March 9, 2020
Released In 1999
Released By Double A Records
I might get some flack for this one. I am imagining my fellow OYR writers taking a look at the jacket of Flashlight’s Running Season and reading the song titles in dismay. “You Smell,” “Don’t Look Much Like A Girl,” and “Fatso” don’t exactly suggest sophistication or depth. They might wonder if they’d done the right thing in signing up to try to find some merit in any record tossed at them by the likes of me. What could I possibly be thinking? Well, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong to question the content by today’s standards. I did not suggest this record was overlooked because it would necessarily have changed the face of music or because it’s particularly socially conscious. I do, however, believe that it was underappreciated in a time when it would have stood out and stood above. Context is important. Canada in the late 1990s was contributing in a very big way to the global music scene, particularly in the realm of alternative rock, punk, and harder styles of guitar-oriented music. Not very many Canadian bands were approaching pop-punk the same way Flashlight (later renamed to Flashlight Brown) were.
Seemingly inspired by late ’80s hardcore and ’90s ska-punk crossover acts like NOFX, Sublime, and Goldfinger, these teens from Toronto are indeed guilty of having written songs inspired by the teenage experience in the ’90s. And lest I be flagged as the old guy in the room forcing those around me to suffer my nostalgia, let me just say that it’s far more than that. On its face, this record is a quality production and a really great example of its genre. The songs, as it turns out, are fairly benign and self-deprecating accounts of relatable issues of adolescence and self-esteem. Largely written in the first person, these songs are the anthems of an archetype. These are the ruminations of a skinny, emasculated kid who, despite trying very hard to live up to what he perceives to be the expectations of everyone else, seems to fall flat on his face repeatedly. Far from a rare occurrence even in modern high schools, we have at least come a long way in being open and accepting to all sorts of different developmental trajectories. That said, teenagers can be assholes, and wherever that kind of social friction exists, the best way someone can lash out and express themselves is with song. I don’t hear that much anymore and frankly I think it’s a lost art. The result is an expression of frustration (“July”), pleading (“Don’t Look Much Like a Girl”) and of course that old chestnut, unrequited love (“Sonia Bianchi“). The latter has, in my opinion, one of the catchiest hooks and melodies in the genre even to this day. The falsetto croon of “Sonia Bianchi never neeeeew my name” tends to burrow into your brain and stay there lingering long after you first heard it — the sign of a great pop song. It’s no surprise then that Rob Cavallo of Green Day fame would later invite the band to sign with Hollywood Records. Let’s face it, the band who recorded “Longview” and “Welcome To Paradise” is a clear spiritual advocate of those who admonished “Fatso” to kick their asses.
Vocalist Phil Bucchino’s high pitched rasp on this record is sincere, pissed off, and perhaps comically relatable. There are a couple of minor misses like “New York City”, a song which feels like out-of-place filler that a good producer might have left off the record. It does show a certain capability for hardcore roots and maybe that was the point, but then we’re thrown right back into the heart-felt ballad, “This Year” and everything seems right on track. There are other experiments like the deeper ska/dub track “Leo” but this one seems to fit a little bit better as an interlude before the closing songs of the record. The album is at its strongest when the band resorts to a solid ska groove on the vast majority of the songs. In doing so, they allow the harder guitar moments to really punctuate. I am long past needing to be nostalgic about high school, but when the album was released it fit right in with teen angst at the time. Naturally, it doesn’t really look like that anymore and modern teens have different, arguably more progressive things to moan about. But one thing that should never be overlooked is the value of that expression as a snapshot in time. And even if you’re not following me on the time capsule angle of the record, then we can at least agree that it’s a solid pop/punk/ska record which, like so many of the records we look at, never saw the accolades it deserved.
A beacon of ’90s punk, leaning heavily on ska grooves to its impish & rowdy musical dogma.
Why did I end up spinning John Coltrane immediately after finishing Running Season? It all comes down to melody. The very first time I heard “July,” the album’s second track, I was struck by the melodic contour of the chorus — how the lack of symmetry in that section’s two halves allows for a triumphant climb in the second, and that wonderful extended half-step downward turn at the end. I was also struck by how intricate and present that melody felt in contrast to the blanketing power of the guitar-drum-bass backdrop that accompanies it. The juxtaposition does such a great job of foregrounding the vocals, and as a result, the most beautiful element shines even brighter. It’s not the only instance on Running Season of melody facilitating a memorable moment. The arrangement in “This Year” is sparse — just guitar and bass — and the verses walk down the tonal staircase steadily, each note lower than the one that came before. It’s an elegant progression, and in this case, the steadiness of the guitar strumming is what sets the stage for vocals to take the spotlight. (I also enjoyed “Leo,” though the interplay between the saxophone and guitar is where melody makes the strongest impression.) So what does this have to do with John Coltrane? Billy Strayhorn’s composition entitled “Lush Life” has one of the all-time great sprawling melodies, and the start steps upward as surely and deliberately as the verses in “This Year” step down. I just had to hear it after “Ice Cold” brought Running Season to a close. It’s inspiring to hear music that sounds so different while succeeding for similar reasons.
Set in the wilderness because of course that’s where you go when your crush doesn’t know your name.
