Three chords, yeah they're yours / We stole them from your bottom drawerâ?? The Nation of Ulysses, "Last Train to Cool"
The boon and bane of punk rock has always been its egalitarian work ethic. Anyone can do this style, as long as they're honest, and even that's more of a guideline than a rule. What this often means for the genre is a whole lot of repetitive bashing from most bands. But every so often an album comes out that slightly tweaks the formula. From these minimal changes comes a deliciously radical transformation. Philadelphia punk rock band the Loved Ones has done just that with their aptly titled second full-length, Build & Burn.
Overall, Build & Burn is very much in step with the band's first album, Keep Your Heart. It's bookended by the same stomping rhythms, steady power and straightforward lyrics. Sure, some cuts, like "3rd Shift" and "Louisiana" have more of a bluegrass/country/classic rock rhythm. There's also more harmonizing in the hooks, beautifully demonstrated on the perfectly constructed opening track, "Pretty Good Year," and the addition of second guitarist Dave Walsh allows the band to write more intricate arrangements. But for the most part, it's still Fat Wreck punk at its best. Uncomplicated and ready to rock, Build & Burn is hopefully a signifier of the great punk to come in 2008.
Where the band truly tweaks its sound is in the middle of the record, though, the biggest sonic shift coming on track five, "Brittle Heart." More acoustically driven, the song goes from catchy call-and-response verses to long "ohhhh"s in the chorus. It's like a two-minute, 39 second-long hook in the vein of Ted Leo or Billy Bragg, while maintaining the same Loved Ones vibe fans might expect. Dig that gnarly guitar during the chorus, too.
The other big surprise is the piano-driven centerpiece "Selfish Masquerade." Mid-tempo, dramatic and chock full o' crunchy guitar like "Selfish," the similarly centrally placed track from Keep Your Heart, "Selfish Masquerade" runs a little long. But it's still a solid tune.
Once the album hits track eight, "Louisiana," Build & Burn starts to rein in its experimentation. With a dash of organ and an explosion of guitar, "Louisiana" strikes a balance between the punk rock Loved Ones have done before and the bluesy classic rock they have clearly been influenced by. When my 52-year-old Bruce Springsteen- and Billy Joel-loving father said he dug this disc righteously (I'm paraphrasing), I knew the band had honored its older sources.
Fans not quite ready to embrace this change in direction (ya wusses) can find solace throughout the album as well. Build & Burn's first four and last two tracks are closer to the band's older material. Call it the "build" portion to the middle's "burn." "Pretty Good Year" keeps the "I and you" lyrical dynamic and chugging guitars of Hause's songwriting. "The Inquirer" is a good example of how the band writes -- with plane crash imagery and indictments towards authority figures; it easily reads as a reaction piece against the Bush administration over everything that's happened since 9/11, and while it offers no solutions, it's still a call-to-arms, a piece for generating discussion and energy.
Build & Burn can be accepted three different ways. Some fans of the band's older material will enjoy the disc's first half and bemoan most of the second, while fans of Springsteen and the like might grove on tracks five through eight. Finally, there's that third group -- people like me -- who will love this disc from beginning to end. At an ideal half-hour's length, Build & Burn runs its course quickly and smoothly, begging for a repeat play before it's even over. That the disc features production and backup performances from members of the Bouncing Souls and World/Inferno Friendship Society is merely a wonderful bonus.