A very big happy 20th birthday to one of the best pop-punk records ever made: ‘Pennybridge Pioneers.’
By the time ‘Pennybridge Pioneers‘ rolled around in 2000, Sweden’s Millencolin already had three other records out. Before this now-classic pop-punk gem altered the course of the band’s history and its four members’ lives forever, they were more of a ska band: rapid tempos, fast upstrokes, horns and saxophones blaring, and silly lyricism abounding. Their pop-punk and alt-rock sounds were present, yes, but ska was the defining genre trait of their earlier years. To be fair, Millencollin did it very well; ‘Story of my Life‘ is a neat, fun little ska jam. But then ‘Pennybridge Pioneers‘ happened.
Ditching their ska roots and the horns completely, the melodic skate punk and alt-rock riffing of the Millencolin that we’ve known ever since was born into the world on February 22nd, 2000. Other than being a riff-heavy, hook-driven blockbuster skate-punk LP, it was also an album of many firsts for the Örebro quartet. It was their first record recorded outside of their native Sweden, their first non-ska release, and it was their first big charting record out here in Australia too. (Which is probably why they always make an effort to tour here on each new album cycle.) More than that, it was Millencolin’s first big record: ‘Pennybridge Pioneers‘ was their moment. Millencolin has plenty of good albums – ‘Life On A Plate,’ ‘Home From Home,’ and ‘True Brew,’ to name but three (even Kingswood‘ was decent) – but none as great as their fourth disc.
An Epitaph hall-of-famer and a Burning Heart Records smash-hit akin to Refused’s seminal LP two years prior, what makes ‘Pennybridge‘ still such an endearing and enjoyable album to this day is just how goddamn charming it all is. It’s brimming with chipper honesty, warm personality, and witty humour. For instance, the tongue-firmly-in-cheek second song, ‘Fox,’ could be seen by those not paying attention as a regressive, objectifying view of women by bassist/singer Nikola Sarcevic… until you realize it’s actually a love song dedicated to his trusty motorized scooter.
‘Material Boy‘ is a cheeky spin on Madonna’s ‘Material Girl,’ rejecting rampant consumerism and materialism. ‘Highway Donkey‘ has its eyes set on the liberating fun of touring and seeing the world, and the wider appreciation that those experiences bring. The self-debilitating and honesty in ‘Devil Me‘ have Nikola sharing his love of chess – which also gets a brief reference in the verses of ‘Sense & Sensibility – funk music, The Beatles, his family, and his dreams and aspirations in life, like one day wanting to own a farm. This album showed that Millencolin were just four ordinary dudes; four dorky musicians playing loud and fast but authentic punk rock because it’s what they loved doing in life.
At its core, this twenty-year-old essential punk rock LP is a resonating message about the importance of individuality, growing up, and moving forward, fully indicative of their sound evolving. Seminal opener and defining Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater playlist cut, the relentless ‘No Cigar‘ – about sticking up for yourself, being you, not trying to fit in – hit at just the right time and place for turn-of-the-century suburban skate kids, lonely teenage rockers, and outlier budding punks everywhere. When the band wrote ‘No Cigar,’ they didn’t know it at the time, but it would go on to be one of their biggest hits; a resounding anthem that spoke to youths all around the world that it was more than okay to be weird, to be who you are, and to not worry too much about getting into all the popular cliques.
On the flip side, at the tail end of the record, the melancholic slow-jam closer of ‘The Ballad‘ reversed the view-point of ‘No Cigar.’ Now it wasn’t about you fitting in, but about watching someone else struggling to find themselves in high-school and social circles, failing to make friends and crippled by loneliness and ostracization. It’s a moving call to be kind and to reach out when and where you can. Then ‘Penguins And Polarbears‘ – with an intro so goddamn cool that the band would later slow the riff down and re-work the opening for the phenomenal ‘Home From Home‘ take, ‘Battery Check,’ two years later – tackles the differences between people and how some individuals are just complete opposites.
‘Pennybridge Pioneers‘ is a record of moments, consistently spread out over the course of its 14 songs. The snare-roll from Fredrik Larzon that begins ‘No Cigar‘ jump starts THE moment that Millencolin fans all over the world live for at their live shows. The swinging triplet grooves of ‘Fox‘ are scarily catchy, and the encouraging pick-me-up belter of ‘Pepper‘ – written about taking it slow, not rushing to the finish line, and realizing what you want to do in life – is a short and sweet skate punk banger. 108 seconds of pure catchy bliss! ‘Right About Now‘ tackled impermanence and growing up in less than two-minutes tops, and the mid-tempo lovesick rocker of ‘The Mayfly‘ is dedicated to marriages, boredom, and love being dead; named after a local venue the band would play during their humble early days.
The multi-part vocal harmonies of “I’m not going” during the end of ‘Highway Donkey‘ saw their pop influences being tastefully done; the speedy, careening double-time skate-punk chugger and hooky backing vocals of ‘Material Boy‘ were irresistible; Erik Ohlsson’s and Mathias Färm’s alternating power-chord attitudes during the Millencolin staple, ‘Penguins And Polarbears,’ only highlighted the great chemistry between two of modern punk’s better guitarists; and the shredding solo from Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz on ‘Highway Donkey‘ was a great little touch.
For as fun and as clever as the record is, it had it’s heartfelt, straight-faced moments. Binning small-town views and myopia for change during the surprisingly emotional ‘Duckpond,’ combating one’s fears about being honest to another in ‘Hellman,’ and the darker, minor-key gut-punch of a close friend losing their mother as detailed in the lyrical longing of ‘A-Ten‘ showed that underneath their goofy, light-hearted funny bones, Millencolin had more serious and other personal matters to address. And do I even need to mention the forlorn lyricism behind ‘The Ballad‘? This is a dichotomy that the aged punk band still handles very well to this day in their music.
When we think about the best punk rock and pop-punk albums, there’s a lot of the same names that appear: ‘Sticks and Stones,’ ‘Enema Of The State,’ ‘Our Darkest Days,’ ‘Full Circle,’ ‘Stranger Than Fiction,’ ‘Punk In Drublic,’ ‘Take This To Your Grave,’ ‘Something To Write Home About,’ and ‘From Here To Infirmary.’ And ‘Pennybridge Pioneers‘ is right up there with all of those other records.
‘Pennybridge Pioneers‘ is, in some ways, a timeless pop-punk record. It’s nostalgic, absolutely, but never in a cheap manner. Whether you have the rose-colored glasses on or off, this is a rare punk album that holds up under both lenses. 20 years on, it’s as fun and as confident as ever; strengths that come down to Brett Gruewitz’s full-spectrum production and a young Swedish band’s talented penchant for memorable choruses, simple but solid, jangly staccato riffs, and killer punk songwriting.
Like most people who love this album now in 2020, I first discovered these songs in my mid-teens and they’ve all stuck to me like Molasses ever since. Which is basically the perfect time for someone to be exposed to this album. For it’s a record about change, personality and moving forward in life, and perhaps no other time in life embodies that kind of formative growth than our mid-to-late teen years. I loved this record when I first heard it, I love it now, and I’ll probably love it for the rest of my miserable goddamn life.