CMU's The Driver Era: A pre-hoco and pre-concert primer

I have never seen a single episode of “Austin & Ally.” I also hadn’t watched “Teen Beach Movie” until my sister and I had a quarantine boredom movie binge. I didn’t discover Disney-Channel’s-finest Ross Lynch until I was a freshman in high school, thanks to one single by his band that I still listen to today — and I’m definitely a fan. Let me put you on before The Driver Era performs at Carnegie Mellon’s Homecoming weekend!

Before we jump into the music, a bit of background on the band. The duo, consisting of brothers Ross and Rocky Lynch, spawned out of R5, their previous group with their two siblings (Riker and Rydel) and family friend Ellington Ratliff. In 2018, the band wiped all their social media to officially rebrand into The Driver Era and release a strong line of singles leading up to their first album, “X,” in 2019.

Their debut song, “Preacher Man,” quickly establishes their musical identity with earworm riffs and freewheeling energy. The lyrics are a little cocky and dark in equal parts, asking as young adults and new artists striking out on their own: What are we doing in life? Back to “X” as a whole — each track has a distinct soundscape yet retains a unified sound across the album. From gritty opener “Welcome to the End of Your Life” and funky “Nobody Knows” to “Natural” with ghostly vocals and dreamy, nostalgic “San Francisco,” they take us on a rollercoaster of emotions and storylines from heartbreak to euphoria. The album closes with “Preacher Man” and its most-streamed track, laidback “Afterglow.”

It might seem like it shouldn't work, with no single underlying thread between all the songs thrown at us, but it does. Despite this being their first record, it’s cohesive and creative, quickly creating a place for the band to be a unique act, not just a Disney one-off. I will acknowledge I’ve been calling this “Ross Lynch’s band” — forgive me. Rocky more than pulls his weight as half of the duo, offering not just his guitar but his fantastic lead vocals on several tracks. The band is very much a group effort.

Along with remixes and features on other artists’ songs, the band released several more singles over the next two years that made their way onto their sophomore album “Girlfriend” in 2021. It’s daring, groovy, and reminiscent of their first record in that no two songs sound alike; it’s also, in my opinion, their best.

Side A opens energetically with the simple and catchy “Heart of Mine.” (I can’t stop nodding along with the guitar while writing this in public. Listen at your own risk.) “Heaven Angel” showcases their penchant for avant-garde production; the gentle guitar outro of “When You Need a Man” concludes the half. I love the brief intermission, “Plz don’t come around interlude,” which places wistful lyrics over a muffled piano to lead into the next disc. Side B track, “Places,” has layered vocals and driving percussion over the band’s signature bass, keeping listeners hooked despite the busy soundscape.

Now, I have to set aside a little time to talk about “A Kiss,” which can take credit for making me a fan. Mega-hit. Smash. I discovered it so long ago that I can’t find the first listen in my Spotify history, and it’s stayed one of my favorite songs for years. So much fun, SO much energy, and so many catchy lyrics. It deserves every single stream. There’s also a fun recurring blown-kiss sound effect in the background that adds a little playful something to the track. If you have one takeaway from this article, please go listen to this song. I hope they’ll play it live.

Back to the rest of the album: I won’t dwell on “Fade,” since the one part of the song I love is the last minute of synth-laden vocals in the bridge and outro. Thankfully, it’s followed by album high “flashdrive,” full of heavy snares and catchy lyrics. It’s an entire record of very diverse yet cohesive tracks, the band’s trademark.

The 2022 album “Summer Mixtape” stretched out summer a bit longer with its September release. Single “Malibu” dreamily reminisces on vacation flings; the underlying groove is great. “Fantasy” is sultrier and slower, akin to their previous records, so it’s one of my standouts. Disco-infused “Keep Moving Forward” closes the project, featuring powerful vocals from Nikki Costa and some delicious synths. Most of the album is easy listening, nothing hugely memorable, and truthfully a little forgettable, but it’s a nice backing soundtrack to summer — likely the goal.

The Driver Era actually put out another single on Oct. 20, entitled “Rumors,” which might be one of my new favorite songs from them. It leans hard into their signature synths and guitar-driven melodies alongside airy background vocals under the chorus that come out in full, gorgeous force in the outro. While the production is nothing we haven’t heard before, it still feels fresh and exciting. I’m eager to see if it’ll be part of a larger project with this sound.

Now for some more of my favorites that deserve a listen:

“Feel You Now” features a trumpet solo that fits right in with its bass-heavy riffs. Sultry, synth-filled “giveuwhatuwant,” possibly my favorite from “X.” “Beautiful Girl” features heavy chords and looped, warped vocals from Rocky, and again has me dancing in my seat. “Take Me Away” has a gorgeous anthemic chorus that strikes all the right notes for my taste. “The Money” is a little off-kilter; its house beat and spoken lyrics, however, are a little fantastic.

I won’t act like every song is perfect or like their albums are without filler tracks that I’ll never listen to on their own. There are, as always, cliché lyrics and odd production choices I tune out, but they’re overshadowed by the enjoyable tracks I have on repeat. In fact, I think Ross Lynch deserves more credit than merely being eye-candy onstage and talented onscreen, considering how great his music can be.

If you haven’t already gotten your tickets, you too should listen to The Driver Era and see Ross and Rocky Lynch live this weekend. They’re performing at 7:30 p.m. in Weigand Gym this Saturday, Nov. 11, and it’ll be a great show. Tickets are free through TartanConnect, so why not go? I’ll definitely be there.