Throughout the last decade, the pop-punk landscape has increasingly resembled a musical version of Neverland " an escape where bands could live forever young, cracking sophomoric jokes and reveling in adolescent heartbreak.
Unlike Peter Pan, however, musicians live in the real world, where aging is inevitable and relevance in a youthful genre often means choosing to grow up or break up.
In the years between Valencia's 2005 debut, "This Could Be a Possibility," and last week's follow-up, "We All Need a Reason to Believe," Philadelphia's pop-punk quintet is clearly older and wiser, yet clings to the kind of eager attitude one might find "second star to the right and straight on till morning."
"It's always cheesy to say this, but we have definitely matured," said singer Shane Henderson. "We had a lot of inspiration for this new record, and I think that we kind of came into our own when it comes to songwriting. It's basically a lot more of who we are now than who we were then as people."
To better understand that statement, one has to go back to early 2003 when Valencia began playing sweat-soaked basement shows among Philly's underground punk scene, while its members tried to balance a regular routine of college courses and day jobs.
"When we all graduated high school, we were in separate bands," Henderson said. "By the time college came around, all of our bands kind of went separate ways. So, we decided to get together."
By the time the group released its first album two years later, the act discovered its hard work was starting to pay off. Valencia's live shows quickly moved from claustrophobic crawl spaces to slots at spacious venues opening for emo bigwig Fall Out Boy. "This Could Be a Possibility" garnered praise from magazines like Spin, and for fans of what appeared to be a stalling genre, Valencia was hailed as "saviors of pop punk."
"I never really thought pop-punk was close to being dead, so I'm not even sure what we were supposed to be saving," Henderson said. "It's an honor to hear it, but we're just doing what we love to do."
In the midst of increasing success, Valencia was forced to cancel a 2006 tour after Henderson's girlfriend was killed in an accident. The tragedy rattled the band, but eventually became a catalyst for new material recorded late last year.
"Everything that has happened in our lives is a big inspiration, whatever it may be," he said. "That whole experience deeply affected my life. We wanted to write a record that looked on the brighter side, and have songs on the album that portrayed hope and optimism."
The end result, "We All Need a Reason to Believe," is a surprisingly eclectic affair that examines what happens when five young men are suddenly forced to face and deal with very adult issues. There's still plenty of holdover intensity and big hooks from the group's previous effort, but the album's 11 tracks are an altogether much more dynamic experience. After the energetic album opener "Better Be Prepared" or the Ben Folds-channeling of "Carry On," the most compelling moment of the album can be heard on "The Good Life" " a rollicking alt-country track that may be the most directly inspired by the sudden death of Henderson's girlfriend.
Returning to the road with a headlining tour to promote its sophomore album, Valencia will be making a Sunday stop at The Conservatory with several other bands, including Sing It Loud and Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer.
"It's going to be a great tour and be a lot of fun," Henderson said. "All of the bands on the tour are really talented, and everyone should come out early to catch all of the bands because it's going to be a great experience."
Ultimately, that's what makes the unrelentingly optimistic Valencia such an admirable act. Where peer groups seem stuck in arrested development between adolescence and adulthood, the boys of Valencia are growing up, but still remembering how to have fun. "Lucas Ross