To say the expectations surrounding the Street Dogs' fourth full-length and first on Tim Armstrong's seminal Hellcat Records label were enormous would be a colossal understatement. With each new release and each trek across the map, their popularity has swelled, from the humble beginnings of a name-recognition Boston band with Savin Hill to capturing devoted fans across the world with the 2006 release of the virtually infallible Fading American Dream. And with each record far better than the last, the task of continuing this trend was pushed to the forefront in the anticipation leading up to the release of State of Grace.
Even before the process of recording had begun, the Street Dogs were not discreet about the more varied host of sounds that came into play during the album's writing, as frontman Mike McColgan testified: "I feel like this new release will sound like a battle royal wrestling match, with bands like U2, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, the Ramones, TV on the Radio, Stiff Little Fingers, Bloc Party, Michael Franti and the Clancy Brothers being the contestants/influences... We have always said that we work for the freedom to say and play whatever we want, and on this upcoming release that ethos has never been or sounded stronger." This conscious stylistic expansion certainly seems logical given how the band had already pushed their brand of melodic street punk to perfection come Fading American Dream, and following a probable desire to avoid rehashing success to the point of predictability and stagnation (as some may charge of McColgan's former band, the Dropkick Murphys, among other acts, committed to one particular direction).
Even while exploring new territory, there are still tracks that are classic Street Dogs through and through. Though McColgan's wailing melodies take on a bit more of a slurred-shout snarl, the album's opener "Mean Fist" wastes no time establishing the Street Dogs' presence. Like their covers of Sham 69 on Savin Hill and Billy Bragg on Fading American Dream, the Street Dogs hit another home run with their State of Grace cover installment in the form of the Skids' "Into the Valley," with a booming chorus and infectious guitar playing, neither of which ever return with such conviction on the remainder of the album.
"Rebel Song" is where things begin to get a little interesting. Though the lyrics of both inspiration and dissent are expected and welcome, the revving guitar arrangements (also heard in "Two Angry Kids") resemble something more akin to Black Label Society than anything from the Street Dogs thus far. "The General's Boombox" -- a tribute to the life and immortal legacy of the late Clash frontman Joe Strummer -- is the album's strongest track, and coincidentally the most reminiscent of what was heard on Fading American Dream, likely because it was actually written in that album's sessions, but somehow didn't originally make the cut. A song that almost didn't make the cut for State of Grace is the Celtic-leaning "Elizabeth," which prominently features the vocals of Heather Waters, though it's McColgan that really carries the song with the emotion and passion that he puts forth.
Studies and surveys in the last seven years have consistently placed both firefighters and military service members in the list of top ten professions most respected by the public. Likewise, it's probably fair to say that punk enthusiasts tend to look up to their favorite musicians when assembling a list of those they admire. So in Mike McColgan, you have a rare combination of all the above: a Gulf War veteran and former Boston firefighter dedicated to the principles of tolerance, equality and community, with a rebellious punk rock spirit using music as a vehicle to fight injustice, futile war and corporate tyranny. With the album's final track, the harmonica-led acoustic of "Free," McColgan gives the first introspective account of the struggle for identity attached with his experiences: "All of my life I've searched for clarity / I have wrestled with the demons inside me / [‚?¶] / We're looking for the chance‚?¶to be free."
While few of the tracks reach out and grab you with such hooks and aggression in the way songs like "Not Without a Purpose," "Back to the World," "Pull the Pin" or "Rights to Your Soul" do, there aren't any throwaway tracks on State of Grace. In fact, consider it a success that the Street Dogs' first major effort toward expanding their sound has yielded such pleasing results. State of Grace is both the band's most diverse offering yet and is also among McColgan's best lyrical outings. If not following Back to the World and Fading American Dream, State of Grace might be heralded. Even in its present context, though, the Street Dogs have affixed another solid album to their name, and have opened up new channels that make the band's future all the more alluring.