Marking a band’s big anniversary often calls for something special, be it a tour or a ‘Greatest Hits’-style compilation, and Illinois punk-rooted trio Alkaline Trio aren’t ones to miss the party – in their own special way. Instead of offering up simply a track listing of hits that fans will undoubtedly already own, to coincide with the band’s fifteenyear anniversary they’ve put together a compilation of tracks remastered in a semi-unplugged, acoustic setting.
Formed in Illinois in 1996, the current line-up consists of original founding member Matt Skiba (vocals, guitar), along with Dan Andriano (vocals, bass) and Derek Grant (drums). 1998 marked the release of their first studio album, Goddamnit, followed by Maybe I’ll Catch Fire (2000), From Here To Infirmary (2001), Good Mourning (2003), Crimson (2005), Agony & Irony (2008) and This Addiction (2010), leading up to the release of Damnesia this year.
The album is compiled of twelve fan favourites spanning the band’s career, along with two brand spanking new original songs and a cover, and available not just on CD, but on vinyl with a souvenier branded Zippo lighter available as part of a package. One huge benefit of the unplugged style is the ability to notice the quality songwriting presented in the tracks – something the Trio are able to hit the nail on the head with is writing dark and sometimes starkly depressing lyrics, without straying into the realms of melodramatic emo fodder. Alkaline Trio have a rare ability to make love songs that aren’t generic or full of soppy cliches – as well as being masters of angst and misery. The more intimate feel allows the macabre metaphors often hidden within the songs to come to the forefront. This Could Be Love’s twisted lyrical genius is amplified by a moody piano overtone, creating a darker overall feel than that of the original recording.
Whilst some songs on Damnesia are stripped down, Clavicle and We’ve Had Enough are supported by folksy, uptempo guitars – and the latter keeps the background shouts, showing that the Trio are still in touch with their punk roots. The folky sound continues with their cover of the Violent Femmes’ I Held Her In My Arms. Often going unnoticed on 1998’s Good Mourning, Blue In The Face comes close to the original recording, but cleaned up significantly. Similarly, You’ve Got So Far To Go shows that the only downside of the album is that if you’re a fan of the rough, demo-feel of some of their older material, you won’t find much of that here. But the slicker production that the band have grown into is evident here, and has plenty of upsides. Skiba’s voice sounds in better form than ever, and Dan Andriano’s vocals are perfectly suited. The American Scream, one of the newer tracks taken from their most recent album, is given the full on piano treatment allowing Skiba’s lone voice to rise to a perfect climax, and bears some similarity to the style of Skiba’s solo material.
As well as fan favourites, they’ve thrown in a couple of new tunes to wrap your ears around. Amongst the melancholia of their back catalogue, a common theme is having a good old drinking sesh – or drinking away your misery, depending on the song. Olde English 800 is an ode to the liquor of the same name, going so far as to call it a love song about how the ‘charcoal filtered sun yellow malt liquor’ making ‘grey sky blue’, even with ‘pop’ and ‘ahhh’ sound effects. Perfect to complement a chilled out afternoon drink. Preferably of Olde English 800. Compared to the rest of the album the other new track, I Remember A Rooftop, does feel a little underwhelming – but it’s nice enough.
If you’ve heard one Alkaline Trio song, there’s a high chance it’s Private Eye, with it’s fast, punk guitars. The Damnesia version is a far cry, with just acoustic guitar and synth backing, once again bringing out the stunning lyrics. The album closes with singalong favourite Radio (with the lyrics ‘shaking like a dog shitting razorblades’, who WOULDN’T sing along?), and it’s an incredible vocal delivery from Skiba, managing to balance heart-wrenching depression and spitting angst perfectly. Faint backing violins create a melancholy soundtrack, and the final 60 seconds after the song finishes, the mic is left on to capture the sounds and talk of the studio.
One thing that can be taken away from this album is that when you strip away the catchy punk riffs, what’s left are some beautifully crafted and thoughtful melodies with dark overtones and stunning lyricsism. They’ve managed to do enough to some already outstanding material to give a refreshing new take on almost every song, as well as adding in a few new extra bits to boot. If you’ve been adverse to Alkaline Trio’s punk-inspired sound before, give Damnesia a try – especially if you’re a fan of acoustic-style tunes. And if you’re a fan…well, chances are you’ve been spinning this album for the past fortnight already…