Monday, 18 February 2019

Album Review: Optimal Lifestyles by Pkew Pkew Pkew

These Canadian pop punks are a band we've fallen completely in love with other the past few years – from first hearing Mid 20s Skateboarder on a Bandcamp compilation, listening to their self-titled debut endlessly and naming it my album of the year in 2016, travelling to Fest in Gainesville and seeing them live for the first time and being lucky enough to see them play their first ever UK show at my favourite place, the New Cross Inn. Pkew Pkew Pkew's sing-along pop punk just brings utter joy into my life. Emma and I are super excited to see them live twice in May supporting Spanish Love Songs. On March 1st Pkew Pkew Pkew will be releasing their second full length. Titled Optimal Lifestyles, it's being released on Big Scary Monster (UK) and Dine Alone Records (USA/Canada). My first feelings when I heard the news were ones of much excitement but then I got a bit worried, what if it's not as good as an album I put on such a high pedestal, could it lower my love of this band? I guess there was only one way to find out.

The first song on the fifteen track Optimal Lifestyles is names Still Hangin' Out After All These Years. Starting out with a bit of guitar wail and a pounding drum beat before those gang vocals – a big reason I fell in love with Pkew in the first place – get the song going properly. The song is definitely not as in your face as anything on the self-titled debut was but still packs a punch. I think we're seeing a more mature Pkew here. Topically it's pretty retrospective as lead singer Mike Warne sings of continuing to love spending time with your childhood friends and still doing the same silly things despite getting older. Up next is I Don't Matter At All. This is a garage/power pop song that actually has me thinking of The Strokes. Not something I have ever thought about a Pkew song before. Quite amazingly Pkew manage to retain their hooked filled sing-along vibes on the track despite the obvious change in style. The way in which Warne delivers the lines "’cause I can’t sit back and be lax anymore, I can’t just hope all my problems will go and solve themselves, or wait for somebody else, I’ve made my choice and I’ll see it through, you’re not a burden on me, but am I a burden on you?, there’s more I can do" is a highlight. It's a cool melody. The third track is named Point Break. The thing that caught my attention was the saxophone solo that happened midway through the song – not something that I'd ever have expected to hear in a Pkew song but it worked! Other than the saxophone this is the sound that I was really expecting from Optimal Lifestyles. Fast and explosive pop punk that you can't help but want to sing your heart out to. Point Break is actually a love song based on the 1991 film of the same name. Warne sings about the love that Keanu Reeves’ character, who's working as an undercover agent, has for his new girlfriend. The references might be lost on younger fans of the band (I only knew this because I read this article) but it's still a fun song regardless.

Up next is Drinkin' Days. It's about having the best time in your younger days drinking with your best friends and hoping things don't change as you get older. It's a more mature sounding Pkew drinking song than perhaps we are used to but it's still got all of those wonderful hooks. There's a retrospective feeling to the lyrics with the lines "if this is one long phase, we could go out in flames, but the nicotine stains on our hands will remind us of the times we had when we were drinking." 65 Nickels was the second single from Optimal Lifestyles. This is Pkew doing what Pkew do better than pretty much everyone. You'll be singing along to this chorus after one listen and by the end of the song it'll feel like a song that you have known for years. David Laino's simple drum beat starts the track and is quickly joined by an instantly recognisable guitar riff that will immediately let you know what you're listening to. In true Pkew fashion we are greeted with some big gang vocals on the chorus and things are finished up with some lovely harmonies. The song is about testing the boundaries of friendship and deciding that you need some space. This is followed up by The Polynesian, a big stand out on my first listen of Optimal Lifestyles. Taking inspiration of the band’s life on tour, it tells the tale of a night spent in a town in midwest America. I loved the storytelling style that Warne has written the song in, doing an incredible job of painting a picture in your mind with his lyrics. It's a slower track, which probably helps you with taking in all the detail in the lyrics. The repetitive use of the line "we got two room at The Polynesian" is a real ear worm and hooks you in so quickly. That's what really caught my attention on my first listen of the track.

Warne and Ryan McKinley share vocal duties on the seventh song, Skate 2. The multiple vocalists on tracks is something that I really loved on the band’s debut so I was pleased to hear it come back here. This song is basically the sequel to the ever so popular Mid 20s Skateboarder from the debut album. That song is a fast paced song about Pkew's love of skateboarding, despite getting older. Skate 2 slows things down as Warne and McKinley sing about having second thoughts about continuing to skateboard as you get into your 30s and the injuries mount up. I relate to this massively, but through playing football instead of skateboarding. I know how much it hurts after I play but I love it so much that I can't stop. The song starts in a kind of a downbeat manner but grows and grows until its finale. The big hook is the phrase "shred until you're dead, or until you break your wrist again" but the section of the song that really got me was the gang vocal cries of "I swear it’s over, why can’t this be over?, I swear it’s over, this is the last time." I really hope during live gigs they play Mid 20s Skateboarder, Bloodclot and then Skate 2 in a row. This is their pop punk skateboarder concept section. Passed Out was the lead single from the album and it's clear to see why. Starting out with just Warne's vocals and some guitar, you’re instantly invited to have a sing-along before the song really clicks into gear. When that gear clicks in, and the rest of the band come in, it's a great big shout-along that a Pkew crowd will adore. The song is about wanting to escape the boring to 9-5 lifestyle and feeling like you’re torturing yourself in some "pointless job that I hate"." The ninth track on the album is titled Not Getting Through To You. This isn't the shouty, bombastic pop punk style that we've come to expect from Pkew but instead more of a power pop song about the frustration of wanting to tell someone you're not alright but not being able to get people to notice. This is without a doubt one of the sadder songs I've heard Pkew play but the catchiness remains. The hook of "I'm not getting through to you" is perhaps a bit cathartic.

