GroundScore – Healthy Children

GroundScore - Healthy Children

How do you form a band that specializes in carefree and irreverent ska-punk jams without falling victim to the occasional Sublime reference? The short answer is that you don’t. Whether it was a deliberate move or not, there’s can be no questioning that Washington, DC trio GroundScore has more than just personnel numbers in common with the SoCal group that brought reggae-infused punk to the masses more than a dozen years ago. Sublime – and 311 as well – took a genre most closely associated with Bob Marley and gave it a new lease on life in the fading years of the 20th century. Consider also that tales of recklessness and drug-fueled destruction typically extend the shelf life of any art form (2Pac, Kurt Cobain, etc.), which is likely the reason why the Sublime name remains something of a cash cow in 2010, a full 14 years removed from singer Brad Nowell’s heroin overdose and death. Yet none of this seems to weigh heavily on the minds of the guys in GroundScore – Zach Bellas (guitar/vocals), Chase Lapp (drums), and Nick Graves (bass) – who are more than willing to oblige with the sort of mellow revelry that’s usually found poolside midsummer with a frosty beverage at arms’ reach.

That all said, the band’s debut record is, at its best, the consummate soundtrack for that BBQ you’re hoping to sneak in before Labor Day; the hour-length set is a taut and swaggering toast to great hooks and good times. At its worst though, Healthy Children plays like a hedonistic hybrid of 311’s “Amber” and Sublime’s “What I Got” on repeat.

Instilling some pretty vivid imagery from the outset, “Tattoos & Porn” finds GroundScore grooving in its happy place, a midtempo amalgam of upstroke guitar accents and loose drumming, held together by some impressively melodic bass lines. Bellas takes the first of several guitar solos that suffuses the group’s otherwise chipper sound with a welcome touch of bluesy despair. It doesn’t take long for even the casual listener to locate Brad Nowell’s ghost floating around the mix; Zach Bellas’s vocal timbre is eerily similar to the one found on Sublime hits like “Santeria” and “Wrong Way”.

“Don’t Pay Me” is the second of several playful tunes that exploit GroundScore’s playful demeanor. Nick Graves continues to dance across the fretboard of his bass as Bellas sings, “Don’t you ask me / don’t sass me” before breaking out some wah-wah pedal for a solo that is a carbon copy of his vocal melody. After a comical and brief foray into punk’s more visceral side (“Ball, Sweat, and Tears”), the band arrives at “Later On”.  Built upon a stellar bass arpeggio, the track is one of only a few that capitalizes on the improvisational slant that GroundScore employs in its songwriting process. At nearly eight minutes in length, the song takes the ubiquitous reggae-flavored grooves of the first two cuts and gradually extends it into a hazy instrumental breakdown of cymbal washes and guitar atmospherics.  There once again to anchor it all down is Graves, whose performance on this disc cannot be understated.

By the time “You’ll Always Be a Loser” arrives mid-album, expectations are riding high that the band will continue the semi-serious tone they establish within the track’s opening sequence. Bellas’s guitar playing is fierier while Lapp finally seizes the opportunity to show off his chops as the tempo rapidly accelerates. Yet, just when it looks like they’re willing to venture into uncharted waters, the band settles back into the exact same groove they’ve been using since the beginning.

When Bellas sings, “Sorry my man / you’ve got some stiff competition / dreams like that / they never come to fruition”, the braggadocio feels unwarranted.

GroundScore does occasionally up the ante, as evidenced by thrashy punk tracks like “Hey Kidz/Real Love” and “See You All Tomorrow”.  It’s an overdue glimpse into just how frantic these guys can get when they dial down the reggae influence and stomp on the distortion pedals. At this late hour though, the post-celebration glaze has set in; greater attention to track sequencing and less application of formulaic songwriting habits (guitar solos, midtempo ska grooves, etc.) would’ve contributed to a more engrossing listen. Then again, maybe Healthy Children just wasn’t meant to be digested as an exercise in critical listening. Pick it up for your next social gathering and let the good times roll. Just don’t be surprised when one of your friends asks about obscure Sublime tracks when “Tattoos & Porn” comes up on the playlist.