The Rumjacks/Flatfoot 56 - Split EP (Cover Artwork)

The Rumjacks / Flatfoot 56

Split EP (2022)

Four Four Records

Despite hearing the name Flatfoot 56 around in the Celtic punk circles in recent years, I had never really paid any attention to the Chicagoland based band until I had gotten my hands on this split. The three songs they contribute to the project are shockingly not only each excellent in their own right, but honestly the only tracks really worth listening to on this release. The unique post-Americana punk folk-Celt hybrid sound they’ve developed is remarkably fresh and energizing to listen to, and lacks the hokey-ness that some bands in the genre can reflect, meaning this is more true melodic street punk rock n’ roll based music as opposed to the let’s skip around to a flute type energy that a lot of these bands are bringing nowadays. All in all: if this is the direction that Celtic punk is going in now, I’m all for it. I’m so for it. Buckle up.

Formed in the summer of 2000 by brothers Tobin, Justin, and Kyle Bawinkel, Flatfoot 56 has been pumping out releases for exactly 20 years now with two of the three siblings still remaining active in the band. With a voice that’s a combination of Johnny Bonnel of The Swingin’ Utters and Mike McColghan, lead singer Tobin Bawinkel positively shines with throaty, whiskey tinged vocals that harken to other working class Americana bands out there right now like Michael Kane and the Morning Afters.

There is a nostalgic early DKM/Street Dogs in their glory days vibe to this band that just hits in all the right places. Their use of Scottish Highlands bagpipes in most songs is no less than invigorating to hear, and an honorable mention goes out to piper Josh Robieson who has probably the most unique and charismatic technique of any Celt punk bagpiper I’ve heard thus far. With the banjo and mandolin also folded into most if not all tracks, the folk vibe holds strong on their side of the EP while still being mostly enrobed by a gritty midwestern street punk sound that makes this band a full on force to be reckoned with, especially live.

I’m unsure if it was intended this way or not, but their side of the split plays out like a beautiful storyline of a man coming to terms with his not so beautiful choices. The first track, “Mud”, grapples with the feeling of being misled, and forsaken by a lover.

“All this time just believing a lie, saying baby I know you're right

All the words now turned to burns, your light is my darkest night

Catch my breath, with no strength to scream, How much more can I take

Is this hell or just a dream, Cos I’m trapped in your mistake”

I suspect the title of the track is a reference to being stuck in the mud, as there is a sense of one continually trying to move forward, yet spinning their wheels due to the indecisiveness and/or manipulation of the other party, and the pain that manifests as a result.

“Stumbling through the smiling faces, try to catch a breath

Forgiveness now, the only voice, saying please come back

I'll be doing, I'll be doing well, just fine

Forgiveness paves the way of the sunken road

I'll be doing well, I'll be doing well, just fine”

The song is both moving to listen to and easily relatable. To me, the definition of poetry is the taking of some of the most complex concepts in life and whittling them down into the simplest, cleanest words that almost anyone could understand. So in that way, it’s not a stretch to say that the lyrical content of this song is no less than poetic with an additional touch of an accordion laced through the track making it a strong intro to this band’s contribution on this record.

Track two, “Sorry” is the highlight of the entire EP with energetic and uplifting catchy bagpipes that melodically reminds me of a riff you’d hear in a classic Cocksparrer song. In this track, the same protagonist seems to have begun the process of looking within himself and examining all the systems, beliefs, and people who influence his character and decisions and how it’s essentially made him feel like he’s been left with little to no freedom of choice or autonomy in some areas of his life as a man, but instead of dealing with it, he’s projected that same pain back onto the people around him.

“Hold on to the bitter lines I say, don't you dare defy me

Call out and feel justified, but when the truth comes out someone hide me

The sky is falling everywhere you go, point the finger, rip you apart

Why can't you just fall in line man, come on now son you’re breaking my heart

So tell me once again, where do we find our place

When we're yelling out of breath, in these crowded spaces

How can I say:

I'm sorry”

Despite such serious lyrics, the song really is a true head bopper and I imagine a wicked pogo type live crowd would gather in front of the stage for it. In fact, if you didn’t pay attention to the words you may never notice the important social commentary about the rigidity so man men face in their lives when it comes to making choices; particularly concerning anything that may make them feel vulnerable and how it can ultimately blow up in their faces when unfortunately what they’re doing is all they know, because what they know is all they’ve ever been taught.

Track three “Trouble” opens up with that invigorating bagpipe again and stuck in your head all day type mandolin picking that truly highlights this closing track brimming with both purpose and determination.

“I see the path before me, and I know another trouble

I see the hope before me, my story more than struggle.”

Reminding me of the glory days of Do Or Die era Dropkick Murphys, it’s the most “punk rock” of the three songs melodically and absolutely delivers in the energy department. In fact I’ve often played this song while out on my daily runs - it’s a very motivating track to listen to in that fist in the air sort of way. Lyrically, the overall tone of this track seems to be faith, which is a term I think is widely misconstrued these days.

