Everything you need to know about the Lawrence Arms is painstakingly laid out in their liner notes. No, seriously, everything. Most important, though, are two quotes that serve as tongue-in-cheek epigrams for the Chicago band’s third album, The Greatest Story Ever Told. One is from Goethe. The other is from Ghostbusters.
In other words, the Lawrence Arms are the sort of intelligent yet none-too-serious average guys you can’t help but root for.
(The Ghostbusters quote, for the curious: “Everything was fine until dickless here cut off the power grid.” “Is this true?” “Yes, your honor, this man has no dick.”)
The Lawrence Arms’ instantly endearing nature is what makes their clever punk rawk ultimately frustrating, however; in the end, their music is so confined within the pop-punk framework that it’s unlikely to satisfy anyone not already drawn to that sound. Which is a damn shame, because The Greatest Story Ever Told, while certainly not the greatest story ever told, contains several moments that only a man who was earless and dickless could deny.
The Lawrence Arms’ brand of passionate pop-punk follows musically in the vein of fellow Chicagoans the Alkaline Trio and former Fat Wreck Chords labelmates the Ataris. The fatal flaw is that the brainy lyrics cry out for a broader emotional palette, as John K. Samson of hardcore band Propagandhi apparently realized in taking his current group the Weakerthans in an indie-pop direction.
The album’s best song, “A Wishful Puppeteer”, starts off with a hint of where the Lawrence Arms could take their music: wistful and intimate as a late-August campfire, the first 30 seconds recall “Lucky Charm” from Jets to Brazil’s last album. “Time creeps into my dreams,” one of the band’s two lead vocalists sings, a line they playfully skewer in a “footnote”: “This line just fit right. Actually, I think it’s pretty lame.” The rhythm soon builds into stereotypical turn-of-the-millennium mainstream punk, but the strength of this song’s emotion overcomes its lack of musical invention.
On other songs, too, the Lawrence Arms display their gift for the couplet. “I’m not impressed in past tense / I don’t do impressions,” they proclaim in “Chapter 13: The Hero Appears”. And anyone who is ever lived in Chicago will appreciate “We’ll all be dead come November / Four months out of every year,” from Sunny Day Real Estate-esque opener “Raw and Searing Flesh”.
For all the aforementioned pop-punk conventions, it also must be noted that the Lawrence Arms play their punk with considerable guitar chops. Angst-ridden lead-guitar nuances color nearly every song on the album. In other words, this is not blink-182-style punk rock, if you hadn’t figured that out by now. (Try to ignore, however, the fact that the two vocalists in the Lawrence Arms have voices that perfectly correspond to the two voices in blink-182. Remember the Everyman vocals of Mark Hoppus on “Dammit” and “What’s My Age Again”? And the raspy, nasally punk-boy vocals of Tom DeLonge on “All the Small Things”? Don’t all raise your hands at once.)
What other secrets do the liner notes hold? Well, in case the art and song titles don’t tip you off, another “footnote” reminds you that The Greatest Story Ever Told is loosely circus-themed. The goofy, throwaway 30-second opening and closing country tracks presumably play into this theme, but in reality they only tantalizingly offer portents of Crooked Fingers-like paths this talented but underutilized punk band could follow. The Lawrence Arms seem destined for a bigger big top, but they’ll have to expand their act to get there.