Tucked away in the northeast corner of England, the suburban hamlet of Pity Me is both the most and least likely birthplace for an emo punk band like Martha. It’s the kind of place whose very name inspires self-deprecating love songs, yes, but it’s also the kind of place where boredom and reactionary politics (County Durham overwhelmingly voted “Leave” in the recent Brexit referendum) are so rampant that they can’t help but breed radical solutions.
Perhaps this is how Pity Me and Durham in general have become one of England’s most hospitable places for punk’s D.I.Y. subculture, with an impressive stable of local bands identifying as queer, anarchist, vegan, straight-edge, or all of the above. “When it comes to D.I.Y., living in a small town, it’s kind of ingrained,” Martha guitarist Daniel Ellis told NPR back in 2014. “You’re forced to do things yourself, because otherwise they won’t happen.”
For Martha, at least, things are happening. Ever since the quartet released their debut studio album, Courting Strong, in 2014, they’ve been garnering interest from punks and mainstream critics alike. And though every thinkpiece on the band is likely to focus on their loud and proud politics, equally noteworthy are the infectious guitar hooks and singalong melodies. Those strengths are what landed Martha on Dirtnap Records, a label defined more by power pop swagger than proselytizing, and the band continues to play to them with a reckless, infectious joy on their sophomore album Blisters In the Pit Of My Heart.
That title is lifted from the lyrics of a track called “Ice Cream & Sunscreen”, one of several no-duh entries for “song of the summer” that appear on the album. It starts slowly and spreads on the melancholy thick (“The autumn forecast is looking dismal again/ This year I’ll spend November in the house”), but then something strange happens: The song speeds through the seasons and bursts wide open, exuding the crackling kind of euphoria achieved by only the best pop punk singalongs. When all of the band members join together and sing “Blisters in the pit of my heart!,” it’s hard to tell whether to be devastated or elated. One of Martha’s special talents is couching devastating sentiments in songs that look and feel like, well, ice cream and sunscreen. They’re sweet, they stink of summer, and they’re liable to break your heart.
It seems that Martha picked up on a key lesson of politics early on: The best way to the head is through the heart. Blisters In the Pit Of My Heart is not an album of ideas so much as it’s an album of killer riffs, bouncy three-chord choruses, and confessional lyrics that sympathize with what it’s like to be a confused twentysomething whose identity doesn’t always align with the world’s expectations. Just as Courting Strong’s “1997, Passing In the Hallway” gave a face and a bouncy melody to queer romance in secondary school, “Precarious (Supermarket Song)” bottles up the butterflies of asking someone out for the first time and not having the faintest clue of how it’ll go. “The Awkward Ones” takes that same feeling and makes an anthem out of it, turning social ostracization into a cause to rally behind.
This is obviously something that all punk songs — pop or otherwise — should aspire to. Martha seem to understand this innately, but they have zero interest in punk posturing, or in sounding any tougher than they actually feel inside. By trading in coolness for something rawer and infinitely more relatable, they may have stumbled upon one of the most ineffably charming releases of the year. Even songs like “Chekhov’s Fingernail” and “Goldman’s Detective Agency”, both of which clumsily name-drop historical figures, come across as more precious than pretentious.
Anarchist leanings aside, Martha aren’t for everyone. There’s only a certain level of cute that some listeners can tolerate in their guitar rock cocktail, but for those willing to embrace a style of music that’s immediately satisfying and goes out of its way to relate to the people who need it most, it’s hard to do better than four Brits who, by their own admission, “stumble over words from time to time.” For every stumble, there’s a song here to pick you back up.
Essential Tracks: “Chekhov’s Hangnail”, “The Awkward Ones”, and “Ice Cream & Sunscreen”