Make no mistake—Mike McColgan is a blue-collar dude. Once the frontman for longtime Boston punk legends Dropkick Murphys, McColgan left that band under amiable circumstances in 1998 to follow his dream of joining the Boston Fire Department—and hey, props to the guy for walking the walk and giving back to his community. But McColgan’s interest in music never waned, and in 2002, formed his new band, the Street Dogs. Their ‘03 debut, Savin Hill, was an honest slice of working-class punk, and now their sophomore offering, Back to the World is more of the same—in a good way, of course. And while he may not be saving his city by fighting fires, McColgan still honors his hometown in his band’s heartfelt music.
If you haven’t already figured it out from the preceding paragraph, the album title, Back to the World, is not a stand-offish renunciation (as in, I’ve Turned My…); rather, it’s a righteous return to the scene for McColgan and his bandmates—guitarist Marcus Hollar, drummer Joe Sirois (ex-fellow Bostonians Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and bassist Johnny Rioux. Throughout the album, McColgan wants to do right by the city he so clearly loves. He sticks up for his Southie neighborhood on “In Defense of Dorchester”, a rough part of the city, but one that McColgan considers “a real community, not idle ZIP codes” and a place where he “forged a life on these streets and city roads”. Behind him, the band contributes the obligatory punk “whoa-ho” backing vocals, and Hollar chips in a nice buzzsaw solo. Admittedly, the songs rarely veer from the tried-and-true punk blueprint—fast guitars, propulsive drums, growly vocals, and an affinity for the aforementioned “whoa-ho"s—but the band uses these elements to create heart-on-the-sleeve punk; no ironists they.
Says McColgan in the press release: “The lyrics are from legitimate life experiences from the band members.” And throughout, McColgan shows a keen eye for local character(s)—he casts sympathy towards the embittered veteran who drinks his life away on “Stagger”, righteous outrage towards a domestic abuser on “Hands Down” (“And you say she had it coming / She’s out of control / But there’s no excuse for this”; a no-nonsense lyric in an album full of them) and vitriol towards a “White Collar Fraud” (the natural enemy of the blue collar worker).
The wags say, “Steal little, steal big” and McColgan doesn’t just call “little thieves” on their shit—he also looks at the big picture (the album’s called Back to the World after all, not Back to South Boston). The title track describes a lonesome, scared soldier “stuck in this desert mess”, missing his wife and kids. It’s more touching that one might’ve expected from a band with the rowdy name Street Dogs. And where “Back to the World” is weary, “Tale of Mass Deception” burns with barely-concealed rage. Set to an according waltz/Irish drinking song beat (of all things), McColgan seethes, “An elaborate con on the common man / Propelled by your massive media plan / And I can see your hostile takeover, greed and your lies / Turning what I love into what I despise”. One can only hope that in a few years, songs like “Tale of Mass Deception” will look antiquated. Until that hopeful day… Back to the World closes with “Unions and the Law”, a slower number that draw a straight line from workingman punk to the protest folk of Billy Bragg and his ilk (“What’s wrong with being treated fairly?” muses McColgan).
Granted, the Street Dogs may not win any style points with Back to the World. But to call their sound “artless” is to miss the message for the medium; let’s call it “bullshit-free”. The band’s message is as straightforward as their musical attack: Live a good life, tell the truth, and respect your fellow man. Back to the World may be the most “common sensical” album released in ages; why does it sound so fresh and revolutionary? Common sense isn’t.