Keeping Track: The 10 Best Mark Trombino-Produced Albums
by Chad Jewett
Nowadays, Mark Trombino is devoting his considerable skills of precise, sugar-sweet confection to Donut Friend, a Los Angeles-based doughnut shop. But there was once a time where emo, pop-punk, and post-hardcore all more or less bore the imprint of Trombino’s production style, characterized by sharp dynamics, heavy-yet-spry rhythm sections, and gloriously recorded octave chords. Here are the ten greatest albums helmed by punk’s favorite producer-turned-donut-maker. Let the debate begin!
10.) The Starting Line Say It Like You Mean It
It’s not that Say It Like You Mean It is an especially great album, so much as that it’s an important document of a time and place in emo’s history, an era of Warped Tour-sized hooks and FM-ready dynamics largely perfected and made scientific by Mark Trombino. It would be very, very easy to roll one’s eyes at the calculation of a song like “The Best of Me,” which took the earnest, quiet-strum-then-burst template of Blink-182’s “Going Away To College,” then blew it up to “Road Rules soundtrack” proportions, but Trombino’s knack for turning pop songs into POP SONGS is nevertheless impressive. Even on an enjoyable but slight song like “The Best of Me” Trombino’s aesthetic becomes immediately apparent: airy, sugar-glazed guitars dancing atop grinding rhythm sections, leading into choruses punched-up for all their worth. Odds are if you were listening to any emo record you could find in a Target in 2001, you were hearing octave chords and bass-lines through Trombino’s filter, even if he had nothing to do with it. Say It Like You Mean It might just be one of the most salient examples of exactly what that sounded like.
9.) Jimmy Eat World Static Prevails
Mainly valuable these days as an interesting curio from a time when Jimmy Eat World wasn’t fronted by someone named Jimmy, Static Prevails nevertheless … well … prevails, as a direct dispatch of post-hardcore, sharper and more brusque than any of the albums that would come after. At least some of the credit for the angular, cutting sound of the album goes to Trombino, who was able to capture the taut precision of the band’s two-guitar attack and start-stop rhythmic feints, despite a presumably low budget (we’re a long way off from that “The Middle” and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder soundtrack money). Example: the embarrassingly titled “Rockstar,” a song that overcomes its own name with the ways in which the band and Trombino are able to give equal sonic space to both the anxious grinding post-punk undercurrents and pristine trickles of clean, emo guitar. It’s a sound the team would go on to perfect, but more on that later.
8.) Knapsack Day Three Of My New Life
Indicative of emo/pop-punk marvels to come, Day Three Of My New Life took Knapsack’s unassuming melodic post-hardcore and carved it into hook-filled shape. Take “Thursday Side Of The Street,” a song whose potentially hidden tunefulness (it’s not hard to imagine a more passive, obstusely-produced version of this song that doesn’t jab at its ups and downs the way Trombino does) is instead made three-dimensional and vibrant. Like so many of Trombino’s best productions, the verses rumble along over grinding bass (seriously, you can spot Trombino’s recording of a picked Fender bass with one ear) and the choruses burst in Technicolor. The guitars sound smaller than they would by the start of the 2000s (when they would become the size of billboards), but the room Trombino gives to Blair Shehan’s shout-sung hooks and the song’s quietly sparkling clean-guitar bridge would remain a constant.
7.) Mineral EndSerenading
More spacious, less effervescent and bright than the Bleed American/Say It Like You Mean It/Dude Ranch aesthetic we tend to associate with Trombino, EndSerenading is nevertheless a beautifully captured document. Especially striking are the steely, cascading guitars that defined Mineral’s wide-screen emo, unfurling arpeggios that Trombino gave much of the spotlight to, so that listening to a song like “LoveLetterTypewriter” (Mineral apparently hated the “Space” bar in 1998) means hearing singer Chris Simpson flanked by these poignantly cycling guitars like a voice plinking around the gears of a pocket watch. EndSerenading was largely a more gentle, brooding affair than Mineral’s debut, 1997’s The Power of Failing, and Trombino shows a similar light touch, striking a balance that captured the album’s complex motions while letting the guitars stay pristine, hanging somewhere in the balance. The rhythm section, at times solidly basic, at others the most energized facets of these songs, is especially well realized through Trombino’s production, a running theme for an engineer who started out drumming in hardcore bands.
