Smoke or Fire - The Speakeasy (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Smoke or Fire

The Speakeasy (2010)

Fat Wreck Chords

It's been an interesting ride for Smoke or Fire. A band that packed up and moved from the comforts of home in Boston, Mass., to take a chance at dedicating their lives to playing music full-time by moving south to Richmond, Va., in the hopes of cheaper rent, new exposure and new experiences. Talk about culture shock, huh? The adjustment from New England's refusal to properly pronounce the "r" sound to the almost-intolerable southern drawl is enough to drive anyone insane. Upon arriving in Richmond, and ultimately changing their moniker from "Jericho" to "Smoke or Fire," the band immediately captured the attention of Fat Wreck Chords. At the time, the label was on a Richmond signing spree, scooping up native bands Avail and Strike Anywhere. Two full-lengths and several years later, the band has released The Speakeasy, which musically, may be the band's culmination of expression. Two new members have arrived, solidifying an all-star rhythm section. Bassist Gwomper (Avail) joined the band for live gigs over two years ago, and Ryan Parrish (Darkest Hour) joined for this recording to handle drumming duties.

The Speakeasy is the group's second recording with production/engineering icon Matt Allison. Known for his work with pop-punk bands, Allison can be credited with employing much of the harmony Smoke or Fire has fused into their sound over the past two records. However, for The Speakeasy, Allison explained the approach was "more of a raw angle, so it didn't sound all cleaned up and perfect." The album's opening track, "Integrity" captures this idea intricately. After a short, melodic introduction, guitarist/vocalist Joe McMahan launches right into a thunderous transition, screaming the line "When did the news become entertainment?" This sets the tone for the entire record, which throughout McMahan cleverly fuses ideas, feelings and frustrations about the deceptions in our modern world.

But make no mistake, this isn't simple sloganeering. For example, "1968" tackles the correlation between racially charged events of that turbulent year and how they still impact us today. In one of the best lines McMahan has ever written, he states "And still Coretta led his people through the Memphis streets, in spite of the nightmare that was made out of a dream." In "Monsters Among Us," the focus is a little more standard and straightforward--corporate greed and deception; however, McMahan's amazingly fast vocalization combined with guitarist Jeremy Cochran's blazing riffs lend the track a more anthemic quality, similar to the band's sound on Above the City.

"Neon Lights" shines (no pun intended) as the standout track of the record. The blended acoustic verses and varying tempos create a unique structure and mood within the song. The album's title track, which also appeared on the band's previously released 7", Prehistoric Knife Fight, is a bouncier and energetic song which, again, will likely appeal to fans of the band's prior records.

So where does The Speakeasy rank in terms of Smoke or Fire's catalog? That depends on your appreciation of growth and expansion within artists. Although it doesn't have the same instant sing-along-ability as This Sinking Ship, lyrically and musically, it's the pinnacle of the band's career. They've taken their time to craft a very honest and memorable album.