Streetlight Manifesto has, once again, affirmed their status as the single most annoying ska band to ever exist.
This is an impressive feat, considering their competition. Some bands, like Reel Big Fish, had one good album a decade and a half ago (and that album didn't even age well), yet continue to churn out a steady stream of barely listenable garbage. Others unceremoniously dump their horn sections between albums, and unsuspecting fans buy their new CD to find out they've turned into mediocre hardcore punk bands (Against All Authority), mediocre synth-pop bands (the Aquabats), or abominable boy-band look-alikes with matching outfits and choreographed stage moves (doesn't even deserve the obvious name-drop). Then there's every high school ska band ever, formed solely because there were an overabundance of marching band geeks who desperately wanted to be in a real band, but all they could play was the sax.
So why is Streetlight Manifesto the target of today's ire? Because they're in the very, very small minority of ska bands that do the genre justice, that write and play well, and should be out there creating new music. Yet despite Tomas Kalnoky & co. claiming that a dozen or so musical projects are going on at any given moment, they are the least prolific group that has ever had a horn section. When they do release new music, it oftentimes barely even qualifies as "new." 99 Songs of Revolution, Volume 1, is Streetlight Manifesto's fourth studio release, and their second album consisting entirely of cover songs. For the mathematically impaired, that means exactly half of their albums are cover albums and, as there are going to be approximately eight "99SOR" albums in total (estimated date of completion: 2087), that ratio of new music:covers may only skew further. But enough whining, onto the music.
About half of these songs are punk staples, some of which fans may have heard during past tours. Most of the bands covered utilize a guitar/bass/drums setup, so the horns aren't as prominent or intricate as they are in Streetlight's original songs. They do add some extra instrumentation to varying amounts of success. The violin in "Linoleum" is beautiful and adds a somber tone to the NOFX standard. Conversely, the horns in "Punk Rock Girl" (the Dead Milkmen) do very little besides highlight the fact that Streetlight plays everything very fast, all the time. Kalnoky admits his arrogance in covering his own song in the liner notes to the Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution song "They Provide the Paint," which sounds (unsurprisingly) very much like the original, if a touch faster. He must have forgotten how he already covered "Here's to Life," a BOTAR original, on Streetlight's Everything Goes Numb. Or how that BOTAR EP contains Catch-22's "Dear Sergio." Or how he already covered an entire album of his own songs with the re-recording of Keasbey Nights. Anyway...
More interesting are the covers culled from beyond the world of punk rock. Streetlight's take on folk (there are two Paul Simon-penned songs on here) and especially blues (Louis Jordan's "The Troubadour") inspired me to take a closer look at the original artists, which may or may not be a compliment to the artist who covered them. While I was hesitant about hearing the Postal Service song reworked, the highly competent horn section does an amazing job of recreating the synths so vital to "Such Great Heights." Radiohead gets covered a lot for some reason, even though I have yet to hear another singer emulate Thom Yorke effectively. After listening to "Just," I still haven't, although the rest of the band is in top form.
I'd say about eight of the covers are fun and worthwhile, while three (especially the BOTAR cover) are superfluous. When this project was announced (sometime back in the early 1990s, if I remember correctly), I thought 99 songs was over the top, that there was no way they could have 99 songs worth covering. Turns out, they don't. They probably decided that "73 Songs of Revolution" didn't have the same ring to it as 99, so they just tacked on a couple dozen incomplete ideas. Or maybe they wanted to leave room in case they decided to re-re-re-record some of their older songs. In either case, considering your average cover record has one or two good songs on it, 8/11 ain't bad, but I (and most other Streetlight fans, I'd wager) are still waiting for the next album of original material.