The Lawrence Arms
Fat Wreck Chords
ging gracefully is difficult enough for anyone, but punk bands in particular bear the weight of time’s burden. The choices are stark: repeat yourself into stagnation, until you’re G.B.H. and playing for your original fanbase and however many generations of progeny they’ve spawned in the last quarter-century, or welcome maturity and its trappings until you’ve formed the Style Council (or written ballads for the WB) and no longer qualify as punk.
So it’s a testament to the Lawrence Arms that on Oh! Calcutta!, their fifth proper album, the band retains its loud and snotty side, even as youth has fled the building, and they manage to do it without sounding stuck in a rut. Indeed, though their last album, 2003’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, garnered positive reviews it also took a few steps in a more toothless direction (it wasn’t helped by cutesy footnotes that ranged from Kafka to Down Periscope and served mostly to distract from the songs), and on Calcutta the band moves back into the realm of spunky punk with renewed vigor.
Key to this revitalization is the vocal intertwining of bassist Brendan Kelly and guitarist Chris McCaughan. On earlier albums the two took song-by-song turns at the mic, with the manic Kelly favoring staccato chords bashed out over his gruff rasp and the sullen McCaughan nursing a Jawbreaker jones so serious he’s surely had at least one pet named Boxcar and a few drags off a Chesterfield King. It worked, both because the two each brought strong songwriting to their respective formulae, and because they complemented each other well, with Kelly storming the towers and McCaughan moping in the wake. But on Calcutta the duo interacts more, trading lines or shouting them together, alternating not between songs but between verses and choruses. As in the even more polyvocal Dillinger Four, this allows the singers to feed off one another, generating energy with their friction.
Massive innovation this is not, but successful change-up it is. Guitars burst forth sharply, and choruses are screeched out with passion, rough enough around the edges to remain closer to hometown Chicago legends like Screeching Weasel than malignant local upstarts Fall Out Boy but sufficiently catchy to lodge themselves in memory after a listen. Variation within this template keeps things fresh, from the simple but effective guitar line on “Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God,” to the jazzy intro to “Jumping the Shark,” which sounds like one of Tom Waits’ 1970s back-alley strolls. We also get a few anthemic “whoa”s, some Toby Keith slagging, and a countrified bonus track almost surely inspired by Dear You, even if the acoustic pisstake closer tradition reaches at least as far back as Hootenanny.
A metaphor in which Kelly compares himself to a record player was done better by fellow Chicagoans Alkaline Trio a few albums ago, but for the most part the Lawrence Arms strike a clear self-definition here, pandering neither to the reductionist school of pop-punk nor to the self-consciously “serious” punk bands that rely on twelve-word song titles to distinguish themselves from the Starting Line. Oh! Calcutta! is a band embracing maturity within the confines of punk, and doing it with gusto and finesse. “Old Dogs Never Die,” a song informs us here. Let us hope not.