Unwritten Law: Elva

David Medsker

Unwritten Law


Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2002-01-29
UK Release Date: 2002-06-24

If it were possible to convert 90% of southern California's punk/pop bands into fossil fuels, we could solve two very big problems. Gasoline would never cost more than a dollar a gallon, and, well, there would be 90% fewer punk/pop bands. The problem isn't the music but rather the sheer ubiquity of the genre. Having said that, the saturation point of punk/pop is upon us, and it is time to purge. Heaven knows how this multi-headed hydra that is SoCal rock continues to evolve and thrive like it does. Fifteen years ago, the hydra spawned hair metal. Five years ago, ska. Today, punk pop. Tomorrow, polka core. Just a hunch.

Unwritten Law's biggest problem is that they're too late. Ironic, given that Elva, their newest release, is their fourth album. But with the expiration date on this whole scene fast approaching, their invitation to the party comes long after Blink 182 already puked in the punch bowl. Elva shows glimpses of good songwriting amid guitars that could pulverize rocks into dust. There is not, however, enough personality here to elevate them above the rest of the heads on the hydra.

"Mean Girl" gives it a good shot, though. Starting with a slowly strummed guitar and singer Scott Russo confessing to the nice girl that he likes someone who's not so nice, the song quickly erupts into a high-speed stomper with some nifty keyboard accompaniment. "Blame It On Me" is the album's crown jewel, a scorcher that can best be described as the Stray Cats on a coke binge. Russo even channels Brian Setzer in his delivery, filtered with Russo's usual blend of Trent Reznor and Stephan Jenkins. "Up All Night", "How You Feel" and "Rescue Me" have traces of the former ska beast, though now it's slowed down enough to be considered reggae again, lest they be described using a word that is so 1997.

Elva's biggest selling points are also its curses, as it's painfully obvious which songs are the band's preferred modus operandi ("Blame It on Me" and the breakneck speed "Hellborn") and which are the Radio Friendly Unit Movers. "Sound Siren" is third or fourth generation Third Eye Blind, as is "Actress, Model", though the latter is mildly amusing. "Seein' Red", the big hit on MTV2, is the latest entry in the Apathy Anthem sweepstakes. Dig the chorus: "So follow the leader down / Swallow your pride and drown / When there is no place left to go / Maybe that's when you will know".

Never mind that the verses of the song allude more to a troubled relationship while the chorus rallies the troops to unite and submit. The power of "Seein' Red" clearly lies in the chorus, which cuts straight to the heart of the matter for the youth of America, who have had the indignity of growing up in the most prosperous economy in decades. They know their market, that's for sure. But can their market tell the difference between them and the score of other punk pop bands? Outlook not so good.

If Unwritten Law played to their strengths -- loud, fast, fun, and that killer rhythm section (drummer Wade Youman is a keeper) -- there would be little stopping them. If it's radio saturation that they crave, on the other hand, so be it, so long as they know it comes with a price. Do you want to be the best band you can be, or the richest? Time to pick your poison, gentlemen. And do it quickly, because time is running out.

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