Naked Raygun - Over the Overlords (Cover Artwork)

Naked Raygun

Over the Overlords (2021)

Wax Trax!

Let's be honest with each other: You are looking for someone to review Over The Overlords, this here new Naked Raygun album, the band's first proper album of new material since the goddamn H.W. Bush administration. You would probably like that person to have some context, some awareness, some familiarity, if not outright reverence, for the band. At the very least, you'd like this person to know what the fuck they are talking about in terms of legacy, history, regional import, impact on the genre, at least a little bit. Not unreasonable.

Friends, I ain't that guy. I cannot tell you anything about Naked Raygun you could not find yourself via Wikipedia or archives of The Reader. Through osmosis, I have intuited that the Naked Raygun family tree is a sprawling, weeping willow of a thing; that you would be hard-pressed to find a punk or hard rock band operating in Chicago between 1989 and 1999 that didn't have some direct or second-hand connect back to the band; that the band's output, either on wax or on stage, has inspired and affected countless bands, Chicago-adjacent and otherwise, including last-remaining common denominator, Dave Ghrol; that this is the kind of band that has multiple tribute albums dedicated to them, and a documentary film or two; that one could likely not tell the story of American punk without at least including them as a footnote, if not a paragraph, if not a chapter.

So, platitudes aside, if you can accept that these notes are the first time I will have ever heard this venerable Chicago outfit, I will accept whatever eye-rolling you need to get through this review. Cool? Cool.

So, Over the Overloards: Pretty good!

There's a brightness to the production and songcraft that recalls, say, Direct Hit! in terms of how the record sounds. Layers of guitars are pushed to the front of the mix on early highlight "Living in the Good Times," playing up not only the band's pop instincts, but also putting the focus on the interplay of the melody lines over the vocals. When the band stays in this kind of sped-up power-pop mode, the album finds its wings. "Superheros," "Amishes," and "Broken Things" all live at this level, with the first coming hard with a galloping, driving downstroke propulsion, the middle featuring some baffling-but-compelling lyrical phrasing, and the final being the best of the bunch, living high above whatever your favorite "you can do it!" pop-punk songs might be.

Outside of this modal, the results are a little more mixed. Tracks like "Soul Hole Baby" and "Suicide Bomb" are post-punk for lack of a better definition but reject that genre's particular trappings and instead sound like a maximalist punk band playing art-punk. Mileage may vary on those two songs. Speaking of maximalism, the album's lost proper song is "Farewell to Arms," which sounds a bit like a blown-out version of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," with its horns and it's piano and big-time pop song gang vocals. It's an exclamation point of bombast on what is a pretty dang bombastic album, putting all that kinetic energy toward an anti-gun, "kids are the future" message.

Lyrically, the band tends to stumble into moments of the sublime in between well-meaning but mundane presentations of well-worn subject matter. "Superheroes" is your classic "I can have everything except you" situation, and is probably the only outright love song here. "Living in the Good Times," which serves as Naked Raygun's state of the union, has a few stinging barbs that stick beyond the song's run-time ("All I fear is that I'm walking in a sight line / And caught on the wrong side of a police line"). "Amishes" and "Sucide Bomb" are weird enough - one is about, uh, being Amish, I guess, and the other is about not being someone's suicide bomb - that the head-scratching puzzle of it all is enough reason to come back and revisit.

Ultimately, with a record like this - with a band like this - things like individual song lyrics don't really matter. The thing is more than the sum of its parts. Over the Overlords carries the weight and accumulated history of 30 years of punk music making, and it sounds as assured as anything you're likely to hear in 2021. If it doesn't elevate, that's no crime. It's here, and it's good, and here's hoping someone can say the same of us three decades from now. The record is a celebration.