Fifteen seconds into 'Dwell on It,' a song off local quintet the Great Heights Bands' annoyingly catchy debut "Songs in Eastern Standard Timing"* (CI Records), and you might not be sure what year it is. A squelch of fuzz gets cut off by a series of jauntily distorted guitar chords. A voice sounds off the one-two, one-two-three-four high-hat count to set the tempo. And then everybody comes in to harmonize the whoa-ooh-ooh-oohs that've been staples of American pop-punk for more than three decades. Is this from 2015? 1992? 1984? Does it matter? In the three minutes it takes 'Dwell on It' to shake, shimmy, and bop through its IDGAF mantra—the chorus: "life's too short/ life's too quick/ to dwell on it/ just let it go"—the familiarity of the sound is immediately going to be either comforting or irritating. The words "pop-punk" alone have probably clued you into deciding if GHB is your thing or not.
Thing is, there are varying degrees of good and bad in the pop-punk universe. Yes, bands started inching the sound toward the middlebrow long ago, and what happened in that shift from DIY punk pop to punk-ish pop (see: Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, Good Charlotte, etc. ) to mainstream pop (see: Paramore, Fall Out Boy, and other shudders) means adhering to conventions that make it all a bit same-y. And GHB singer/guitarist/songwriter Neal Karkhanis sounds like he's studied that formula most of his life.
The Great Heights Band was formed in 2014 by Karkhanis, a University of Maryland law student—all biographical info comes from an India.com profile, a Brown Girl Magazine Q&A, and a pair of podcasts he's been on—and drummer Paul Martinez. Second guitarist Eric Taft joined to record half of this album, and the full band—rounded out by bassist Owen Brinser and keyboardist/vocalist Linette Gonzalez—on "Eastern" gives the album its big, plush sound.
It's a highly polished debut, and the album is as much of a throwback as Bully's "Feels Like," reviews of which contain more 1990s alt-rock band and album names than what a current 30- or 40-something parent plays while driving around running Saturday errands. GHB's 'That's the Way it Goes,' with Gonzalez on vocals, could be a No Doubt B-side. 'Stay' is one of the more Cheap Trick-y things ever to come down the pipe from an indie band not called OK Go. And 'Portland,' with its cheeky video, is a catchy, sarcastic kiss-off to the ex who is moving to the left coast that totally missed its chance to be overplayed on MTV. (See also: the band's new 'Coming Around' video, which premiered at the Alternative Press this week.)
Karkhanis, thankfully, sounds like he's listened to as much Buzzcocks pop as he has worthless Blink-182 piffle. He's got a solid ear for hooks—'Coming Around,' 'Waste My Time,' and 'Lady Astronaut' all understand the simple pleasures of marrying a guitar riff to a punchy chorus. And he writes unfussily about ordinary fusses: girls, youthful escapism, girls, twentysomething anomie, and, well, girls. Indie/alt/whatever rock has always been an overwhelmingly middle-class white boys club—Condé Nast buys Pitchfork as much for its upmarket whiteness as for the ostensible "millennial males"—so it's a bit refreshing to hear Gonzalez's airy vocals offsetting the girl fixations throughout, especially on the mid-tempo 'Pacific/Atlantic' and 'Oh California,' the sort of summery cool breeze that could complement a July evening when the sun's still out as the clock ticks toward prime time.
That mood could play in "Eastern Standard Tunings'" favor. It's a summer album coming out as the leaves begin their autumnal turn. It's a nostalgic album using a nostalgic sound to sing about things that may have slipped through life's fingers. Lead-off track 'I Don't Need You Anymore' is the album's most instantly catchy. Its melody is little more than a growl of guitar scowl, bass drums, and cymbals, in which Karkhanis sings from the point of a view of a dude that's over the girl who left him. "I don't need you anymore/ It's just a fact/ I'm not a wreck with you gone," he seethes, barking the "it's just a fact" part. The peacocking music, the boastful lyrics—it's all bravado, a Stuart Smalley daily affirmation that if this guy tells himself he's over her often enough he'll convince himself that it's so.
*Corrections: An earlier version of this post referred to The Great Heights Band's album as "Songs In Eastern Standard Tuning," it is "Songs In Eastern Standard Timing." It also misstated when Eric Taft joined the band. City Paper regrets the errors.