Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Alkaline Trio 7/15/08 @ The TLA, Philadelphia, PA.

I figured this would be a good opportunity to give my mini-review of the new album, as well as a review of the live show.

Guitarist/vocalist Matt Skiba and the Alkaline Trio have now been around for over 11 years, since Skiba, original bassist Rob Doran, and original drummer Glenn Porter met as bike messengers in Chicago, while playing in other like-minded bands. Bassist/vocalist Dan Andriano replaced original bass player Rob Doran later in 1998 and ended his band, Tuesday, to join the early version of the Alkaline Trio shortly before the release of their debut album, Goddamnit. They all bonded over their love of alcohol and for bands such as Naked Raygun, the Ramones, Social Distortion, Jawbreaker, the Misfits, the Cure, and the Smiths. Original drummer Glenn Porter was replaced by Mike Felumlee in 2000 and he was replaced by current drummer Derek Grant in 2002.

They recently made their major label debut on Epic with the release of their 6th album, Agony & Irony, earlier this month. And it debuted at #13 (an appropriate number for this band) on the Billboard chart - the highest charting debut ever for the band. So a lot of people are probably thinking "Sell out!" But I don't feel they've sold out musically at all. (However, they did work with Nike to design the new Heart and Soul shoe with a black and red color scheme as a nod to their hometown Bulls and most of their album artwork....see a clip here....probably retailing for $120 at a mall near you).

This still isn't the kind of album that would appeal to the Fall Out Boy or All American Rejects crowd. The band's music previously centered around what they knew in the early days: recurring themes of good/evil, alcoholism, loneliness, and heartache. And while some of those things have changed for the better in their personal lives in recent years, they still find ways to express these themes in their writing. And they still write great pop/punk hooks and clever turns of phrase.

I think musically the band kind of peaked on Good Mourning in 2003. That was like the culmination of everything they do well and with a new drummer/multi-instrumentalist, they were able to really hone their sound and take it to another level. And the result was one of the best records of the decade. They'll probably never record an album that good ever again. And they definitely seemed to realize they had to try new things. None of the changes are going to be that drastic. They are still a pop/punk band and they aren't going to start playing Blues or something. But I think people who follow them closely have noticed the changes.

On a few songs on Crimson - "Burn" and "Sadie" - they gave a preview of what they were capable of doing. They were two great songs that were a bit different than anything they'd ever done before, with something that builds slowly with a different kind of pacing. The first time I heard "Sadie", I said to myself this is kind of their "U2 song" - with the breakdown and then the big dramatic chorus (all of the "whoa-oh-oh-oh" stuff) at the end and a guitar line that sounds like it could have been played by The Edge in recent years. And there is a string arrangement written by drummer by Derek Grant that kind of gets lost in there with everything else going on. Never mind the fact that the song is about Sadie Glutz of the Manson family.

Agony & Irony kind of picks up where Crimson left off, as far as the direction the band is heading. It's a fairly strong album from start to finish. There are always a few tracks you wouldn't mind seeing them replace with some of the b-sides and bonus tracks, but overall it's hard to complain. I still don't know how "Burned in the House" got left off and is included as bonus material, but a song like "Ruin It" (decent song, just not as good as "Burned in the House"), makes it on there. Kind of the same thing with Replacements fans scratching their heads about how "Nowhere Is My Home" and the Tim version of "Can't Hardly Wait" could have been left off of Tim, but "Dose of Thunder" and "Lay It Down Clown" made the cut.

I do like just about every track, even though 2 or 3 certainly seem to fall into the "filler" category. Few bands have "filler" as good as the Alkaline Trio. Here are some quick observations:

The production on certain songs feels to me like they purposely made the vocals a little scratchier or fuzzier than they probably were in reality. It's hard to tell since Matt's voice usually gets shot during the recordings and he needs to rest it frequently afterwards. I wonder if on "Calling All Skeletons" and one other song (I forget which one) if they used a later vocal mix where his voice was more strained. Or it even felt like they turned the sound down on the vocal tracks at times especially during the verses, which is an odd thing to hear on a major label debut, where the vocals are usually pristine. You can hear on the choruses the vocals sound strong, but the verses seem weaker.

