Album Review

Aaron George
A first step in the right direction.

For fans of the band, the wait for new albums by New Jerseys Streetlight Manifesto is usually akin to mild torture. With at least three years between each new release (not counting the re-release of Keasby Nights) you often find yourself wondering if the group has dissolved and you are just out of the loop. Usually though, in the end you find out that what is really happening is that the group is working on something great, and their newest release 99 Songs of Revolution: Vol 1 is yet another bit of amazing from what might be the best post third wave ska act to date.

At first glance 99 songs...1 can be a tad disappointing. The album is only eleven tracks, and on top of that every song is a cover, so from the outset you know that there will be no new, originally composed streetlight songs. This is bad with a band like Streetlight, whose top-notch instrumentation and poetic lyrics is something you just can't find anywhere else, leaving fans ever hungry for more. Once you learn what 99 songs 1 is though disappointment fades and once again you find yourself excited.

To call this an “album” is only partially accurate; instead 99 should be seen as the first part of what will hopefully be a much larger project. The rumor is that in the end their will be several more additions to the 99 songs of revolution series, each by a Streetlight or one of three of their offshoot bands such as Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution (BOTAR) and made up of 99 songs in total. Whether or not they can pull off such a grandiose concept is up in the air, let’s face it, 99 songs and four bands is a lot to organize. However, if any band can pull of such a thing, these would be the guys to do it. This is a band that has continually pushed the limits of what is a largely ignored genre while (apparently) barely making enough money to buy new instruments when their van gets robbed (yes, that actually happened).

As for this first volume, it has some pretty unexpected choices, and even if most of the songs have nothing to do with any sort of revolution, the mix of choices is nice and diverse. Songs like “Me and Julio down by the School yard” originally by Simon and Garfunkle, “Hell” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, “Punk Rock Girl” by The Dead Milkmen, and “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service are given the sort of retooling that makes them fresh again while still paying homage to the root song. If you have seen the band live in the passed handful of years, they probably played their version of “Linoleum” by NOFX. This song is a punk classic, and the Reggae twist given to it here a perfect fit, it actually sounds like something NOFX might have made if they had chosen to slow it down.

As well as these there is also “They provide the paint for the picture perfect masterpiece you will paint on the inside of your eyelids” in a more perfected version than BOTAR reached on A Call to Arms.
It's great to see a BOTAR song fleshed out and fully realized, you can only hope that they will release a similarly handled version of other songs from BOTAR, such as “It's a wonderful life”.

If you are the type who enjoys music for more than just the lyrics, 99 songs...1 will most likely impress you. Not only is there the incredible horn work the band is known for (their last album, Somewhere in the between is like a tribute to the wonderful sounds brass can make) but also violin and piano make guest appearances that are not easily forgotten. All this on top of the mind-boggling interplay between guitar/drums/bass, it makes you wonder how long it takes these guys to get a song into its final realization.

Two of the most pleasant surprises on the disc are “Birds Flying Away” (originally by Mason Jennings) and “Skyscraper” (Bad Religion). “Birds Flying Away” is the opening track and if you didn’t know any better, it could be mistaken for a b-side from Everything Went Numb with its slow build into an energetic smash fest. “Sky Scraper” may be the highpoint of the album (the other contender being Linoleum). Since Somewhere in the between it seems the band has been focusing more and more on slower music, and “Sky Scraper” is a great example of this, as well as being one of the more memorable vocal performances by Tom Kalnoky, the groups front man.

The only real odd ball of the songs is “Just” (Radiohead). Honestly the idea of Streetlight covering a Radiohead song got me really excited, but the transition from guitar to horns does not work well for the music itself. Also, while Kalnoky has a great voice, it just wasn't made for the type of singing done by Thom Yorke in the original. Yorke can pull of the sort of wavy note bending needed for this sort of music, but Kalnoky just sounds awkward doing it. Also the messy handling of the music, probably intended to make it more powerful, only makes it somewhat difficult to listen to.

All in all this album paints a very good picture of what is to come if the band sticks with the 99 Songs project. Volume 1 is disappointing at first, but later makes it clear that it is worth the time. Honestly when you stop and consider the approach the band has always taken, being humble, acknowledging their heroes, and even expressing frustration over the face that sometimes it feels everything that can be said has been said many times before, when you think about these things it makes sense that they would put so much effort into honoring the music they themselves love, and its difficult to not respect that.