When Philadelphia five-piece Roof Doctor took the stage for their album-release show last week, it was clear that most of the audience was already well-versed in the songs, even though the band’s new album, Mobile Freedom Home, had come out only a few days prior. Part of the reason for that was because many of the people in attendance had a hand in helping the album come together, but mostly it’s a testament to how compulsively listenable Mobile Freedom Home is. Born out of the same fertile ground as Radiator Hospital and Mumblr, the high-energy punk of Roof Doctor’s latest album has a sense of immediacy and urgency that compels you to press repeat.
The band originally started as a solo project for frontman Mark Harper, who put out an EP of lo-fi bedroom recordings in the summer of 2011. After taking some time off from school, he started to put a band together to record his follow-up EP I Am Going To Die, which is a rough but promising sketch of what was to come. The original intention was to continue as a solo effort but the band liked playing together so much that they decided to continue on with each other.
Immediately after putting out I Am Going To Die, they started work on Mobile Freedom Home, a process that took two long years. “We spent about a year on the songwriting aspect, a few months on demoing, and then nine months in the studio,” Harper told me after the show. That long gestation process coalesces beautifully on the album — there’s not a second wasted, with the album coming in at just under a half-hour. “We took a lot more time to consider what our roles in the band were. We took time to sit on certain songs, deciding which ones we wanted to keep, which ones we wanted to get rid of, and which ones we wanted to improve.” The result is a blend of punk, emo, and folk that’s hard to pin down. There’s a nervous energy and restlessness that pervades the album, expressing itself in warm guitar licks, extended saxophone passages, and off-kilter percussion. That frenetic energy climaxes on album closer “Home,” which builds up with sax, trombone, and trumpet to exude a sense of triumph tinged with regret. That balance of buoyancy weighed down by realism sums up the record as a whole.
“The album is hopeful from a place in life when you don’t have much,” Harper said. “We were pretty cynical in our songwriting for a few years and we wanted to break out of that but not stray from talking about how we feel.” The best distillation of that mindset comes on “Freedom”: “What am I going to do today?/ Not think too much about the things that I say/ Try not to worry about anyone else/ Or old ideas on how to be.” One of the themes that runs throughout Mobile Freedom Home is finding a sense of “self,” or more accurately the acknowledgement that there’s no need for a strict declaration of identity and there’s no shame in being unsure. On “Bottle It Up,” Roof Doctor builds a motivational mantra around that idea: “You should never hide from what you are feeling.” Though it sounds corny outside the context of the song, the earnestness of Roof Doctor as a whole sells it. But nothing is that simple and the band isn’t naive enough to unequivocally come down on one side or the other. Despite these declarations of confidence, the album still has a significant undercurrent of self-loathing and self-doubt.
Drummer Kevin Paschall joked that Mobile Freedom Home was their “posi” record, but in a lot of ways that’s true. Even with a heavy dose of realism, the album is refreshingly hopeful and honest in a way that a lot of albums nowadays are not. Instead of getting bogged down in apathy, Roof Doctor provides an alternative — a world that’s comforting and inviting and one you’ll want to revisit again and again.
[Photo by Julie Miller.]