Sunday, June 1, 2014
THE LAWRENCE ARMS
For their first full-length album in nearly eight years, the Lawrence Arms amped up their brand of gritty punk with a newly deepened passion for storytelling-through-songwriting. The follow-up to the Chicago-bred trio’s 2009 EP Buttsweat and Tears, Metropole threads the Lawrence Arms’s raw and blistering yet hook-heavy sound with a lyrical narrative that captures what vocalist/bassist Brendan Kelly calls “that alone-in-a-crowd, stranger-in-a-strange-land kind of shit—a feeling of such weird solitude that you don’t even know what’s up and what’s down ‘cause you’re so caught in the wake of the city.” Drawing inspiration from both Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and classic late-‘90s hip-hop like Outkast’s Aquemini, Metropole gives off an unstoppably fiery spirit despite the downer subject matter–an effect owing largely to the Lawrence Arms’s infectious chemistry. “When we got going on making the album it felt like we were writing at a different and sort of evolved level, which was really exciting,” notes vocalist/guitarist Chris McCaughan, who formed the Lawrence Arms with Kelly and drummer Neil Hennessy in 1999. “It’s like all that time off ended up creating a whole new energy for us.”
Like every Lawrence Arms album since 2000—including their last full-length release, 2006’s much-acclaimed Oh! Calcutta!—Metropole was recorded at Chicago’s Atlas Studios with co-producer Matt Allison (an engineer also known for his work with fellow Chicago-punk-scene vets Alkaline Trio). Throughout the album, the Lawrence Arms seamlessly move from melancholy (“Beautiful Things”) to snarling and defiant (“Drunk Tweets,” “Acheron River”) to anthemic (“Never Fade Away”) to brilliantly bleak (“The YMCA Down the Street from the Clinic”). Songs like “Seventeener (17th and 37th)” and the acoustic-guitar-laced title track verge on sweetly tender, while the epic “Paradise Shitty” starts off tense and urgent and ends with Kelly twisting Guns N' Roses lyrics into a desperate plea for someone to “Take me down to that city where the girls just look okay.” No matter which frame of mind the Lawrence Arms embody, the band’s endless merging of melody-charged punk and wickedly clever yet bravely personal lyrics make Metropole their most dynamic album to date.
Also vital in tying together Metropole’s many moods is a series of fragments of street-musician performances that the band members recorded on their phones. “The piano [at the end of “Seventeener (17th and 37th)”], that was a grand piano someone was playing in the street,” says Kelly. “The horn [at the start of “Acheron River”], that was a dude on his back in the middle of the road, so drunk he couldn’t even see.” Fading in and out at the beginning and ending of more than half the tracks on the album—and including everything from accordion to bagpipes—those often-spooky sounds help to heighten the feeling of urban isolation that saturates so much of Metropole. “It was partly inspired by the way those late-‘90s/early 2000s hip-hop records were put together, with these sort of bridges between songs to keep things flowing,” explains Kelly. And though the classic punk/hardcore of bands like Bad Religion, Jawbreaker, Propagandhi, Operation Ivy, and NOFX also informed much of Metropole, Kelly and McCaughan are quick to point out that they’ve long mined such influences in their own music. “Us being influenced by hip-hop, by books, by pop songs on the radio, by Japanese hardcore bands—none of that’s anything new,” Kelly says.
One crucial change for the Lawrence Arms in creating Metropole was McCaughan’s recent relocation from the band’s hometown of Chicago to Portland, Oregon. Friends since age 10 and close collaborators in songwriting, Kelly and McCaughan found that their newly established distance helped sharpen the writing process. “One of the things that made this record cool is that we finally got enough space to be like, ‘Okay, let’s see what you got here,’” says Kelly. “Chris would come up with a song and I’d be like, ‘That’s so kick-ass,’ and it would motivate me to try and write something on that level. So a lot of the songs on this record were actually inspired by other songs on this record.”
The synergy between the two songwriters also revealed its power when it came to teasing out the narrative at the heart of Metropole. “Once we’d had some songs written, it was just a question of looking at them and figuring out what held them together, not if they held together,” says Kelly. To that end, both McCaughan and Kelly—who asserts that the Lawrence Arms have “never had any agenda apart from just having fun and making good music”—state that the multi-year break between albums ultimately went a long way in refining the band’s vision and sound. “Because of the way we exist as a band, it was important for us to wait until we knew we had something to say that was sharp and pointed and dynamic and incisive,” says Kelly. “And if we didn’t have that, then we’d just rather not make a record, ‘cause fuck it.”