What's that you say? Okay, calm down. No -- just hear me out -- look kid, it's -- yeah, I know, shut up for a second! Man, I have to start this review off playing defense?!?!
Alkaline Trio is the latest band to have outraged "the kids," and from what I gather a lot of it has to do with the issue of their latest record being over-produced, too slick, not punk enough, etc. etc. -- the typical time-honored complaints from people who have likely never been anywhere near a studio. But that's fine; this band means a lot to me too and I share your concerns. But before you cover up your Trio tattoo with a Gaslight Anthem logo, try this: take your favorite Alkaline Trio song from a past release and pretend it was on this record (for me that would probably be "You've Got So Far to Go"). Would the music sound so different and would you suddenly hate the song? No. I win! And what do you bet that the same people complaining about the more mellow rock songs on this album are the same people chanting "Radio! Radio!" during the encore break? It's polished all right, but it's still the band we all know and love. There's catchy melodies, clever lyrics and now there's some bombastic production to further complement an already fantastic sound. Thankfully there's not a law stating that you can only enjoy one Alkaline Trio record (for me that would be From Here to Infirmary, a true 10/10) and I am grateful for that because these guys are one of the best punk bands of my generation. One might even use the phrase, "Even at our worst we're better than most."
So since much ado is being made about the production on this latest release, who is behind all of this? The answer is a guy named Josh Abraham and he's worked with all your favorite bands. You know, Limp Bizkit, Pink, Korn, Staind, CrazyTown, Static-X...all the fuckin' classics, man! Look on the bright side: at least the label isn't gonna slap some shameless sticker on the front of the CD name-checking other bands because of the producer's resume. Or maybe I should wait until I see the CD before I state that...?
Anyhow, regardless of what records Abraham has been involved with in the past, I am pretty sure this is the band that Alkaline Trio was hoping to sound like when they first collaborated with Jerry Finn all those years ago on Good Mourning. Maybe it was all the growing pains the band was enduring as they were getting exponentially bigger at the time, or maybe it was just that Jerry Finn was more concerned with Eisley? Point being, the quality of the songs on Good Mourning far surpassed the recording and that really defeats the purpose of using someone like Jerry Finn. I mean, c'mon, this is the guy that essentially made Blink-182 sound good. Then came Crimson, their fifth proper full-length and their second outing with Finn, and on this album marked improvement can be heard and there are moments that remind you why he is in such demand as a producer. But I'll say it: He lost his touch, and I'm glad that the Trio went elsewhere this time.
The sounds on Agony & Irony are more akin to The Colour and the Shape and a lot less like Goddamnit, but it suits the band just fine at this point if you ask me. Derek Grant, a guy whose name is certain to come up in any conversation concerning the best drummers of the indie-punk scene, has finally been rewarded with the huge drum sounds he deserves. It's some thunderous stadium shit going on, and you can just tell that he's having a blast. Matt Skiba's voice is also sounding better than ever. It was really a shame that he endured so much trouble with his vocal chords during the past recordings because his voice, although injured, was getting stronger. On this latest album we can hear Skiba's health finally catch up to his vocal chops and he's in full form. As with Grant's drumming performance, you can almost sense the satisfaction Skiba feels from finally meeting his potential.
As for the songs, there's some that grab you right off the first listen ("Help Me" and "Calling All Skeletons") and there are some growers ("Over and Out" and "Into the Night"). Bassist and co-vocalist Dan Andriano offers up some of my favorite songs I have heard from him in a while. "Do You Wanna Know" was apparently added to the record at the last minute because the label liked it so much, and rightfully so. Andriano's "Love, Love, Kiss, Kiss" is already one of my all-time favorites and boasts classic Alkaline Trio greatness with lines like this:
Do you find you like to fall in love with people that you're never gonna meet?
It's easier than breaking up and crying in the street
Do you curse the happy couple? Do you cringe at wedding bells?
Do you drink up all the punch while you wish 'em all to hell?
Ya know, I am a grouchy old man and it takes a lot to impress me these days, but I think those lyrics are great. Or wait...maybe that stuff appeals to me because I am
a grouchy old man? In any case, this shit's awesome, and they've once again managed to make music that speaks to people.
On the downside, it's true, this is not the best Alkaline Trio record. There's some stuff that sounds like it belongs in the game Castlevania and lots of samples that may be a bit desperate, but those things don't bother me personally. One of the more interesting elements of this record is the production -- it sheds new light light on the band, and the album wouldn't be the same without all the bells and whistles and fun studio tricks.
When I think of all the bands in the last few years that came from the underground and signed with one of the big boys (e.g. Against Me!, Rancid, AFI), this is the best major label debut in my opinion. These guys may have done some things that have made their older fans (note the non-usage of the term "faithful") scratch their heads, but we're still talking about the same group of guys that write songs you relate to so well and make music that you swear was written about the lives of you and your friends. Don't throw it all away or dismiss the music because it's presented differently; I suggest you come along for the ride.