Down By Law
"punkrockacademyfightsong" CD (Epitaph)
The best punk commiserates with listeners regardless of whether it's in vogue to acknowledge the existence of an audience. It's empathic and understanding, whether it's "punk" to be that way or not. In keeping with that, Dave Smalley's heart is on his sleeve and he doesn't mince words when expressing himself in song. Down By Law's uplifting and hopeful music ranges from socially conscious cuts like "Sympathy For The World" and "Bright Green Globe" to more emo tracks like "Heroes and Hooligans" and "Goodnight Song." There's also a stellar cover of the Proclaimers' "500 Miles." There is one drawback to DBL's music though. It must be heard to fully comprehend, because words aren't enough to describe it. Suffice it to say everyone should thank Down By Law for their efforts, and thank them often.
"windwardtidesandwaywardsails" CD (Union)
I've been dreading writing this review since the disc showed up in the mail. I had to special order this album when it came out to make sure I got a copy, expecting a return to the vintage form that DBL displayed in the first half of the 1990s, hoping that the four years which had passed since "Fly The Flag" would result in something which surpassed the greatness of "Punkrockacademyfightsong," "All Scratched Up" and "Last Of The Sharpshooters," one of the best runs of great albums that any punk band ever had. To fully understand this review, you must also understand the following: I am a huge Down By Law fan. I played their first album in my first stint in college radio. "Blue" helped pull me through recovery after a major illness and surgery that laid me out for the best part of a year. I made out with my then-girlfriend while they played their cover of The Outlets "Best Friends" at The Palladium while touring to support "Punkrockacademyfightsong." Hell, I took the name for my Web site from that album. "All Scratched Up" got me through one of the worst road trips and relationships of my life. "Last Of The Sharpshooters" came along after my mom's suicide and helped bandage some of those wounds as I recklessly tore San Diego apart on my mountain bike. If I were ever to get inked with any band-related tattoos, DBL would be the first. And I already have it designed. That's the kind of shit you need to know to understand this review. And with all that said, this album disappoints me. I don't suppose that I should be surprised, particularly given the ridiculously high expectations I had for it. I'll start off as objectively as I can - superficially, this album is a return to musical form for DBL. The songs are short, fast and loud - it's straight-forward melodic punk in the 1993-1994-era SoCal vein. The songs seem political but, again in the vein of vintage DBL, are primarily expressed in personal terms - simply put, people possess politics which are shaped and framed by their experience and DBL has always acknowledged that. And with all that said, there just seems to be something missing from this record. While "Fly The Flag" was, by and large, a forgettable album, this disc is infuriating precisely because it's better than the previous release, because it echoes DBL's great records of the past yet somehow still comes up lyrically short-handed with lines like "Now he don't know but he's been told / That no government ever had soul" and "No flag can help the Lone Ranger tonight." And perhaps it's the case that the tenderness and affection that DBL once expressed when writing about struggling with growing up (like "All American") now finds itself framed in lines which seem trite to me ("Teenage nights / Lead to grownup days / That's alright / 'Cause you learn how to play"). However - and this is the hardest part of this review for me to write - if I'm going to be completely honest with myself, I suspect that this album is exactly the sort of thing that flipped my lid in all the right ways back in 1994 and 1995 and that if I had heard this album 10 years ago, I probably would have gone nuts over it ... but that was 10 years ago. It's not now. Some years ago, I wrote a bio of sorts for Down By Law and in it, I noted that punk rock was never supposed to be about the past; it's not supposed to be about who you were, it's about who you are and, more importantly, who you're going to be because the best punk has always been about change, not nostalgia ... or, to crib a line from DBL, "I'm looking forward to not looking back." Over the past decade - hell, even over the past year - my tastes have changed radically and while I can listen to this album and hear something that would have had me down front at a show, howling along with every word, when I was in my 20s, it doesn't say much to me about who I am now, what I've seen and where I've been. In a lot of ways, that was always what I loved most about Down By Law's music. The songs reflected where I was and who I felt I was; to crib from the new Give Up The Ghost record, I loved the songs because I lived the songs. In them, I found a mirror that reflected me. And at this moment, the hardest part of being both a fan of this band and friends with people in it is that while these songs may speak to someone at the same place I was, all they say to me is that I've changed and that, while we can still be friendly and respect each other, our less-traveled roads have parted ways.