I'll let you in on a little secret: Music reviewers, such as myself, tend to get albums prior to their street date, in hopes that we'll review said disc before it comes out to help build hype. Such was the case with the new Hot Water Music album, The New What Next - I've had a burn of it in a paper sleeve from Epitaph since late July, and have listened to that CD-R more times than I can count. But here's where the kicker comes in: About two weeks ago, the finished version of the album shows up in my mailbox, and surprise of surprises, the album has been completely re-sequenced. Only one of the disc's 12 tracks remained in the same place (that song being "The End Of The Line," one of the best songs HWM have ever put to tape). The rest of the album was jumbled up beyond all recognition. To the normal consumer this makes no difference, because you never knew otherwise. But to those of us who are supposed to find some sort of emotional attachment with said album so we can be inspired enough to write about, it's difficult. Essentially, this album has an identity crisis.
For a band that has been around for the better part of the past decade, it seems strange that this identity crisis would even exist. There is obviously a Hot Water Music formula: The band has released over 130 songs to date, spanning six full-length albums as well as god-knows-how-many 7-inches, compilations, and the like. You don't have that kind of output without developing some sort of song guide. In HWM's case, it's two singers singing as gruff and unintelligible as possible, yet retaining an inherent sense of melody behind the craziest-and tightest-rhythm section in punk rock. Yet, on The New What Next, the dual vocals are virtually non-existant. The crazy rhythmic patterns are reduced to merely drum fills here and there. And the words? I can understand every single one of them. And let's not even talk about the use of falsetto on "There Are Already Roses." If I were Hot Water Music, I'd be having an identity crisis, too--I'd be leaving the studio wondering if we just made our worst album to date or the one that will define our career.
Well, the answer is neither, but leaning strongly towards the latter. TNWN showcases the band's restraint--something sorely lacking on previous releases. Fingerpointing singalongs were a dime a dozen on Fuel For The Hate Game and No Division, but not so much here. instead, the band really only lashes out on "The End Of The Line," "This Early Grave" and "Keep It Together;" unarguably, the album's three best tracks. For the other nine, singers Chuck Regan and Chris Wollard display their best melodicism in their careers. Unfortunately, that seems to mean that the reigns have been pulled in on bassist Jason Black and drummer George Rebelo. Tracks like "My Little Monkey Wrench" or "Bottomless Seas," while strong in their own rights, would benefit from the rhythm section not being so tight. There's no room for error, and thus, no room for experimentation and creative development.
Further compounding the whole thing is the damn re-sequencing. It's rather unnerving to become familiar with an album one way, then have it be completely changed without your consent. While realistically, I should have no say in how a band's album flows, it's still troubling to my ears. And upon comparing the two different versions of TNWN, I actually can't decide which I like more, because both make sense at points, and both falter at points (like the lack of a strong closing song; the original version used "There Are Already Roses" and the retail copy taps "Giver" for duty). The one advantage that the new sequence seems to have over the old is that it's almost broken up into sides one and two, like an LP -- tracks one through six are a separate entity from seven through twelve, and this is even made clear on the back cover of the album itself. As good as "Keep It Together" was as an opener, it's even more powerful if you imagine hearing it as you drop the needle on the b-side of the record.
So essentially, Hot Water Music are at a crossroads. These are some of the best songs they've ever released; filler doesn't exist in this 41-minute span. But being concise seemed to also mean being more professional; no flubbed notes, no weird vocals, no raw energy that permeated the band's earlier discs. Even still, it's the band's strongest effort since No Division, and in their top three records overall. If old-time fans like myself can get over HWM's identity crisis and just keep enjoying the ride, we'll all be rewarded.
The End Of The Line
All Heads Down