Aug 012023

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Punchline covers

Photo: Courtesy of Craft Services

The tagline of Punchline’s website reads: “Punchline is a band from Pittsburgh, PA. For fans of Jimmy Eat World, hope, and cats.” As a native Pennsylvanian who is a fan of two of the three of those things, I am immediately sold. (For those of you who think I could ever not be a fan of Jimmy Eat World, I will just leave you with this.)

And then as part of my Wikipedia deep dive on the band and its members, I found this gem on lead singer Steve Soboslai’s page:

In 2011 Soboslai began doing solo performances as “Blue of Colors.” In his first performance he opened for Parachute and Plain White T’s at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania student union.

I was 100% at that show. I was of course wearing a plain white t-shirt–ironically, probably, but maybe not. During this trip down memory lane I didn’t immediately remember the opening, opening act, so I went to listen to the most popular songs on Spotify from the album released closest to that time to try to jog a memory. It’s possible I’m just in the “no way” of it all, but “Goodbye Stranger” sounded fairly familiar. Maybe a mirage. Maybe a memory. “Untie the knot, and I’ll untangle you.”

Just like I can’t conjure a specific memory of that 2011 performance, I can’t pinpoint the first time Punchline surfaced from under the radar for me, but with recent, relatable singles titles like “I Don’t Wanna Leave Yet,” “Can I Get A Break,” and “Find Yourself,” it was a fortuitous find. Since the moment of discovery I have played their Songs from ’94 cover EP many, many times. You will soon understand why.

Punchline – Linger (The Cranberries cover)

“Linger” is just begging for a pop-punk cover. With such a heartfelt chorus, the song is waiting for a singer to belt it out. The original is softly pleading, but this cover is more unabashedly angsty. The opening is reverent, respecting the original’s dream sequence, minus the orchestral strings and subtle humming, plus an almost dissonant high hat. This time the swooning strings are guitar, not classical instruments, but the effect is similar, a build up for the ages.

After the addition of the high-hat in the opening, the percussion continues to play a more prominent role in this version, the heartbeat of the song, the kick drum stutter-stepping along. The kick-in after “I’m in so” and on “deep” is so satisfying, the perfect blend of rock chaos and emotional catharsis. There continue to be little moments that add to the rich, overall listening experience. After the two-minute mark there is a little rickety-rack precision guitar riff that is subtle but adds texture. The last minute is full of longing “oh”s that taper out and bring us back to the dreamy ending. A final fade has the crash of the cymbal being the last thing you here before the announcement of a successful take.

Punchline – Found About About You (Gin Blossoms cover)

Punchline got to meet their heroes, the Gin Blossoms, and in fact have a good relationship with them. When the Gin Blossoms toured in 2019, Punchline came along as the opening act. They even got to join forces on this song live–the dream of a cover blending with the original turned reality. The very beginning has a slightly more punk edge with an extra kick drum emphasis. Then the percussion and guitar line continue to drive the song while falling back on the original’s sound a bit more.

In the first delivery of the chorus, the first part is faded out, reminding me of the fugue state you might be in upon hearing about the love of your life moving on without you. But once the first initial haze clears, the “I found out about you!” comes back full force. The guitar takes a chance to shine in the middle while the drums keep the energy high. After this instrumental break, the faded vocals return for a bit before the chorus is passionately repeated to close.

Punchline – Baby Come Back (Player cover)

There are a lot of different sounds in the original song’s opening. The bass remains, the light tick-tick sound is replaced by a shaker, the bongo-style drumming is ditched, and the synth sound is replaced by the electric guitar. All of this culminates in what is still a smooth groove. This is a song that could easily have either a cheesiness or an irreverence in cover form, but Punchline maintains the earnest, apologetic tone of the original. The vocals are layered, and many of the band’s members contribute. Typical of the Punchline covers we have heard so far, a guitar break appears towards the end to drive the emotion home. However, this time the vocals never come back for a final apology or entreat.

Punchline – I Want You to Want Me (Cheap Trick cover)

In the immortal words of Penn Badgley in the cult classic film John Tucker Must Die, in regards to Cheap Trick, “once you’ve started, you’re kind of obligated to belt it out.” Punchline got the message. They start off strong with even more electric guitar shredding energy than the original. This version then continues the tradition of the original’s vocal delivery, plain but strident, with just a little bit extra angst in the tone. The tempo is a bit more frantic and gives the illusion of it getting faster and faster, with the singer getting more and more impatient with their requests. Then right at the end, most instrumentation cuts out, with just a drum and some electric guitar frills for a time, before re-escalating to sign off.

Check out more Punchline covers (and originals) at their Bandcamp page.

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