It's a dilemma that countless bands have faced over the years: whether to stay true to the sound and style that defined and established their early career, or to expand their sound. The former is the conservative route, exchanging a little artistic credibility for likely stability regarding both album sales and fan retention, and has worked fine for plenty of bands (hello Bad Religion!). The latter certainly requires more artistic creativity, but risks alienating the fans who have brought you to this point.
Boston ska-punkers Big D and the Kids Table took the latter route on their previous offering. Riding a wave of generally popular reaction to 2007's roots ska-heavy Strictly Rude, the band put out Fluent in Stroll in 2009 and received a decidedly mixed reaction. Some (myself included) hailed the combination of "double-dutch, ska, reggae, and soul" as the pinnacle of their lengthy career. Many purists thought the opposite, decrying the album's lack of punk energy and attitude, and pined for the days of 2004's hardcore-tinged How It Goes.
Suffice it to say, the members of Big D have heard the criticism. Their fifth proper full-length, For the Damned, the Dumb & the Delirious plays like a direct response to the condemnation that they had lost the punk spirit that fueled their earlier, more frenetic tunes. The album's opener, "Walls" hits like a ton of bricks. It's a raucous mix of ska and horn-driven skatepunk that will fit right in with fan favorites like "LAX" or "Hell on Earth". From there on, the band embarks on 16 tracks that all would sound completely out of place on Fluent in Stroll but fit in nicely with their early catalogue. The only problem: The material simply isn't as good.
As a whole, this album just feels forced. It plays like a checklist (see what I did there?) of their past characteristics, but none of it feels spontaneous or natural at all. This becomes most apparent in the lyrical department. Big D's lyrics have always featured themes of drinking, friendship, parties, girls and Pabst Blue Ribbon pretty prominently, but here it's taken to a new extreme. There's even a failed attempt at a Dropkick Murphys-style working-class pub sing-along in "Best of Them All". In the past, these references always seemed to come across as byproducts of frontman Dave McWane's enthusiasm; now it feels like the songs are the byproduct of the need to fill a quota of drinking references. The packaging confirms this suspicion: Every picture in the lyric booklet is a scene at a bar. Other lyrical low points occur in hardcore rants "Brain's-a-Bomb" and "It's Raining Zombies on Wall Street", both of which feature McWane frenetically (and pointlessly) attempting to show political awareness while not managing to muster more than "world is evil / brain's a bomb / greed, greed, greed, greed, greed!" The world already has one Anti-Flag, and that is far more than enough.
The poor lyrics are accentuated by subpar vocals from McWane. He rattles on with a rowdy, reckless abandon, but the only point seems to be to prove to the lifers that he's still capable of ranting and yelling like an underground punker. There are few (if any) moments that recall the pop sensibilities and melodic emphasis that made Strictly Rude and Fluent in Stroll successful. Furthermore, the vocals on the slower tracks (particularly "Roxbury (Roots n' Shoots)") are laughably bad, featuring lazy, drawn-out enunciations drenched in reverb. They completely ruin the chilled-out vibe the rest of the band has established.
Before I drown this review in negativity, let me remind you that this is a release by Big D and the Kids Table, and there are redeeming moments here. This is not a bad album. The first three songs ("Walls", "Clothes Off" and "Modern American Gypsy") are killer ska-punk, full of energy and boppy hornlines. "Not Our Fault" and "Riot Girl" would be right at home next to Strictly Rude's more upbeat numbers. Even the weaker tracks generally contain bits and pieces reminiscent of past triumphs. However, this band has already proven to be capable of much more than this. Despite my love of their previous two releases, the back-to-basics approach would have worked with a stronger batch of songs. Instead, they've given us their weakest offering to date, a forced collection of songs that feel lifeless despite being faster and louder than anything they've put out in the past seven years. Here's hoping McWane and Co. go back to the drawing board with their conscience and slate clean next time, and fan reaction pushed to the backburner. When they put their mind to it, they've proven they can do great things.