Following the release of Blink-182’s Enema Of The State in 1999, there was a distinct cultural shift for pop-punk – thanks partly to their notorious What’s My Age Again video.
Soon, US college radio stations picked up on the San Diego trio and teenagers, unsatisfied with MTV’s diet of soft rock, had finally found their new poster boys. Pop-punk was now mainstream.
That same year, young Indiana-based songwriter Kris Roe and his band The Ataris released their second full-length album, Blue Skies Broken Hearts …. Next 12 Exits, on The Vandals’ own label, Kung-Fu Records. It was an album that fully embraced the infectious hooks and energy of the pop-punk genre, but had an added depth of soul and far fewer immature gimmicks. To put it bluntly, Blue Skies Broken Hearts is the pop-punk record that should’ve been blaring out of teenage bedrooms that year, rather than Blink-182’s major label debut.
Before streaming became the benchmark for discovering music, independent punk labels like Kung Fu, Drive Thru and Epitaph would produce sampler CDs to showcase their current roster of bands and releases, as well as rare tracks you couldn’t find anywhere else. They would either be given away free outside punk shows or were made available for a few quid in record shops. Fat Wreck Chords’ series of budget compilations included The Ataris track San Dimas High School Football Rules on their Fat Music Vol IV: Life in the Fat Lane. For the uninitiated, this song was the perfect introduction to the band.
San Dimas High School Football Rules – named after a quote from the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – stood out from the pack thanks to Roe’s powerful-yet-sensitive vocal delivery and his bandmates’ dynamic musicianship. His songwriting in particular tapped into the sturm und drang of adolescents across the world. Indeed, the first half of San Dimas High School Football Rules recalls a too-good-to-be-true dream involving a high school crush only to wake up to the painful realisation she already has a boyfriend. These highs and lows materialise musically, too; in-your-face drums and guitars give way to tentative builds and soaring riffs. The Ataris would always give you more than you bargained for.
The album – produced by Lagwagon frontman Joey Cape – as whole experiments with genres outside the often constrictive realms of pop-punk. I Won’t Spend Another Night Alone is the kind of power-pop bands like Weezer made a name playing, while The Last Song I Will Ever Write About a Girl is as perfect a slice of alternative rock as anything released that decade. Even My Hotel Year dips out of familiar punk territory, relying on acoustic guitars and a single cello to help Roe recount his tale of life on the road.
Blue Skies Broken Hearts is shot through with an unburdened, youthful spirit. Each track proves to be as memorable as the last, some 17 years after its release. It’s a glowing remember that, when done correctly, pop-punk can touch our hearts without running naked through the streets in a bid to catch our attention.