6.) Boilermaker Leucadia
Combining tracks from throughout Boilermaker’s career, Leucadia makes this list both because it’s the easiest Boilermaker record to track down, and because it’s the most helpful introduction to the band’s interesting mix of angular post-hardcore and clean, pensive slow-core. But one only need listen to album-opener “Whitewash” to appreciate the pristine aesthetic Trombino brought to the band’s slow-blossoming poignancy. Terrin Durfey practically whispers (never an easy thing to capture faithfully) over the gentle glimmer of guitars that dapple the song’s glacial surface like falling snow. If there likely wasn’t much effort called for in finding the dynamics in a Starting Line song, then there is serious skill in making the heart-breaking murmur of “Whitewash” sound as compelling and tuneful as a Bleed American single. If Trombino’s productions tend to be big-scale architecture, each chorus a wall or a wing, then the producer’s work with Leucadia is something like building a ship in a bottle, finding room for moving detail in delicate spaces.
5.) The Hippos Heads Are Gonna Roll
Though Ariel Rechtshaid, The Hippos’ song-writer and front-man, would go on to become a brilliant producer in his own right, shaping career-best work from Vampire Weekend, Sky Ferreira, and Haim, credit is due to Mark Trombino, who manned the boards for The Hippos’ excellent lost classic, Heads Are Gonna Roll. Simultaneously acing the balancing act of Rentals-indebted Moog pop with ultra bright third-wave ska while making those sounds sparkle and compliment one another, Trombino showed off all the guitar-pop know-how gleaned from his work on the platinum-selling Dude Ranch. Heads Are Gonna Roll now sits in a vaunted space above almost all of its third-wave contemporaries, not only because its songs are routinely excellent, but because it sounds almost startlingly clear and effervescent, an utterly infectious pop record made out of crackling synthesizers and humming trombones. The highlight: album-opener “Lost It,” a “Sell Out” rivaling ska-pop confection that bounces and bursts like a shaken-up can of cherry coke.
4.) Blink-182 Dude Ranch
You can talk about Green Day’s Dookie all you want, but nearly two decades later, the sheer tune-craft, pop instincts, and radio-ready precision of Dude Ranch makes “Longview” sound like a lo-fi shrug by comparison. While Blink were clearly writing great songs (even if they were by accident, as was the case with their all-time greatest track, “Dammit”) one need only spend a few minutes with the band’s previous album, Cheshire, to get why Mark Trombino served as the world’s greatest translator for the band’s previously unassuming pop-punk. Where past Blink songs sort of just came and went, loud then louder, Trombino rode the band’s dynamics, giving more room for Mark Hoppus’s coiled bass (again, pop-punk bass is Trombino’s most salient innovation) on quieter verses (the bridge of “Waggy” or the intro of “Apple Shampoo” for instance), elsewhere multiplying Tom DeLong’s guitar until it fanned out like light through a prism. It all intersects on “Dammit,” arguably the greatest pop punk song ever written, and an ideal test subject for Trombino’s skills with guitars and melodies. The song still sounds great: Tom DeLonge’s guitar-lesson-simple riff remains as cutting and essential as it did on those MTV Sports and Music Festival ads, the little production flourishes like the bubbling organ underneath the song’s last chorus (listen again, it’s there) still making an undeniably basic song sound like an adolescent symphony. Going forward, this would likely be Trombino’s greatest skill.