The guitar during the chorus of "Live Young, Die Fast" sounds like something from latter day Husker Du with their wall of sound. Or to compare to a more contemporary artist, it has a little Braid/Hey Mercedes feel to it...who I always thought sounded like vintage poppier Bob Mould /Husker Du when they were at their best.

Dan once again contributed some stellar songs - "Love Love Kiss Kiss", "In Vein", and "Don't You Wanna Know" are some of the best stuff he has written. And they compare favorably to his standout tracks on Good Mourning and Crimson.

"Over and Out." This may be their first political song I can recall. It tells the story of a spouse who is killed during the war and about the last phone conversation they had before it happened. I also think it's one of the best songs on the record and musically it's a little different in the same way that "Sadie" and "Burn" were on the last album.

"Help Me." This is vintage Alkaline Trio. I think it's a great song and they could seemingly write 10 of these in their sleep on every album if they chose to do so. It was inspired by last year's big screen bio of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, who sadly committed suicide just as the group was beginning to breakthrough in the late 70's/early 80's.


1. Calling All Skeletons
2. Nose Over Tail
3. I Lied My Face Off
4. I Found Away
5. In Vein
6. Warbrain
7. Mercy Me
8. Blue Carolina
9. Armageddon
10. Old School Reasons
11. Private Eye
12. Don't You Wanna Know
13. Dead & Broken
14. Crawl
15. Goodbye Forever
16. Bleeder
17. Help Me
18. This Could Be Love

19. For Your Lungs Only
20. Radio

Breakdown by album:
Goddamnit - 1
Maybe I'll Catch Fire - 1
Alkaline Trio (rarities collection) - 4
From Here To Infirmary - 3
Good Mourning - 2
Crimson - 1
Remains (2nd rarities collection) - 3
Agony & Irony - 5

Great show and a great setlist. They played something from just about every release, including Split EPs. My only minor complaints are I'd have rather heard one of Matt's other songs from the new album, instead of "I Found Away." I thought I'd hear at least either "Over and Out", "Lost and Rendered", or "Live Young Die Fast" instead. And I think they should play "'97" at every show...I'm always a little disappointed when I don't hear that. And I'm surprised they didn't play a few more from Good Mourning. But those minor missteps were made up with "Bleeder", "Dead & Broken", and "For Your Lungs Only" - the first time I recall them ever getting played at any of the other half-dozen shows I've seen. They may have played "Bleeder" the first time I saw them play as a headliner (at the Chameleon in Lancaster), but I didn't know their older stuff that well back then. So I can't remember.

The sound quality was a little lacking again at the TLA, as it was a few weeks ago during the Black Crowes show. The upstairs area is just not great for sound quality. The Troc is kind of the same way. The vocals sounded muffled up there during this show. Next time I go to the TLA, I'm going out on the floor downstairs, come hell or high water. Drummer Derek Grant is really great. I think he really adds that extra oomph to a lot of the older songs, which he didn't play on originally. I think he has helped take their sound to a new level, in a similar way as what Dave Grohl did when he joined Nirvana.

It was a typical all-business show by the Alk3. 20 songs in an economical 80 or so minutes. No jamming and very little chit chat. Other than introducing a handful of songs, the only commentary I recall is Matt dedicating "Nose Over Tail" to Philadelphia for the amazing vegetarian cheese steak (he's a vegetarian) he had earlier today. And when introducing "Warbrain" he said it was released on the Rock Against Bush compilation in 2004. Then the crowd booed a little. And he paused and said, "Well, it's almost over....a few more months to go." Other highlights were the crowd singing along (both verses and choruses) for most of "Crawl", "Goodbye Forever", "Bleeder", and "Radio" much so that the band let the crowd just sing a good part of it. It looked like it even threw Matt off a little because he missed his timing on a few of the verses because the crowd was already singing it. A perfectly imperfect, but great rock 'n' roll moment.

After the Occult Roots Tour in '06, where they played Goddamnit it its entirety + another full hour set of songs, I thought they were going to start playing a different kind of show - maybe playing a lot longer with an acoustic set in the middle. But they are still selling out theatres all over the country, so there is no need to change things too much. For $20 fans are still getting their money's worth and then some.

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