No strangers to compilation albums and split discs with other bands, Alkaline Trio releases a collection of b-sides, rarities and live tracks with Remains. Usually, the first thing that comes to mind whenever hearing the term “b-side” is “Oh yeah. It’s a throwaway track.” Not this time. Much of the material contained on Remains is far from what you’d cull from a compost heap. Sure to excite the band’s rabid fan base, the collection packages tracks absent from proper full-length Alkaline Trio releases.
Remains, in addition to being a die-hard fan’s wet dream, serves as a good starting point for those who have never listened to the band before. Having heard many good things about Alkaline Trio made me all the more skeptical as to how good this band actually is. I was pleasantly surprised, even impressed, with Remains. For a pop-punk outfit, Alkaline Trio accomplishes what many of their three-chord contemporaries haven’t by maintaining a recognizable sound without each song sounding exactly like the last — for the most part. Comprised of Matt Skiba on lead vocals and guitar, Dan Andriano on bass (also sharing vocal duties with Skiba), and Derek Grant on drums, Alkaline Trio manages to effortlessly blend pop with punk, pulling off a crisp sound that is stripped-down yet oddly full.
On songs like “We Can Never Break Up” and “Don’t Say You Won’t”, Alkaline Trio sounds like a punkier, slightly more upbeat version of the Cure. The band draws this comparison easily with their languishing, lush lyrics and sparse yet stunningly complex arrangements. Robert Smith should be proud to pass the torch — and his eyeliner pencil — to these guys. Alkaline Trio, however, isn’t quite The Cure, eschewing the love cats, bloodflowers, and pictures of you for lyrically induced visions of tear- and pee-stained mattresses on songs like “Hating Every Minute”.
The album’s opening track, “Hell Yes,” contains phrases that sound as if they’d be more at home with a Swedish death metal band than a Chicago pop/punk trio, with Skiba chirping disarmingly, “Bless me, Dark Father / I have sinned / I’ve done it before / And I’ll do it again.” The subject matter of these songs is quite varied, though since the collection spans from 1997 to 2005 (with some live tracks from 2006 thrown in for good measure). They sing about everything from getting drunk to dysfunctional relationships to topics of an even darker nature.
Alkaline Trio’s lyrics are clearly their strong suit. Declarations of love like “I’m not much of a jester / But I’d test poisoned food for you” on “Queen of Pain” manage to be both poignant and funny without sounding trite. The same song also deftly mixes geographic metaphors of New York City and Texas.
While “My Standard Break From Life” sounds like they pinched the verse melody from Marvelous 3’s “Freak of the Week”, the catchy bounce caught up in the middle of drunken hopelessness makes it forgivable. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Plus, it’s hard not to like a band that subtly references the Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” on another song, “Fine Without You”.
At several points throughout, Alkaline Trio switches gears, rounding the bend of morbid emo for grown-ups with a few funerals under their belts. “Dead and Broken” is a grisly goodbye to romance that eloquently straddles the line between elegy and eulogy. Another standout piece in the same vein, “Sadie” is a sweet sounding ode to an unlikely subject, convicted murderer Susan Atkins of the infamous Manson Family. The song’s lyrics feature actual testimony from her trial before launching into an almost orchestral coda.
While the band tosses out a few gruesome tales, the bulk of the material deals with common threads of wistful nostalgia and pathos. “Dead End Road” muddles the dark urgency of wanting to leave small town life behind with a sad resignation to fate. “If You Had a Bad Time” could be a companion to this song, holding a slightly more optimistic view on a similar situation.
With “clever” and “sad” covered, Alkaline Trio manages to pull off “angry” pretty well, too. The hoarse, phlegmy rasp on “Old School Reasons” sounds like it could belong to Billy Idol’s angstier kid brother. In spite of the up-tempo bounce, it is a legitimately angry song that sounds as pissed off as it should.
However, “Jaked on Green Beers” is the song that became my instant favorite upon first spinning the album. Sad, yet funny, its frantic drum beats, thumping bass and passionate vocals give weight to the Great American Punk Tragedy of a dissolved friendship, which on some levels can be worse than a broken romantic relationship.
The live songs contained on Remains stack up well to their recorded counterparts. This could largely be a testament to the band’s strong yet simple musicianship rather than stellar production. Sometimes it’s as reassuring to hear a bass pick scraping across the strings live in concert as it is to hear it while you’re sitting in your room with headphones on.
From Remains I’ve been converted to Alkaline. While this conversion isn’t of a Blues Brothers magnitude, replete with backflips and a booming gospel chorus, I have come away with another band to add to my small list of artists who make good on their hype.