3.) Jimmy Eat World Clarity
Let me explain. Fifteen years later (yeah, I know) Clarity has cemented its place on the short list of all-time great emo albums. But unlike Bleed American, it would appear that that position is almost purely due to the song-writing and conceptual innovations of Jimmy Eat World. In other words, Steve Albini could have produced Clarity and it would have been brilliant. Annoying, but brilliant. That said, there are still moments of balance and precision that call for recognition of Mark Trombino and his careful approach to his most consistent client. “12.23.95,” a mid-album highlight that filters the band’s increasingly welcoming guitar twinkling through an electronic pop lens, is especially striking. With the band’s twin-guitar aesthetic curling around a clattering bed of programmed drums and Jim Adkins’ everyman tenor, Jimmy Eat World’s crisp, autumnal emo suddenly took on a bright, daydreaming quality, offering an utterly compelling moment of joy amongst an album singularly defined by twenty-something mixed feelings. The band showed up with songs that Trombino mainly showed hands-off care in getting across the finish line, but “12.23.95” stands as an underrated classic thanks to the cinematic wonder that the band’s un-official fifth member brought to its mix of worry and splendor.
2.) Rilo Kiley More Adventurous
Albeit Mike Mogis handled the lion’s share of production for More Adventurous, Mark Trombino gets credit here if only for the fact that he was manning the boards for “Portions for Foxes,” the album’s best song and one of Rilo Kiley’s greatest acheivements. “Portions” skates along on the same electro-pop ice as “12.23.95” before bursting into a one-string guitar riff not-unlike “Dammit,” combining indie-pop imagination with explosive pop-punk in ways that exceed even Bleed American. Want real confirmation? Just listen to the song’s miracle of a chorus, both muscular and tuneful, both a symphony of Blake Sennett’s at once melody-rich and punk-weighty guitars and an idealized stage for Jenny Lewis’s unbelievably affecting alto. Elsewhere, “It Just Is” (one of two other Trombino-produced tracks) is as blissful and dynamic as the best of Clarity, a cinematic mix of crystalline delicacy and skyscraping choruses that burst out of the song’s early sadness like a beam of light. “The Absence of God,” Trombino’s other contribution to More Adventurous is a lovely interlude of weary-yet-sun-dappled indie folk, recorded with a delicate touch and a sympathetic ear for the crispness of Rilo Kiley’s broad sound. It takes imagination and detective work to get a sense of what shapes and moods Trombino was responsible for on More Adventurous, but the album is good enough that I’d be giving the producer credit if his main duties involved getting the band coffee.
1.) Jimmy Eat World Bleed American
If you were to write a textbook about how to make a guitar pop record that is at once smart, compelling, poignant, and utterly likable (and I hope you do!), you’d have to devote a chapter to Jimmy Eat World’s remarkable 2001 album, Bleed American. Essentially a triptych of American youth that runs through icy post-hardcore (“Bleed American,” “Get It Faster”) jangly emo (“A Praise Chorus,” “Sweetness”) and the kind of pop-punk that gets you a gig playing Tom DeLonge’s wedding (“The Middle”), Bleed American was (and is) a peerless achievement, the kind of punk rock record that would be more lauded if it weren’t so damn easy to love (the strange contradiction of indie music). The album’s strength lies in its Side A pop songs, especially “A Praise Chorus” and “The Middle,” two quick, nervy guitar jogs that funnel The Promise Ring, Teenage Fanclub, and Jawbreaker into athletic bursts of fireworks melody. Mark Trombino’s touch is unmistakable here, giving compelling FM shape to these songs until “The Middle” operates like “Dammit” after a weekend listening to Motown singles, until “Sweetness” feels practically physical in the way it swoons between pristine jangle and waves of gorgeously blossoming guitars. The album is practically cinematic in its ups and downs, in the quiet sadness of “Hear You Me,” in the goofy youth of “The Authority Song,” in the shifting angularity of “Cautioners.” On Bleed American, Mark Trombino committed to giving the excellent songs Jimmy Eat World were writing their full due, allowing each track to stand out like its own short film, like its own ode to being young and excited and scared and in love.