Sunday, 14 July 2013

Alkaline Trio - A Rough Guide

Alkaline Trio. In the world of the alternative mainstream, they would seem to be a dead cert for stardom. Melodic, catchy, lyrics about murdering people then running off to wash your hands in a river. And don't get me wrong, they have had plenty of success and recognition. I'm pretty sure none of them will ever need to turn tricks on the street-corner again. But hold them up against their pop-punk peers and it is odd that they haven't achieved the same levels of worldwide fame.

Or maybe it isn't.

And maybe that's a good thing. After all, then everyone would like them and people like me would have to pretend they sucked to maintain our fragile veneer of aloof credibility.

Let's have a wee look inside their crimson-and-black painted box of wry horrors, shall we?

Kicking off in 1996 Illinois with a flurry of EPs, the band (Matt Skiba being the only founding member currently remaining) found their feet proper with the foundation of Dan Andriano on bass and co-vocals – an addition that led to the two-headed beast of songwriting and vocal duties they ride to this day. Debut album 'Goddamnit' was spat out in 1998, and shows a surprising maturity given the youth of the band and the undeniable – indeed, self-conscious and proactively - immature nature of the American pop-punk scene. Lyrically it deals with much of what they would concern themselves with for the years to come. Failed romance, addiction, wry observations about friendship and loss. Never one to club you over the head with meaning, even this early in their career Alkaline Trio preferred to sidle up to you stealthily and whisper these things into your ear underneath the melody.

Alkaline Trio – 'Goddamnit' – 1998 - “Nose Over Tail”

'Maybe I'll Catch Fire' followed up in 2000 – and for many old-school fans is their definitive record. Again, it displayed shocking variety and incisiveness for a band in the early stages of their career. It ratcheted back the speed and pure pop-punk bounce somewhat, instead introducing elements of classic rock that they have sneakily kicked around in plain sight since, to varied levels of success. Album closer “Radio” is the solution to every tender quiet song by an alternative band feeding off the mainstream. At this point the band were still regularly releasing EPs, which are also worthy of attention once you have exhausted their LP output.

Alkaline Trio – 'Maybe I'll Catch Fire' – 2000 - “Radio”

A switch in labels and some attention from music journalism worldwide led to the increased success for third record 'From Here To Infirmary', which was undeniably slicker and less raw than their earlier work – both in terms of songwriting and production. It was the start of what can be seen as the band's middle incarnation, which brought them their most immediate success and is in my mind their best work. It kicked them much further into the public eye, but still denied them the headlining recognition many of their peers were to receive. I've touched on that above, but I suppose the real reason is that Alkaline Trio's feelgoods come with a huge, overbearing caveat. They are frequently songs about redemption in one form or another, but it is a pessimistic redemption that is uncertain of ever achieving a lasting success. Murky stuff if all you want is a three-minute three-chord riff to bounce to on a sunny day.

Alkaline Trio – 'From Here To Infirmary' – 2001 - “Take Lots With Alcohol”

I'm not usually a massive fan of split records – I find that bands tend to relegate songs they're not quite happy with to them, since they're not being released under a single banner – but of note at this point was a split EP recorded with the similarly excellent Hot Water Music, who will likely get covered in another chapter of this series. Featuring the bands covering each others' songs as well as a few new tracks, it was notable that Alk3's songs were a bit less straight-forward pop-punk in structure than they had been before. A sign of things to come.

Alkaline Trio – 'Alkaline Trio/Hot Water Music' – 2002 - “Queen Of Pain”

2003's 'Good Mourning' solidified this shift with the majority of the tracks stretching themselves out from their simplistic, if well-crafted, origins to something that straddled the borders of downbeat melodic pop-punk and straight-up mournful hard rock like some kind of thrashing flame-drenched creature. It exemplifies exactly what the band does best, reaching out from a place of dour self-reflection to cheerfully smack you across the cheeks with a shiteating grin. If you start anywhere with Alkaline Trio (and you really should), then start here. Like so many bands, the best work lies in this transition record between two states. In addition, at least part of this is likely down to the band actually settling on a drummer – with Derek Grant's furious attack frequently matching the lyricists' dark melodies perfectly.

Alkaline Trio – 'Good Mourning' – 2003 - “This Could Be Love”

Most of the songs I use in these come from records, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention possibly their best song - “Warbrain”, off the slightly-embarrassing-now-titled 'Rock Against Bush Vol.1' complilation. Yeesh. How 2004. It's also available on the excellent odds n' sods record 'Remains', from 2007. So. Y'know. Get that instead.

Alkaline Trio – 'Rock Against Bush, Vol.1' compilation – 2004 - “Warbrain”

The transition away from their raw punky origins was more or less complete with 2005's 'Crimson'. Certainly divisive among their fans at the time, looking back it's growing increasingly difficult to see where the fuss came from. They have done far worse things since, and the transition was really so natural as to be unnoticeable unless one is invested fully in their first couple of albums. It's definitely a rock record, as opposed to punk. And the slow creeping inevitability of repeating yourself with age means it comes across as more crafted and less directly honest. But it's still a solid album, introducing new gothic (and I use that word in the American sense of a bit creepy and sad rather than actually goth) elements and a penchant for using instrumentation other than guitars and drums that has served them in good stead since.

Alkaline Trio – 'Crimson' – 2005 - “The Poison”

Less favourable things can be said of 2008's 'Agony & Irony', without a doubt the lowpoint of their career to date. Advancing further into the dull comfort of adult rock, there really is little to recommend about the album over their others. It's not appalling and embarrassing in the way that many bands become when they fully shed their youthful energy, but for a band based around hooks and melodies there are surprisingly few on show. The one exception is this track from Dan Andriano, which I suppose proves that even their turds have the occasional blackened gem in them. Often overlooked, certainly in terms of singles, Andriano's contributions to their albums over the years have provided a steady pulse that Matt Skiba can dance around while crowing about flames and hearts and oh-so-dark things in the basement.

Alkaline Trio – 'Agony & Irony' – 2008 - “Do You Wanna Know?”

Touted as a return to their punk rock roots, 2010's 'This Addiction' certainly delivered a far more immediate and satisfying record than they had produced since 2003. The raw energy – and certainly the pining lyricism – seems a bit more forced than it had done previously, but for a band stepping over the corpses they had left behind them they were certainly not really putting a foot wrong. As an effort to recapture their glory years (creatively if not financially, since both 'Crimson' and 'Agony & Irony' were fairly resounding successes sales-wise) it's a solid one.

Alkaline Trio – 'This Addiction' – 2010 - “This Addiction”

And y'know, I only got the new album 'My Shame Is True' this week. So forgive me if I'm vague on it. But it seems like a decent if unremarkable follow-up to 'This Addiction', following a similar blueprint for their mid-period material with an up-to-date production sheen. Ask me again in five years, and maybe I'll hold a more controversial opinion on it. But for now, pitch yourself bodily into their back catalogue. If you're committed, make sure you're wildly laughing, covered in oil and flinging lighted matches around while you do it.

Alkaline Trio – 'My Shame Is True' – 2013 - “Midnight Blue”

Listen To A Whole Load Of Alkaline Trio On Spotify HERE

Essential Records: Maybe I'll Catch Fire, From Here To Infirmary, Alkaline Trio/Hot Water Music, Good Mourning, This Addiction

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