Despite not hearing this album, or of Flashlight (Brown), prior to this week, Running Season is one of those records that I’ve felt like I’ve grown up with. Certainly an aspect of that is ska-punk, which was at, or perhaps just a smidge past, its peak popularity during my late middle school and early high school years. I’m not even sure I liked or enjoyed ska-punk when it was popular, but it was definitely hard to escape at the time. Another aspect is the resemblance to early Rancid, especially in the excellent bass work. More than that, though, it’s the near-certainty that bands I grew to love were influenced by Running Season. Here, I’m thinking mostly of Fall Out Boy and, more specifically, Pete Wentz. There are a handful of lines that speak to this; the one with the most confluence is “’Cause now I’m dumped and your ego’s pumped / ’Cause somebody wrote a song about you” which might’ve shaped — or help shape — FOB’s “I’m just a notch in your bedpost but you’re just a line in a song”. There’s another way that this album spoke to me on a personal level, too. A pair of lyrics late in the record are pretty good descriptions of me, or at least partially. I’ve most assuredly been the guy who fits “You may think you’re funny but you’re just a fucking drunk,” and probably more than once. The other is “Realized I’d been talking to myself / And all along I didn’t understand a word I said,” which can (sometimes) explain how my brain works. Taken all together, it’s a bit too eerily familiar. The first (and only) comment on the YouTube clip for “You Smell” is “I went through so many batteries listening to this album on my Walkman in high school back in 2002-2003.” That’s definitely not a memory I have, but Running Season makes it feel like it should be.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
I love the rawness of this record. The rawness of the production, and the rawness of the emotions. It’s as if Flashlight wrote this entire album the day after the worst breakup ever. Or the day before they went to rehab. I admire their effort to go the extra mile in explaining their angst. Hmmm, extra mile? Running Season? See what I did there? What I mean to say is that oftentimes, their vivid lyrics go beyond the norm and give old ideas a fresh new spin. For example, the unrequited love song has been done more times than anyone can count, but not with the explicit, in your face delivery of “Sonia Bianchi.” Usually, the story is much more subtle, as opposed to, say, “But now I know that when I’m old and rich and gray / You will still be with that tool / You’ll be the one they know that me get away / Could’ve been there with me too.” That’s fire. Or as rap nerds say, “ether.” And then there are fresh, new ideas like the prophetic “Don’t Look Much Like A Girl.” I’m sure in 1999 the song wasn’t written as a battle cry for gender identity as it would be in 2020, but just from a guy that got annoyed for being teased about his long hair grade school. Nonetheless, it’s not a subject I’ve ever heard broached before, and it actually hit home for me personally. My name is Kellen, but my family and friends have called me “Kelley” since I was two years old. Obviously, this was low hanging fruit for anyone looking to start some shit. Children are so uncreative. But back to Running Season. Whether it’s the acoustic soul of the guitar & stand-up bass duet “This Year,” or the irresistible, yet spooky island vibe of “Leo,” Flashlight paint a colorful canvas with a minimal pallet, and that takes talent.
Later renamed Flashlight Brown, the band would find some success in the early-to-mid-2000s that polished and expanded on the model of Running Season.
Some stray thoughts about Running Season to start. The crashing opening of “Times” is the spiritual successor to “Fall In” by Cloud Nothing. Prove me wrong. Has a bad song ever followed a drum beat like the one that opens “New Old?” “Leo” feels like the backing track to an unaired Kids In The Hall sketch. (Interesting considering the surfy backbone the band’s brand of ska-punk rides on is akin to Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, another Canadian band we covered back in Issue #123.) “July” has inched its way onto any list of favorite ’90s punk songs I might make going forward. “Sonia Bianchi” shows the timeless appeal of pop punk in barebones fashion. And that chorus will be stuck in my head for the rest of this decade. Now it’s time for the connected thoughts on this album. This is good. Really good. Honestly, it’s the very definition of a hidden gem. You can barely find this record out there, save for this YouTube playlist which all of us here probably wore out over the weekend. The ska punk on display here was definitely in style when this record came out and their brand of it is so chirpy, I half expected to hear “So here I am / doing everything that I can” along with the sounds of a skateboard and a guy falling right on his neck. Above that hallmark, I love that the band doesn’t forget they’re a punk band while banging out these catchy melodies and nodding grooves. Song titles and some lyrical asides might be enough for some bands (and this one does have those in spades — see “Fatso”), but Flashlight leans harder than their contemporaries with some really fun breakdowns and songs that really channel the inner angst of a ’90s punk rocker. Unsure of their place in the world, caught up in the flighty frivolities of youth, and just trying to make sense of what day-to-day means. People still lionize first wave punk compared to everything that came after it, but the unrest bands like The Clash sung about while talking about Brixton riots or Khomeini banning music is still felt here — modern bands just shifted the setting from stuff you see on the news to stuff you feel throughout every day. Like first wave punk, ’90s punk rockers rarely ever found their answers or any semblance of peace within themselves, but it still drove them to create raucous, irreverent works of art, a tapestry that Running Season very much belongs to even if it has been obscured by time. So yeah, you can talk up all the ska grooves and how the record is prime pop punk before pop punk dominated the rock airwaves, but really, this is a great snapshot of punk in the late ’90s that really strives for more… and gets it.
About Face by David Gilmour
Chosen By Steve Lampiris