It’s clear from listening to The Hands That Thieve that Streetlight Manifesto puts a lot of work into their songwriting and arranging. They have one of the best horn sections of any band in rock music, and they fully utilize them. The horns are an essential and featured part of every song, and the band uses them to effectively experiment in genres well outside of the punk-ska genre into which they’re often lumped. Songwriter Tomas Kalnoky allows ample space for horn solos and catchy melodic digressions in Streetlight’s music. This results in robust songs that feel stuffed full of ideas and rarely follow a strict verse-chorus-verse structure. The downside of all this hard work is that Streetlight Manifesto works slooooowly. The Hands That Thieve is only the band’s third album of original songs in their 10 years of existence, and their first since 2007.
As usual, the level to which a listener can get into Streetlight may depend on their opinion of Kalnocky as a singer. It’s clear he’s worked to improve his vocals over the years, at least. On the band’s ’03 debut Everything Goes Numb he had the tendency to yelp, driving his already shaky delivery out of tune. In those days he often tried to fit a paragraph’s worth of lyrics into a sentence’s worth of space. It wasn’t pretty. These days his delivery is still strained and slightly nasal when he’s belting out the vocals, which is 90 percent of the time. But at least he’s in tune now and avoids the yelps. Still, his voice continues to be a weak link in a band full of excellent musicians, which includes Kalnoky’s considerable guitar chops.
“The Three of Us” starts The Hands That Thieve in the album’s closest approximation of straightforward ska-punk. Crunching guitar chords and pounding drums accompany a blaring unison horn line before the song breaks into a ska beat and trombone solo before dropping out to let Kalnoky’s vocals take center stage. Eventually the song fires an all cylinders again, trading drum fills, hardcore guitar chords from Kalnoky, gang vocals, and more trombone solos. This is the kind of thing that Streetlight does well, with enough of a melody to sing along and a nice balance between pounding punk and laid-back ska, but it’s far from their most interesting work.
Second track “Ungrateful” is more effective, beginning with a muted trombone solo and finding a catchy horn arrangement that includes the unusual sonic choice of the baritone saxophone doubling the kick drum. The meat of the song is the speed-punk verses, dominated by a super-active bassline, but the band always comes back around to the horn arrangement to give the song a melodic center. “The Hands That Thieve” finds Kalnoky playing acoustic guitar, a choice that seems to let him concentrate more on singing without shouting. It also allows the horn section to play harmonies and counter melodies without competing with guitar distortion. “If Only for Memories” also features Kalnoky on acoustic guitar, but it’s highlighted by a spot-on salsa arrangement. The Latin feel of the song lets the horns stretch out stylistically, with great trumpet and trombone solos scattered through the track. Meanwhile, Kalnoky sings about trying to get out of small town life. “They hold you back, they hold you down / And you’re gonna feel bad but you know that you gotta get out / This is your pain, your dilemma / Do you stay in the town where they raised ya? / Or will you sail away? / Pull the anchor and go in for the come what may.”
Kalnoky’s lyrics often resemble an older brother or mentor giving advice to teenagers or young adults. His “life really sucks at times, but if you keep plugging away, things will get better” outlook is a good one, because it allows him to merge depressing stories with positive refrains. But it occasionally gets to be overbearing, as in the repetitious “They Broke Him Down.” This song merges ’90s-style hardcore verses with a chorus that repeats the title ad nauseum. Over the course of five minutes, the band works in a pair of nice horn melodies, a quiet organ-dominated interlude, and a truly excellent 20-second bari sax / alto sax / bass guitar feature that’s one of the album’s most creative. But those exciting moments aren’t quite enough to overcome the song’s more repetitive aspects.
The album closes out with an interesting pair of songs. The bouncy 6/8 time of “Oh Me, Oh My” lets the horns loose at their most joyous and complements them with wall-to-wall gang vocals. The gang vocals are always a nice contrast to Kalnoky’s solo voice, since the band are accomplished backing singers who even throw in harmonies from time to time. “Your Day Will Come” finds Kalnocky accompanying himself with a quiet guitar part and singing loudly, and, well, not great. Listening to the extended intro of this song, you’d never guess that Kalnoky plays acoustic renditions of Streetlight songs under the name Toh Kay. As Toh Kay, though, Kalnoky sings in a quiet voice and doesn’t feel the need to belt it out, and it’s actually quite pretty. Here, though, it’s a rough start to the record’s final track. His vocals are tempered when backing harmony comes in, and the song really gets going with the album’s only true saxophone solo, a nice counterpoint to all the trombone and trumpet features throughout the rest of the record. For the rest of the song, the entire band is locked in to a great horn melody and grows to a climax of gang vocals and horn ornamentation.
The Hands That Thieve may not quite live up to Streetlight’s last album, 2007’s magnificent Somewhere in the Between, but it is another strong addition to their catalog. Streetlight Manifesto and Kalnocky really get the most out of their lineup, and it almost makes the long wait for original material worth it. This marks the end of an era for the band, as they’ve announced they’ll be continuing their hard-touring lifestyle for the rest of 2013 and then cut back dramatically on their road time. This album also brings to an end the band’s bitter, contested contract with Victory Records, whom they’ve been feuding with for most of their existence. Maybe the prospect of being able to release their music how and when they want and not being on the road 200 days a year will get Kalnoky and the band motivated to work a little faster from now on.