer ones…I’m simply saying that the extra space Merit Maker has used on this record’s longest tracks have led to some of the most stellar results and moments of noticeable versatility.   “Sparks Ignite” is just a flat-out exceptional song, “By Design” shows the more innovative side of Merit Maker without a doubt, and the finale of “Over And Out” is certainly a highlight on this album as well – every one of those tracks pushes daringly over the four-minute mark, which is practically a sin in the world of Punk.  Longtime fans of the genre would tell ya that’s practically two songs worth of song in one!  It works though…”Over And Out” is absolutely proof that with more time at their disposal, Joe and his musical cohorts are capable of making that much more of an impact.  Always up to the artists involved to decide what they wanna do and what kind of band they wanna be at the end of the day, but heck ya, I’m always gonna be the guy to advocate on doing more with the time you’ve got, which is what Merit Maker has done with the longest cuts on Pick Ups And Put Downs.  Love the way that Joe’s bass leads the way into this last track…and I really dig the way this cut opens up before its first minute is finished.  Strong ending to what’s been the strongest entry into the Merit Maker catalog to-date, all indications point towards this band dialing into its full potential and setting up to surge into its best years ahead.

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