"We're young, we're dumb and we don't care," Cody Carson sings on "Forever Stuck In Our Youth," one of the standout tracks from Set It Off's new LP Duality, in what sounds like a call to arms for a hedonistic outing. But while there's plenty of that song's indelible shout-along hooks spread throughout the rest of the record, Carson and company mainly keep busy exploring and experimenting with a pop pastiche that's anything but dumb: emotional highs and lows of romance gone wrong (ahem, "N.M.E."), the penny-dreadful theatrical dynamics, jangly piano interludes, creeping harpsichords, and noodling guitars and drums that'd give Billie Joe and Tre Cool pause.
That sort of stage-dressed pop-punk will be familiar to fans of Panic At The Disco! and Fall Out Boy, of course, and the influence of both bands is evident here. There are some less obvious touchstones, however. Wait for the the "...Baby One More Time" reference on "Why Worry."
"I think the biggest jump we've made is just letting go and being ourselves when we wrote these songs," Carson says of the band's sonic shift since their 2012 record, Cinematics. "In the past we would aim for a certain sound, a dark sound, over-the-top orchestral instruments. And we enjoyed that, it was fun. But this is the most 'Set It Off' we've ever been. It's quite liberating to go into the studio with no limitations other than the notion of 'Let's just write good songs.'"
Part of that might be the band coming down firmly with the emphasis on the first part of the pop-punk designation. This is decidedly a capital P Pop record, as Carson readily admits. That Britney hook isn't the only time the album is reminiscent of the shinier side of the music world.
"MTV raised me through TRL and the artists that would appear and be featured there throughout my childhood," he says. "TLC, Destiny's Child, Nsync, Backstreet Boys, Eminem's anger and honesty, Boyz II Men. Those influences definitely made a new appearance. As well as some older ones such as Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, and The O'Jays. I was raised on oldies by my parents. It was such a blast to be writing and be drawing influence from a mix of artists that could realistically never tour together but make it survive within the context of a song."
And if you listen closely to songs like "Miss Mysterious," you can almost hear those familial ties.
"I've always wanted to write a ballad in this style, and I was able to do something very special with this one. My mom and Dad used to be in a band together, and they would end one of their sets with their arrangement of a medley of patriotic songs, which ended with an incredibly powerful rendition of 'God Bless America.' The ending gave me goosebumps so intense that I can't describe the feeling and will never forget that. I called my mom late at night while in the studio and arranged the end of 'Miss Mysterious' with her to mimic the end of their medley, and I am so happy with how that came out."
That song certainly lives up to its uplifting intent with its rousing climax, in an album full of them. There's nothing dumb about that.