Saturday, March 21, 2009

Whoamg, an album review!

My name is Chris and I love music. My tastes are pretty wide-ranging and somewhat eclectic, so you may not like everything I write about. On the other hand, you might also discover something new that you really end up enjoying. I will endeavor to put up one album review a month, and anything beyond that is gravy.

And that's just about enough introductory crap. Let's get on to one of my favorite records from one of my favorite bands...

Band: Streetlight Manifesto
Album: Somewhere In The Between

Ska has never been huge in the U.S., certainly not on the level of say hip-hop or metal. It experienced a slight revival in the mid 1990s. People of my generation (the 90s kids) will probably remember Sublime and the earlier works of No Doubt. Some may even recall Reel Big Fish (who, amazingly, are still recording and touring seventeeen years after their founding). 

Streetlight Manifesto, however, emerged in 2002 from several former members of New Jersey ska bands Catch 22 and One Cool Guy. The original band only produced their debut album Everything Goes Numb (2003) before the first of many lineup changes occurred. Streetlight embarked on a series of ambitious tours for the next few years. Their next release would be a remake of Catch 22's Keasbey Nights (long story, Wikipedia it if you're interested) in 2006. 

So by 2007, it had been four years since Streetlight had released any new music. They had a legion of loyal fans who still came out to every show and sang along with every song through their constant touring, though. Rumors began percolating as early as January of that year about the new album (which turned out to be Somewhere In The Between), which after several teases and stop and starts would eventually drop in November. 

Streetlight has a very distinctive sound, even for the rather heterogeneous genre of ska. Purists would point out that the band is technically ska-punk; most people would not care about the distinction. Streetlight's seven man cast gives them a wide range of sounds, from electric bass to trumpet to baritone saxophone, all united as tools under the creative direction of Tomas Kalnoky, the band's songwriter and frontman. Kalnoky is a talented guitarist and one of my favorite songwriters, and while he might not be the greatest singer in the world his voice is perfectly suited to the music he writes. Streetlight was oriented as a live band from the get-go, and this is very apparent in the songwriting. The music is impossible to listen to sitting still; at the very least, your toe will constantly be tapping, and at the very most you'll wish you had a mosh pit around you. Another aspect of their music oriented towards live performance is how downright singable the songs are. During live shows, the band will often step away from their microphones and let the crowd sing the choruses. Streetlight is incredible live, and I strongly encourage you to go see them if they ever happen to be playing near you.

So, what about the album? Musically, it's quite complex - Kalnoky's songwriting tends towards rapid chord changes and long, horn-driven melodic segments. Practically every instrument has its moment in the sun throughout the ten tracks, and they all fit together wonderfully while still sounding distinct. Lyrically, the songs are quite deep, dealing with such complex ideas as religion (Down, Down, Down To Mephisto's Cafe and Forty Days) to life and death (One Foor On The Gas, One Foot In The Grave and Somewhere In The Between) and war (Watch It Crash and What A Wicked Gang Are We). Of course, this being ska-punk, a good old-fashioned "fuck the Man" song is also on there (The Blonde Lead The Blind). I'd like to draw your attention to two songs off the record in particular.

The first is, appropriately enough, the first song on the album. Entitled "We Will Fall Together", it was also the subject of the band's first music video (which was unfortunatly pulled off YouTube for rather silly reasons). The song can be heard here, and I strongly suggest you listen. Go on, I'll wait.

Done? Good, now let me talk about it. The first thing you should have noticed is the minute-long horn-driven introduction. This is quintessentially Streetlight and as bold a declaration of who they are as I can imagine. The vocals, when they enter, are distinct - love it or hate it, you cannot confuse Tomas Kalnoky's voice for anyone else. Note also the uses of backing vocals, gang vocals, and back-and-forth singing. All are common techniques the band uses, and all create powerful effects that emphasize important lyrics. And finally, if you managed to sit still through all of that and not sing along on any of the choruses, you have far more self-control than me.

The other song I would like you to hear is "The Recieving End Of It All". According to the album's liner notes, it's "Arguably everyone in the band's favorite track on the record," which I can believe seeing as it's my favorite too. (As an aside, whenever you have the choice of formats in which to buy an album Tomas Kalnoky is involved in, get the physical album. The liner notes are informative and amusing, plus the lyric sheets help to figure out exactly what words he's screaming at a million syllables per second.) I won't comment further on this except to say I've been listening to it for two years and still don't know what the lyrics are about, really.

From start to finish, Somewhere In The Between is flat-out good music. It had a lot to live up to (Everything Goes Numb is widely considered to be one of the best third-wave ska albums ever made) and it came damn close to living up to all of that. I highly reccomend it, even if you don't typically enjoy ska. 

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