Review Summary: Oh! Calcutta! is nearly perfect in every way. If it only wasn't for two subpar tracks, the album could easily be a classic. While this may be the least dynamic of the Lawrence Arms back catalog, the intense vocal interplay surely makes up for it.
Many people consider the Chicago punk scene to consist of nothing more than the latest boy pop-punk bands that Fueled by Ramen has to offer. When Chicago is mentioned, the names Fall Out Boy
and The Academy Is…
are probably at the forefront of most people’s minds. To most people then, it is probably a surprise to hear that Chicago is well known for producing some of the underground’s most beloved bands. Rise Against
, The Broadways
, Alkaline Trio
, Naked Raygun
, Smoking Popes
, and Articles of Faith
are just a small percentage of the nearly innumerable punk bands that call Chicago home. While these bands are from Chicago, only one band encompasses the spirit of Chicago in its very music. This band is The Lawrence Arms
, and the record is called Oh! Calcutta!
The Lawrence Arms are a three piece punk band formed in the lower class north side of Chicago based on a common love of politics, leftist literature, and obscure pop culture. They are probably most notable for their juxtaposition of fast, thrashy punk songs alongside soft, heartfelt ballads. Their sound is characterized by the trademark vocals of both Brendan Kelly (vocals/bass) and Chris McCaughan (vocals/guitar). Kelly’s voice is rather harsh, biting, and urgent, channeling Blake Schwarzenbach and hardcore punks The Exploited simultaneously. McCaughan is decidedly more melodic, with a lower and tenderer croon than his counterpart. Kelly tends to be the lead in the most caustic punk songs, while McCaughan takes the reins of the more melodic ballads. Drummer Neil Hennessey rarely makes himself known, but does provide a solid back beat without being over powering. No member of the band is extraordinary musician, but they all do their part to keep the songs solid but still interesting, showing restrained talent many times during the course of any one of their full lengths. That being said, Oh! Calcutta! is the first departure from the typical Lawrence Arms formula, and it is quite a successful one.
One of the most apparent changes from their previous work is the layered and trade off vocals. On previous albums, it was readily apparent that either Kelly or McCaughan were the vocals for the song, with the other contributing little or nothing to the song aside from their instrument. Citing the classic Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique as a major influence on this record, Kelly and McCaughan made the conscious decision to incorporate both layered vocals as well as trade off vocals (a quality quite prevalent on Boutique). This change was beneficial to the album in that it allowed a physical representation of the underlying themes of the album, many of which dealt with unity, friendship through hardship, and standing up against the common evil. Although many longtime fans criticized the album for “being nothing like The Greatest Story Ever Told”, it is very obviously a step in the right direction, and away from the issue that plagues many contemporary punk bands; repeating the same ideas over the course of several albums. While The Lawrence Arms vocals are certainly unique, it might be difficult for many listeners to enjoy Brendan Kelly’s harsh vocal delivery. McCaughan’s vocals are generally more universally accepted, there are the few people who find James Blunt
to be the epitome of emotional vocals, so I surmise that its possible, however unlikely, for one to dislike Chris’ vocal delivery. Needless to say, the trade-offs and layered vocals of Oh! Calcutta! are nearly impeccable, adding a brilliant new element to the Lawrence Arms cache of audio weaponry.
Musically, Oh! Calcutta! is not shockingly different from The Lawrence Arms earlier work. Yes, there aren’t really any proper ballads (the modestly paced drinking lament “Jumping the Shark” is as close as the record comes to a ballad, excluding the bonus track). The aggressive punk songs are noticeably tamer than on previous releases, without sacrificing that edge that makes them stand out. But all things considered, The Lawrence Arms are the same band they were six or seven years ago. The melodies are much tighter, but still left intentionally jagged as any punk band should. Oh! Calcutta! is also filled to the brim with huge sounding, slightly schizophrenic guitars, buoyant and catchy bass lines, huge hooks (look no further than “Great Lakes/Great Escapes” or “Like a Record Player”), and killer trade off sections between Kelly and McCaughan. With these minor evolutions in musicianship and song writing, Oh! Calcutta! excels where The Lawrence Arms earlier work faltered.
Lyrically, both McCaughan and Kelly are at their peak, with heartfelt lyrics about the deep binding power of friendship (most notably the one between Kelly and McCaughan, who, incidentally, have been best friends since they were six), the power of the masses against oppression, and the struggles one undergoes while growing up in the world in which we live. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Lawrence Arms album without the obscure pop-culture references. “Are You There Yet Margaret? It’s Me, God” references famous children's author Judy Blum (famous for writing one of the cornerstones of elementary school literature Fudge-a-mania
). “Jumping the Shark” references the popular internet website that discusses shows that have outlived their life as an entertainment source. “Lose Your Illusion 1” alludes to the popular Guns ‘N’ Roses
album from the 1980’s. Even Oh! Calcutta is a reference to an all-male, nude, predominantly gay musical that takes place in Chicago, which is symbolic of the irony of ludicrous pop-culture nods intermixed with classic literary references. Needless to say, The Lawrence Arms have become masters at referencing obscure pop-culture into the themes of their songs on Oh! Calcutta!
Overall, the flow of the album is incredible, and a thrill from front to back to listen to. The tracks effortlessly flow together without any sound clips of B-movies that run rampant in many releases nowadays. Each tracks’ melodies, while familiar, never seem to be ripped off from any more popular or successful act, and teem with an originality that is strictly The Lawrence Arms. The glory of Oh! Calcutta! is in the fact that no one track stands out above the rest. Rather, each track fills the album so that without one of them, Oh! Calcutta! would not even be close to the album that it is, while still remaining memorable. While some people will continue to hate The Lawrence Arms for their rough blend of melody and urgency one thing is for sure; Time and hard work have paid off for these punk veterans, who have finally crafted their masterpiece in Oh! Calcutta!
Cut it Up, Are You There Yet Margaret? It’s Me God, Lose Your Illusion 1, Like a Record Player