Review Summary: American's Steel third LP follows in the footsteps of Against Me!'s third LP, sluggishly but admirably.
American Steel - Jagged Thoughts
With the depressing decline of Against Me!, my continued fascination with Choking Victim / Leftover Crack, and my appreciation of really bad beer, it seemed like it was about time to discover a new gutter punx band. Well, a refined gutter punx band as the previous ones are, but I needed a new rough hewn punk band to enjoy. Then a punknews.org update literally plopped one in my lap: American Steel. I immediately started streaming the crap out of their myspace page and quickly gained an appreciation for their mix of gravely, melodic punk and ska. My first LP was their 1998 self-titled release, which definitely delivered harsh vocals, sloppy musicianship, and fun songs. However, the more I read from interviews and reviews, their 2001 release, Jagged Thoughts
, the last before they broke up (which considering their 2007 reformation is more aptly labeled a "hiatus"), is widely considered their best release for being somehow more intelligent, considerate, or refined. Now, at least in the case of Against Me!
, tightening up the punk sound spells danger. So, it is with careful reservations that I picked up American Steel's third LP Jagged Thoughts
As I thought, the vocals are softer and the musicianship is tighter, but unexpectedly the songs are just about as fun. This "refinement" has come about in stride with Against Me!'s development (minus the radio rock stylings); the band has streamlined their style. Where there was once a ragged punk track followed by an upbeat ska one, both brimming with energy, now there are two tracks of punk and ska blended together, with less overall energy. It's a real shame to feel a reduction of intensity on a large scale level because intensity translates to fun in the world of this type of punk. I have a few other grips, mostly around with the vocals. The singing is much less impassioned than in the past. At moments I appreciate the increased technicality ability to sing, as in songs like "Maria" that rely on slightly more complex melodic phrases, but in general, I'd much rather have the balls out yelling found on American Steel
(or Reinventing Axl Rose
for that matter).
Beyond this though, I cannot deny that American Steel have crafted a more thoughtful and mature album in Jagged Thoughts
. The songs break out of the punk paradigm very often and with surprising dexterity. "Maria" features turnarounds that sound straight out of a Rites of Spring song. "Rainy Day" sounds like it came from the hands of Thom Yorke or Dustin Kensrue in the production and musicianship. "Shrapnel" is probably one of American Steel's top 5 tracks of all time because its precise, interesting songwriting doesn't compromise the fun associated with the catchy vocals and upstrokes. Also, all of the really charismatic aspects have only been diminished by the new style, they haven't been blotted out completely. There are still fast songs to be had with shredding vocals in "There's a New Life" and "Time Gone By" but the really fervent days of yore seem to be gone. Almost to fill in this intensity gap are the soloing on songs like "Shrapnel" and the fills of a song like "Turn It Out." They almost jam out and shred at times, which is refreshing to hear in an authentic punk song. Also, I bet nobody saw the 5/4 groove of "Wake Up Alone" coming, and I bet even fewer people saw it coming and working as well as it did, swinging chorus and all.
At the end of the day, there are great songs on this album. They don't carry the intensity of their older material, but certainly make up for it in being well-crafted, and not completely compromising their earnest beginnings. The crustiness I was looking for is long gone and in its place is something marginally less satisfactory for somebody aching for gravely sloppiness.