Am I listening to the right CD? I've had to check at least twice, but yep, there it is on the sleeve -- this is indeed the Suicide Machines. What the hell happened? Weren't these guys a ska band or something? Maybe they were once, but that's apparently no longer the case. I'd been bracing myself for this album to begin with, mostly based on a friend's slamming of their last Hollywood effort, The Suicide Machines, but oddly enough...well, I don't hate this.
From the opening blast of "Killing Blow", a bitter look at a friendship gone wrong, to the bracing fuck-you of "Brass Ring", Steal This Record actually isn't bad, a slap in the face to all my preconceived notions and a nice surprise of a punk record -- and that's what it is, by the way, full-on punk with hardly a hint of ska in sight (the lone exception being the reggae-style affirmation of "Stand Up"). The band varies slightly in style from track to track, jumping into screaming, frenzied hardcore on songs like the anti-capitalist title song or the almost-metal "Off the Cuff" and then into melodic, Green Day-like pop-punk on "Bleeding Heart" and "Middle Way", but the focus is definitely on rough-edged, angry, quasi-radical punk rock, the sort you'd expect from folks like Avail or Ann Beretta.
The Avail-sounding tracks are really where the Machines are at their best, roaring along on sing-alongs like "Honor Among Thieves" and "Air We Breathe" and making me wonder what the hell my aforementioned friend could've seen wrong with these guys. Mind you, Steal This Record has its fair share of missteps, one of which is the cover of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" -- look, why even bother to attempt to "punk up" what was a frantic, rocking tune to begin with? It's fine, as cover versions of R.E.M. songs go, but it misses the boat by not taking any chances with the original, and ends up being filler. Set off to the side in a different fashion are two of the later tracks, "Stay" and "Leap of Faith", both of which are a hell of a lot more poppy than the rest, and which stick out like twin sore thumbs on an album full of punk fury. They're good songs, definitely (especially "Leap"), but by throwing them in the middle here, the Machines just basically relegate them to being distractions from the more coherent remainder of the album; even "Stand Up"'s Jamaican rhythms don't feel as out-of-place.
"Stand Up", by the way, brings me to my biggest worry, and what I think is the crux of the CD: the band's political consciousness. While it's a fine song, it steps into the trap to which a lot of politically motivated music falls victim in that it's just too vague, all questions and no answers. "There's got to be something", the band sings, as if they themselves aren't sure exactly what to do -- and that irks me at first, until it occurs to me that "hey, maybe they don't know, and they're as lost as the rest of us". I'll buy that, and it makes sense in the context of the other songs on here. "Bleeding Heart", in particular, sounds like the lament of a forlorn, disillusioned believer who's been hit in the face too many times by the troubles of the world, and that theme seems to run throughout the album, whether it's with regard to politics, the music business, or the band members' personal lives.
At a final look, Record is the testament of a band who's been through some hard times. They've run into some walls, been held back by the perceptions of others (like, say, me?), they've lost some friends along the way, and they don't necessarily know what the hell to do. And hey, that's fine; who among us really does? The process of trying to find out is the important part -- it's called "growing up", and maybe that's what this album's really about.