Moscow Penny Ante, the third full-length from San Francisco’s Dead to Me, is a straight-ahead, barebones punk album. The band has been through some inner turmoil over the past few years, first losing guitarist/vocalist Jack Dalrymple, then guitarist/vocalist Nathan Grice. This album is the Dead to Me debut of guitarist Ken Yamazaki and guitarist/vocalist Sam Johnson. Bassist/vocalist Chicken is the only remaining original member of the band (although drummer Ian Anderson has been in his position for quite a while), and it’s telling that he handles the bulk of the vocals on the album. Maybe all the lineup changes found the band wanting to get refocused and make a statement, or maybe this was just the album they felt like making. Regardless, Moscow Penny Ante works precisely because it isn’t trying to be anything more than a punk album. That doesn’t make it great, but it’s at least good. It’s refreshing to hear a band doing something this straightforward, and doing it well.
Opening track “Undertow” sets the stage for the rest of the disc. A simple, melodic guitar lead dominates the intro, and Chicken’s mid-range, shout-sung vocals work really well over the syncopated guitars during the verses and the more melodic chorus. Anderson pounds away nimbly on the drums, using his whole kit while still holding down a solid backbeat. The chorus even features some background gang vocals doing the “Whoa oh oh” thing. The second song, “Reckless Behavior”, is slightly more melodic and features Johnson on vocals. Johnson’s high-pitched, nasal delivery is in sharp contrast to Chicken’s, and doesn’t work nearly as well with the band’s hard-hitting musical style. This isn’t an isolated incident. Each of Johnson’s four lead vocal appearances feel disconnected with the rest of the album. Even the best of his tracks, the catchy, singsongy “No Lullabies”, feels like it would sound better backed by a band with a more nuanced power-pop approach.
Chicken’s gruffer delivery feels much more right for this band. He’s not a great vocalist by any means, but he can handle a melody well enough and his go for broke energy level matches the rest of the band. “The Hand With the Inherited Rings” is a good example of this. Chicken strains to hit the high notes, but he gets by on energy alone, while some subtle backing vocals sweeten the song and the guitars handle a lot of the melody, anyway. The autobiographic reminiscence of Chicken’s bad old days in “The Monarch Hotel” gives the song an air of desperation and a strong chorus “Does all good art come from suffering? / Not all good art comes from suffering!” that makes you believe he knows what he’s talking about.
As Dead to Me plows its way through one high-speed punk song after another, the songs do begin to blur together a bit. But in keeping the album to just under 35 minutes, the band doesn’t wear out its welcome. Late in the record, Dead to Me starts to change up its formula a bit, with both vocalists sharing duties on several tracks, and Sam coming off much better in those cases than he does on his own. Moscow Penny Ante ends with maybe its best track, “The World Has Gone Mad.” The lyrics are mostly a social rant, but the song rallies with a strong chorus, as the song’s title is sung at first by Sam and later the whole band. Even better is the pre-chorus, a slower, sparsely arranged section where Chicken laments, “Dear me / I should’ve tried harder but instead I just phoned it in.”
Fat Wreck Chords, along with Epitaph and the late, lamented Lookout!, put out tons of albums like this in the ‘90s, when the Warped Tour featured mostly punk bands and groups like Rancid and No Use for a Name got a whiff of radio airplay. If Dead to Me was an indie-rock band, they’d be getting props for their retro ‘90s punk sound. But really, they aren’t a throwback because bands like this never stopped playing this kind of music. Moscow Penny Ante is a nice reminder that there’s still vitality in traditional punk rock.