The Lawrence Arms
Oh! Calcutta!


4.5
superb

Review

by Joe Costa USER (34 Reviews)
February 27th, 2007 | 111 replies


Release Date: 2006 | Tracklist

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, Slapstick, 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!

Recommended Tracks:
Cut it Up, Are You There Yet Margaret? It’s Me God, Lose Your Illusion 1, Like a Record Player



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user ratings (318)
Chart.
4.1
excellent
other reviews of this album
Robert Lowe CONTRIBUTOR (4.5)
Oh! Calcutta! represents the Chicago three piece at their best; There's nowhere to go but down from ...

Julio Babilonia (4.5)
An album that excels in every aspect, Oh! Calcutta! represents the best of the band, and plays like ...


Comments:Add a Comment 
slep
February 27th 2007


1604 Comments


Great review. I also found the trade off vocals on this album to be a nice addition to the music. Great album.

Cesar
February 27th 2007


2732 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Need To get this album, AaE was great. You got my vote, great review.

spoon_of_grimbo
February 27th 2007


2241 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

great review, i totally agree. im just pissed that i left it so late getting into this band.

not quite as good as apathy and exhaustion, but solid nonetheless.

you mentioned "two subpar tracks" in your summary, which would you say those are?

tom79
February 27th 2007


3376 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Really a great album. One of the best I heard last year. Solid work too, as usual.

Digging: Wil Wagner - Laika

Two-Headed Boy
February 27th 2007


4527 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

To be honest, this album owns so hard. Despite being somewhat generic at times, it's incredibly solid. The Greatest Story Ever Told is alot better though.

I'm proud to say my band is covering Cut It Up.

Intransit
February 27th 2007


2797 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

[quote=thb]I'm proud to say my band is covering Cut It Up.[/quote]
j00 gots a myspace for said band?
[quote=grimbo]you mentioned "two subpar tracks" in your summary, which would you say those are?[/quote]
Beyond the Embarassing Style and Requiem Revisited. Both are good, but aren't really memorable in this sea of awesomeness.

Thanks for your votes guys. It is much appreciated.

Two-Headed Boy
February 27th 2007


4527 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Neh, no myspace (yet).

descendents1
February 27th 2007


702 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

i enjoyed the review, it's great

i have a hard time listening to the album purely because of the style. i've seen the lawrence arms in concert and they're really fun and i enjoy their energy but their studio recordings rub me the wrong way for some reason.

i seriously need to open my mind more, and your review only places priority on my concern

Mikesn
Emeritus
February 28th 2007


3709 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Goood review. I might check this out.

Digging: Grimes - Visions

spoon_of_grimbo
February 28th 2007


2241 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

hey canyoneer, i can see why you'd say requiem revisited is a but unmemorable, but IMO, beyond the embarassing style has one of the catchiest choruses on the whole record, and a brilliant intro riff, if anything, it's the MOST memorable for me. still, difference of opinion and all that...

nice review though, i voted!

Intransit
March 1st 2007


2797 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

I dunno, I find the intro and chord progression to be really annoying, not to mention that the aside from the catchy chorus and chants at the end, nothing really sticks out. I'd actually say that Requiem sticks out more for me, but oh well.

tom79
July 21st 2007


3376 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Listening to this album a lot lately.

Old Dogs Never Die is so good. And Requiem Revisited is not bad at all, catchy as hell. None of the tracks stand out for the worse I find.

PhoenixRising
July 21st 2007


277 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Pretty good. I'm loving Recovering the Opposable Thumb right now.

Cesar
September 15th 2007


2732 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This album is great all-around. Very consistent and solid.

This band deserves more credit than it gets.This Message Edited On 09.15.07

descendents1
September 15th 2007


702 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I just don't know what it is but I can't get into this album like other LA.

PhoenixRising
September 15th 2007


277 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Much tighter musically and the production is a little different, maybe thats whats thrown' ya.

Good stuff IMHO.

StreetlightRock
Emeritus
September 5th 2008


3771 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Listened to this again for the first time in a loong time. Forgot why it's one of the best punk records in recent memory.

Digging: Grouper - Ruins

Shadowskos
September 16th 2008


352 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

god, I love "Beyond The Embarassing Style". It brings such joy to my ears whenever I hear it

Kiran
Emeritus
October 19th 2008


6001 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

It's taken me a while after getting The Greatest Story Ever Told to look into this but I've just got it and god damn. Recovering The Opposable Thumb is underappreciated but there are so many awesome songs on this. Seriously digging this, the new Dillinger Four and Propagandhi right now. Cycling between them every time I've used my ipod recently.

awesome review too. This Message Edited On 10.19.08

StreetlightRock
Emeritus
October 19th 2008


3771 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Recovering The Opposable Thumb is like the best song on here along with Are you there Margaret. Mmmm....



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