Swedish punkers Millencolin made quite the breakthrough with their last record, Pennybridge Pioneers. On their first three records, changes to their sound were hardly noticeable, as they plowed through song after song of speedy, melodic, sometimes ska-inflected skate-punk. They were pretty damn good at what they did, but there's really only so long that a band can mine that style before they either break up or feel the need to diversify. Pennybridge found Millencolin realizing that they were not only a great skate-punk band, they were a great band, period. They slowed the tempos down a notch, and started to emphasize songcraft over velocity. The end result was one of the best rock records of Y2K. Seemingly taking a hint from their contrymen Fireside and Starmarket, who specialize in heavy, melodic, emotional rock of the highest order, Pennybridge Pioneers managed to be smart, tuneful, and addictive, all the while rocking your pants off.
So, the question that rears its head with the band's new release, Home From Home, is, of course, will the band continue their winning streak, or simply relapse into old habits? Pennybridge was such a self-confident stylistic departure that it's pretty tough to imagine the boys simply lapsing back into the speedy punk rock of old. And while they certainly don't do that on Home From Home, they unfortunately don't quite keep up the bar that they set with Pennybridge. The best songs on the record pretty much go for the midtempo, melodic stuff that the band perfected on Pennybridge. "Montego" soars on a fantastic chorus that recalls the glory days of Bob Mould's Sugar, and "Black Eye" features some great guitar interplay, as well as a great shout-along chorus. "Botanic Mistress" sees the band at it's happy, pogo-inducing best, with another fun shout-along chorus that goes "All I wanna do / Is live my life with you". If I had to guess, I'd say that this song is an ode to pot, but it's hard to say because the cheap bastards at Epitaph saw fit to only send me a cheesy advance copy of the CD in a cardboard case with no lyrics. This is significant in that singer Nikola Sarkevic has the tendency to actually write some pretty damn good lyrics. While sometimes they're fluffy and more than a little bit silly, he has the tendency to throw in some startlingly insightful lines here and there. While these little lines have the tendency to get lost in the bluster of the band's music and in Sarkevic's slight Swedish accent, the inclusion of a lyric sheet is always welcome. However, no dice on that front, so unfortunately, a lot of the subtleties of Sarkevic's thoughts will have to be left to head scratching punk-rockers listening intently with their headphones.
Although there are quite a few highlights on Home From Home, the record as a whole is not nearly as cohesive as Pennybridge was. For one thing, it starts off on the wrong foot with "Man or Mouse" with its unfortunately boneheaded "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah" chorus. From there, the band launches into three strong cuts: the speedy, melodic "Fingers Crossed" and the above-mentioned "Black Eye" and "Montego". The next two tunes mark the low point of the record -- "Punk Rock Rebel", which is supposedly an affectionate tribute from the band to one of their early skating heroes, comes across as cheesy and forced, while the metal-tinged "Kemp" is just tuneless and annoying.
The second half of the record is pretty damn watertight, but even so, there's nothing here that quite catches fire like Pennybridge's standout tracks. "Afghan" is a thoughtful meditation on the war on terrorism, and with lyrics like "So show the world you're strong/The weaker one is wrong", delivered with his trademark bellowing sneer, it's clear where Sarkevic's sentiments lie. Lines like these show that while Sarkevic may not be the most adept wordsmith the pop music world has ever known, he does have some interesting things to say, and he manages to convey them efficiently and unpretentiously.
Home From Home is not a bad album. In fact, it's actually pretty damn good. Sarkevic is still one of the best singers in all of punk rock, and the band pretty much mops the floor with their peers when it comes to songwriting prowess and general musical excellence. They happened to pull off quite the stunner of a record with Pennybridge Pioneers, and Home From Home's main fault is that it doesn't quite hold up when compared with that high-water mark. However, judged by any other standard, and compared to practically any other modern pop-punk record released this year, Home From Home holds its own with no trouble whatsoever.