[20 February 2008]
Back in the mid-‘90s, when ska-punk was at its peak, there were dozens of bands all around the country playing it. Bands you barely remember like Buck-o-Nine and The Urge had ska-tinged radio hits. But like most musical trends, this peak was brief, and when The Mighty Mighty Bosstones unlikely mainstream success began to fade, so did most of those other bands. Today, only a handful of groups soldier on, most of them firmly back in the underground or opting for a more palatable power-pop sound.
Streetlight Manifesto is in the former category. Back in the ‘90s, Streetlight frontman Tomas Kalnocky sang, played guitar, and wrote all the songs for the band Catch 22. But he quickly soured on the band, leaving them after one full-length album. A few years later, he tried again with Streetlight Manifesto, and they seem intent on sticking around. Somewhere in the Between is the band’s second proper album (they re-recorded that one Catch 22 album, Keasbey Nights, in 2006 under the Streetlight moniker), and it’s quite an accomplishment. Kalnocky is a truly gifted songwriter, throwing musical curveballs throughout this record. His melodies are catchy without being cloying, and he takes care not to get locked into repetitive verse-chorus-verse song structures. The tunes also have ample space for the talented members of his band to fill in with interesting bits.
The album kicks off with “We Will Fall Together”, a quick, bouncy, minor key song that would be a solid, three-minute opener for most bands. But Streetlight Manifesto stretch it to nearly five, fleshing out their musical ideas, including a main horn riff that’s completely separate from the song’s chorus, an opening trombone solo, and a cool saxophone solo that leads into the bridge. Next up, “Down Down Down to Mephisto’s Cafe” contrasts the first song with a more traditional major key ska-punk tune. It also contains the album’s most irresistible chorus, which Kalnocky is careful not to overuse. It shows up twice early on, and then the song ebbs and steadily builds back up to the final reappearance of the chorus near the end. “One Foot On the Gas, One Foot in the Grave” careens wildly through three or four distinct styles over its five-and-a-half-minute length, but drummer Christopher Thatcher and bassist Peter McCullough hold the song together ably and keep it from falling off the rails, making it one of the album’s most interesting tracks. “The Receiving End of It All” may be the highlight of the disc, with Kalnocky’s best, most urgent vocals describing a hopelessly broken relationship and a highly effective acoustic guitar-and-bongos break in the middle of the song.
Thatcher and McCullough ably and creatively handle the rhythm duties throughout the album. Thatcher’s drumming is loose and jazzy, taking advantage of his entire kit, while McCullough’s playing is active but sensible enough to stay in the background. The band’s horn section is excellent, with two saxes, a trombone, and newly added trumpet player Matthew Stewart. All four can really, really play. These are not guys who were in high school band and then joined a ska group on a whim. It’s clear that they’ve all practiced their instruments extensively, as their horn lines are intricate (not just unison brass bleating), and their solos fit nicely within each song.
If there’s one weakness in the band, it’s Kalnocky’s singing ability. He doesn’t have a great voice, but he does sing with emotion. He’s improved noticeably from the band’s first album, though, and sax player Jim Conti gives Kalnocky a boost with strong harmony and backing vocals. The band also makes effective use of gang vocals and shouts in many spots on the disc. Streetlight Manifesto is understandably overlooked outside of their niche, but they’re making really great music that pushes hard to expand the boundaries of the ska-punk genre.