Most consider faith as something you put into an outside source, usually a power that is beyond your control. True faith however, is something you harness within you. Meaning: an inherent knowing that no matter what happens you’ll be ok because you know you can take care of yourself. That’s it. That’s the message of this song.

Overall I am blown away by this band’s contribution to this split and am kicking myself for not finding out about them sooner. If this is the sort of music they’re putting out moving forward then Flatfoot 56 is easily in the forefront to becoming the next DKM in the current Celt punk scene, and after this impressive EP’s offering, there’s no band better suited for the position.

A few months ago I reviewed The Rumjacks’ Brass For Gold, one of the more solid EPs to come out this year so far despite dragging at times. Between it and Hestia before it, (an album packed full of roughly half single worthy tunes due to the song writing and creative influence of new(ish) lead singer Mike Rivkees) I’m sad to say that The Rumjacks side of this EP was the equivalent to a proverbial balloon running out of air and flapping all around the room. I was honestly so excited to hear that this band had already pumped out another release, but actually hearing the material moved me to feel otherwise.

It honestly took me a long time to publically get behind this band because of their sympathizing with their former lead singer who had a history of abuse and physical violence, (including against women which he was eventually jailed for) which is something I struggle to validate and/or stand with no matter who the band is, especially as a woman. Birds of a feather, you know? But it seemed as if there were greener pastures ahead for this pan-continental Celtic punk band with the “rebranding” they had done with Rivkees at the helm, not to mention the noticeable upleveling of song quality he brought along with him to the table.

The first single “Whitecaps” did well in like, Poland or something I think but I just can’t get out of my head how much it sounds like an old Rancid song in the beginning. You’d immediately know the one I’m talking about if you heard it, it’s giving very much copy/paste energy, you may as well just cover a song if you’re going to do it like that - makes it hard to get into the song. While the energy is good in that generic circle pit kind of way, it just sort of chugs along for a few minutes and seems sort of phoned in and just so so. Overall, their entire side of this split is not very memorable and kind of bland, but I assume better when witnessed live as all folk music is really.

And just so so is all I can really objectively say about the other songs as well. With such a huge buildup from such solid singles in months previous, I feel like they probably would have fared better off saving these for filler material for their next full length album unless they were trying to make Flatfoot 56 look good, which in this instance they have in a roundabout kind of way. Despite knocking out such stunners of songs like “Tell Me What Happened”, “Light In My Shadow”, “Blood Soaked Chorus”, and “Athens To The North” all within the previous year, it’s like, wait… what happened here? It seems like even after so much steady progress, buildup, and hype over the past year the growth quality of this band has sort of screeched to a halt, as if they went right back to the drunk old guy bar music they were playing before Rivkees joined the band. Bummer.

Even the music video release for their song “What Was Your Name” seems again, lackluster and phoned in. Filmed while on tour, the band was literally just sitting there awkwardly the entire time. In fact I’ve noticed that about their past couple of videos, the band just sitting and standing around giving not much enthusiasm except for Rivkees really. I spoke with some folks who have attended their live shows this year, and I was surprised to hear that they seemed worn out, out of breath, and just out of it in general with noticeable mistakes being made during their live sets. Bummer.

Another bummer is the third song on the EP, “Fifth Ward Firestorm” that has a hook stating: “Hide your kids and wife” - like, do we have to appropriate AAVE while we’re at it now too? Not a good look for a Celtic punk band considering their demographic, but that’s just me. This band still has a considerable amount of growth to do, all things considered.

All of this makes me wonder if this band perhaps has plateaued already with this new lineup? Perhaps if they slowed down to focus on doing one thing at a time, and doing those things well as opposed to trying to do it all at once and pushing mediocrity by spreading themselves too thin they’d be better off. Maybe the road is wearing on them, who knows. The old saying: “The grass is greener where you water it” comes to mind.

The Rumjacks can do much better than the effort I could see and hear executed on this split. It just seemed like their heart wasn’t in it on this one. Bummer. In my opinion, if you’re going to release short form material like splits, 7”s, EPs etc, etc, especially alongside talent that’s shining as brightly as Flatfoot 56 is right now, you’ve gotta really bring it with those songs so they not only stand out but also so that your mates coming up behind you don’t end up outshining you, even if on accident like in this case. I think the overall historical trajectory of this band is a really teachable moment for a lot of younger bands and artists in the industry right now of both what to, and what not to do with their careers.

Not every release a band puts out is going to be spectacular, don't get me wrong. But once again after their last two offerings, what a major let down is all I can say as a reviewer. All in all, Rivkees has his work cut out for him if he’s going to continue to tugboat along the creative success and direction of this band moving forward. He can do it, but it’s an immense amount of pressure for one person and it’s got to be a lot on his plate to continually have to make this band look good despite a problematic history so I’m rooting for the faux hawked dude as he’s got his hands full with this project… that’s for sure.

All in all, this EP positively shines on the Flatfoot side, but maybe skip The Rumjacks side which was the equivalent of: “Yay!..... “Oh.” in terms of impact and overall chutzpah. You gotta wanna be better if you’re gonna be better and this is showbiz ya know, meaning you’re only as good as your last release.