There are things in life that just wouldn’t naturally be associated. Like, say… apples and sneakers. Wristwatches and grass. Condoms and cockroaches (at least, we certainly hope not on that count). Dead communists and ska bands.
Well, scratch the last item off that list: New Jersey ska rockers Catch 22’s newest release, Permanent Revolution, is a concept album that focuses, of all things, on Leon Trotsky. Why exactly a ska band that previously specialized in providing suburban teen party hits would choose to go in this direction is left unanswered, and fortunately so; for all intents and purposes, this is the same Catch 22 that we’ve come to know and love, albeit with some history lesson lyrics grafted on top, and a lot more energy than their last few tepid efforts.
The band wisely keeps the concept confined to the lyrics, which hang together competently—the songs are arranged in chronological fashion, with each song providing a snapshot into a period of Trotsky’s life. The words are delivered in endearingly straightforward fashion, with little sense of wordplay but a lot of earnestness. While they’re nothing to write home about, they certainly aren’t embarrassing either, which is actually kudos to Catch 22: most other ska/punk bands would have overreached into an operatic flop.
But of course, when it comes to Catch 22, the lyrics have never really been the point, and that’s still true even on the concept album. All that’s important is that the vocals provide a melody to complement the upbeat instrumentals, and singer Ryan Eldred is smart enough to know not to get in the way. The band displays their usual blend of good old-fashioned, punchy, horn-driven rock—with a significant upgrade on the brass this time. Riffs tend to come more often from trumpets than guitars, which is a good thing considering the talent of the trumpeter/saxophonist duo; it lends the music a distinctive flavor and surge.
Indeed, the best song on the album, “Opportunity”, employs the brass to amazing effect, somehow spinning a triumphant love song out of Trotsky’s death. “The Decembrists’ Song” provides a martial call-to-arms, ska-style, with driving horns and all. “A Minor Point” plays with the same force and energy, offering the chilling refrain: “To build a new foundation / You must first tear down the walls”. There are weak points, of course, especially when the band tries to go for laid-back balladry—“Alma Ata” is particularly slow and insubstantial, and the closer, “Epilogue”, sounds a little too close to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” for comfort. But overall, Catch 22 sticks to their strengths, and Permanent Revolution is an unchallenging but satisfying effort that bounces back nicely from their last disappointment, Dinosaur Sounds, and manages to educate listeners about the godfather of Bolshevikism in the process.
// Notes from the Road
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