Smoke or Fire
This Sinking Ship
Fat Wreck Chords
oor, forsaken punk rock. Yes, originally it wasn't a 'sound' per se, but that's been over for decades. And like every other subgenre that had a flare of popularity and then the gall to stick around and even maintain a not-insignificant fanbase afterwards, there are certainly examples of acts that both miss the point and exemplify the qualities that drive haters up the wall (if we're going to compare punk to alt-rock, for example, New Found Glory = Daughtry). But in post-Dookie punk's case historical contingency makes matters even worse; all the cool kids still listening to rock are discovering pretension and frills, whether literary (the Decemberists) or sonic (the Arcade Fire) and listening to indie rock, leaving bands like Smoke or Fire with no respect, at least in the broader pop cultural context (as opposed to within their niche). Hell, even emo is stealing punk rock's thunder.
Which is a shame; I can't stand emo any more than the next twentysomething critic but I do miss punk, mainly because it prioritizes a whole different set of rock values than indie, and Smoke or Fire do a damn good job of showing why we're missing out. Their sophomore effort This Sinking Ship is uncomplicated, powerful stuff; twelve two and three-minute songs with force and hooks. They sing about politics and drinking and the slow process of reconciling your idealism with the world without succumbing to despair, and they do it with choruses you can shout along to. They're not trying to be clever beyond writing some lines that let them talk about these things without being cliché, and they're a damn site more focused on the basic pleasures of loud guitars, fast drums, and yelling than the last hyped band to stop a good song in the middle for a temporary excursion into limp funk or whatever they thought would be funny.
I'm not arguing for a kind of musical Luddism; there is plenty of room for exactly the kind of music that dominates the rock critic discourse. But shouldn't we crave a little more diversity in our diet? And I'm also not trying to damn Smoke or Fire with faint praise, as any band that writes a song as compulsively catchy and balanced about its topic as “The Patty Hearst Syndrome” deserves plaudits. It's not the only highlight by a long shot, and if there aren't major differences in sound between it and “Melatonin,” “Irish Handcuffs,” “Life Imitating Art,” so what? Modern punk rock isn't particularly subtle about its charms, and I think that's part of the problem with its reception on a broader level, along with the cycle of what's-cool-now. There's very little chance you won't 'get' this music, which means that if you're looking to be in the know you're shit out of luck. But that doesn't make those charms any less satisfying, especially after you've had a bad day at work or a couple of beers.
Given how much of this stuff these days veers into territory cross pollinated by prog or metal or god knows what, it's positively refreshing to have a band just give us the songs without a lot of messing around. While it's a far cry from selling out, the band have also upgraded their sound from the debut, with Mike Allison's production placing them nearer to the anthemic likes of prime Hot Water Music than anything else. Yes, most of the people giving this sort of thing a listen these days are teenagers—but remember how you felt about music as a teen? That kind of uncomplicated pleasure is exactly what Smoke or Fire are offering, and that's their greatest strength.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2007-03-30