May 16, 2003

Chicago band loses its edge, cred with new album

I've always had a soft spot for our hometown heroes, Alkaline Trio. They've always written smart, fun pop-punk tunes, consistently played good shows, and (until now) have put out great, if extremely predictable, records.

Something I've come to expect from the Trio is a good opening song--something dark, yet high-energy enough to get me excited to hear the rest of the album. The best example of this is "Private Eye," off of their previous full-length, From Here to Infirmary. The title track on Good Mourning, "This Could Be Love," starts out promisingly enough with quickly strummed, dark power chords. Matt Skiba's vocals come in, singing something about starting a fire. So far, so good.

But then the disjointedly poppy chorus comes in: "Step one: slit my throat / Step two: play in my blood." What? While Alkaline Trio has always had a fascination with morbid, violent lyrics, these lines are laughable. Generally, Skiba's lyrics fit quite well with the Trio's dark yet bouncy instrumentation. However, this unfortunate chorus is nothing short of childish and absurd.

The next song, "We've Had Enough," the album's first single, also starts out promisingly--and then it gets to the chorus, and you realize that it's actually a song about how the radio sucks. Now, I realize that this topic is some sort of punk rock rite of passage. But why now, on their fourth album, after they've proven that they can write really good songs without having to resort to this sort of cliche? I mean, it was excusable when the Ataris stuck "The Radio Still Sucks" on that split CD with Useless ID. But then they sold it to Apple for a TV spot. And then they wrote another song just like it. Do you see where I'm going with this? Yeah, these types of songs are getting real old, real fast.

The rest of the album just sounds like filler that was cut from their good records. Too many of the songs were obviously written by Dan Andriano, the Trio's weaker songwriting half. Even more disconcerting is the fact that most of these songs sound watered down when compared to the band's older material. The "edge" that used to set the Trio apart from the pack is conspicuously absent. For example, "Every Thug Needs a Lady" would really be more at home on an Everclear album. Now, I'm not usually one to accuse bands of "selling out," but at the same time, most of these songs sound like a shameless attempt to move towards the mainstream.

There's also the small matter of the production to contend with. The band foolishly decided to ditch their long-time production team, apparently in an effort to make things sound more "polished." Unfortunately for the Trio, the squeaky-clean production, handled by Joe McGrath and Jerry Finn (who apparently forgot everything he knew about good production after cutting Jawbreaker's "Dear You"), is really out of place on this record. Furthermore, sometimes the levels sound just plain bad, with Skiba's vocals drowned out by the rest of the mix. Quite odd for a record that sounds like it was produced with the loudspeakers at Best Buy in mind.

It's really pretty sad. Alkaline Trio used to tower over all the generic pop-punk bands out there with their distinct aesthetic sense and willingness to explore darker territory, not to mention their knack for writing really solid songs. Unfortunately, Good Mourning finds them moving closer to the territory of their TRL-friendly contemporaries. The worst part is that all they had to do was make the same album they've been making repeatedly since 1998 and I would have been happy. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go slit my throat and play in my own blood.