Mt. Alb is a classic Pkew partying and drinking anthem. It's fast, upbeat and features plenty of punchy vocals and some great trade offs between Warne and McKinley. It's about drinking underage and the lengths you'd go to for some booze, whether it's doing the old switcheroo in your parents alcohol cabinet, trying to use fake IDs or asking someone older than you to buy you some and then eventually getting it and getting hammered round a friend’s at a party. I find it a little hard to relate, having never drunk, but the story does sound incredibly like the activities old school friends would get up to. Despite struggling to relate it didn't stop me completely falling in love with this track. The real highlight was the song’s ending with the gang vocal shouts of "fucked up 'til I fuck off." It's kind of aggressive but it's a lot of fun to shout along to. The following song is title The Pit. The song continues the album’s overarching theme of getting older and realising that you can't do all the stupid things you did in your youth. The Pit tells a story of being invited out for a wild night but just wanting a quiet and early night. Lyrically the song put a huge smile on my face, particularly the line "I’m glad I didn’t go to The Pit with Jimmy and his friend who kind of looked like Vince." On Optimal Lifestyles, Pkew do an astounding jobs of writing songs that feel like a story. It makes each song that extra bit more personable. Everything's The Same was a huge surprise. Bassist Emmett O'Reilly puts down his guitar and leads the band on this piano lead track as well as providing a clean and boyish vocal that contrasts Warne's gruffer style perfectly. O'Reilly sings about growing older and wondering if it's too late to change your ways. The subtle and understated feel of the song really helps the song’s topic hit home and does a great job in making you ask yourself questions.

The thirteenth song on Optimal Lifestyles tackles the subject of wanting to run free and escape life's responsibilities. Titled I Wanna See A Wolf, this is an explosive sing-along pop punk song that, like everything Pkew do, will get quickly lodged in your head. Warne has this amazing skill in writing these super catchy songs that also sound like stories. This might be in part due to the help and friendship of The Hold Steady's Craig Finn who helped the band workshop the songs on this album. The imagery on the song is superb and you can really imagine what the music video of the song would be like. The penultimate track on the album is named Adult Party. What a fantastic song this is! The song talks about feeling out of place at a party. Particularly a party of people who are your age but have very different interests. The track plays like an internal monologue of Warne's thoughts whilst at the party – "I'll be nice and not say what I think." The song’s high point comes around the midway point as we get a huge moment where the whole band join forces and shout “rich kids, go fuck yourselves, if there’s some in the audience, go somewhere else, rich kids, go fuck yourselves." I cannot wait to hear this live, the crowd participation will be amazing. Finally we have Thirsty And Humble. Starting out sounding slightly like Billy Bragg's To Have And To Have Not, the song’s familiar sound pulls you in before the sound changes to a mid-tempo pop punk track where Pkew talk about their humble beginnings of drinking outside the venue because it's cheaper than paying for drinks inside. I love the openness and honesty in the song, with Pkew admitting this keeping them grounded and remaining at the same level as their devoted fan base. The gang vocals section towards the end of the track with perfect lyrics are perhaps my highlight of the whole album – “’cause all we want’s another, I got a stash in the alley, let’s go there, you got beers and I got wine, let’s drink them quick and get back inside, we got debts that we have to pay, we’ll take the money that we made, we’ll drink it all tonight, we lead thirsty, humble lives, could’ve stayed home and played video games, my life in Red Dead’s pretty great, I’ve got a bounty on my head, I guess it’s pretty much the same.” Thirsty And Humble is surely going to become Pkew's set closer for years to come.

When I first listened to Optimal Lifestyles I was a bit unsure whether or not I was going to enjoy it. But as it progressed, I loved it more and more. The album is a grower – but not after a few listens, after a few songs. And then when you listen to the opening songs again they grow on you as well. Pkew have really progressed and matured with their songwriting. Where the self titled album was about having fun, Optimal Lifestlyes is more about looking at your life and questioning your choices. The catchy, big sing-alongs remain but this is pop punk for grown-ups who aren't yet grown up. An early contender for album of the year for sure.

Pre-order Optimal Lifestyles here:

Like Pkew Pkew Pkew here:

This review was written by Colin Clark.

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