Tim Armstrong’s name has been synonymous with punk, having revived the genre for a whole new generation of fans before it became a dried out, bastardized, and candy-coated shell of what it used to be. On his first-ever solo album, A Poet’s Life, Armstrong serves up a reggae- and ska-flavored punch, reinventing himself as a punk Robin Hood.
All of the songs on A Poet’s Life were given away free to fans willing to participate in an online scavenger hunt, tracking down the MP3s on various blogs and websites at least a month before the album’s release. Although everything contained on the album was fantastically freebied out to fans as Armstrong’s own personal “thank you”, those who ran out and purchased the disc were rewarded not only with ten new songs in a tangible format, but also an accompanying DVD featuring videos for each one of the new tracks. Okay, so the videos had been released online along with the songs prior to A Poet’s Life‘s formal release, but it’s still a nice touch. And why not?! Being co-owner of Hellcat Records affords Armstrong the ability to take such a risk. Beyond any financial gamble taken with the release (and pre-release) of A Poet’s Life, Armstrong goes out on the limb of the tree where his roots are buried.
Once upon a time, before Tim Armstrong and his Rancid cohorts swaggered out of the Berkeley punk scene, there was Operation Ivy. One of the most influential bands in terms of bringing ska to the forefront of the underground punk music scene and eventually to the mainstream during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Armstrong references his former outfit on the disc’s autobiographical tune, “Among the Dead”, with lines like “1987 in the East Bay / Cold as hell, it’s the middle of summer / Me and Jesse and Matt and / Dave Mello, he was the drummer”.
Besides the allusion to his former band, A Poet’s Life sparkles with facets of Armstrong’s past and present. His influences on the album are clear, dating back to reggae/punk fusion forebears like Blondie and the Clash. While his penchant for Caribbean-tinged punk never quite abandoned Armstrong—some of Rancid’s biggest hits like “Time Bomb” and “Ruby Soho” bearing a strong essence of ska in their composition—most of the tracks on his solo album beef up the reggae quotient even more.
It would appear that Tim Armstrong seems to be vying for candidacy as the Second Coming of Joe Strummer. Throughout his career as a vocalist, Armstrong’s voice has been compared to the late, great frontman for the Clash. And understandably so. Both men possessed an expressively breathless anger that sometimes whispered and, at others, melodically shouted about the socio-political ills of the day, sharing a leaning towards reggae in their music at various stages. Ironically, Armstrong continued his tutelage at the feet of the punk idol with the signing of the Mescaleros (Strummer’s last musical project before his death) to Hellcat Records in 2001.
With a homage to his heroes looming in the background, Armstrong’s own backing band on A Poet’s Life are fellow Hellcat labelmates, the Aggrolites. Comprised of former members of reggae/ska groups the Vessels and the Rhythm Doctors, the band provides the musical atmosphere to Armstrong’s impassioned vocals and lyrics.
The disc’s opener, “Wake Up”, is evident of the harmonic symbiosis of Armstrong and the Aggrolites. Exemplary of the bulk of the songs on A Poet’s Life, “Wake Up” is full-throttle reggae with echoing vocals that incorporate both old school punk and modern hip-hop. It’s simple, vibrant, and strangely reminiscent of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”. All of the pieces fit together, with Caribbean steel drums at the song’s musical centerpiece and lyrics that reflect a strangely mellow, Zen-like anger about a lover with a hidden agenda. Given Armstrong’s own tumultuous love life in recent years, the lyrics, “Wake up / You son of a bitch / I wanna know who your with / And why do you roll in and out / At like six in the morning”, seem to indicate a two-fold anger directed at himself for not recognizing the situation sooner, and to a woman painted as unappreciative and largely responsible for the demise of the relationship; possibly a nod to his divorce from Brody Dalle of the Distillers.
On the flipside, as a much less personal note, “Inner City Violence” exhibits not just a Stateside conscience towards violence, but defers to the issues faced in cities all over the world from the “streets of Mogadishu / Baghdad / Back to Peru”. Its titular refrain is backed by police sirens, helicopters, turntable scratching, and drums that walk the edge of machine gun rattle and hip-hop beats.
While several musical styles are carefully blended into Armstrong’s solo album, the overall vibe is that of bizarrely authentic sounding ‘70s electronic reggae. A notable, and extremely fun exception to that is “Into Action”, which paddles out with a surf guitar ride, straight out of ‘50s and ‘60s beach movies. Skye Sweetnam, a Canadian singer whose bright, poppy vocals account for a large part of the song’s insanely catchy nature, serves as a nice complement to Armstrong’s raspy, near-whisper vocals, playing the Annette to his Frankie and resulting in a fresh, modern take on surf music.
While all of the songs are short, sweet, and fail to wear out their welcome on the listener’s ears, there are a few songs such as “Translator” and “Take This City” that are repetitive and don’t quite stack up to many of the other tracks on A Poet’s Life. Nevertheless, even the most banal of the material is forgivable owing to just how damn catchy it is.