Review Summary: One of the most anticipated albums on the year drops and falls somewhere in the between.
When one thinks of ska, most times they will think of one band: Streetlight Manifesto. The band has changed the face of the ska scene for the better by creating memorable songs and having a group of highly talented musicians fronted by the ever-captivating Tomas Kalnoky. With their albums, Everything Went Numb and Somewhere in the Between, Streetlight has become one of the best bands in the ska scene, and underground music scene in general. When word came out that the first volume of the infamous 99 Songs of Revolution collection was coming out, the usual fanfare came around for the band, and the anticipation grew.
So how does this album stack up against their previous work? 99SoR packs the usual ska-punk of Streetlight with enough energy to power Los Angeles and a musicianship that most bands would kill for. At the same time it also disappoints. This is not to say that the songs are not good (at least not all of them). It just means that a covers album is not the best thing to bring to the table when your catalog is quite short, especially after 8 years (21 original songs total).
The songs themselves are up to Streetlight’s standard, and the band even improves in some areas. Kalnoky has made room for his guitar skill in “Just” and “Linoleum”. The horn sections are as intricate and brilliant as before, and Chris Thatcher and Pete McCullough go full force on drums and bass, not just keeping beat, but acting as lead instruments at times, such as “Punk Rock Girl”. The songs chosen for this album really show how Kalnoky has been influenced by these bands, and one can see how Streetlight’s music holds little bits and pieces of them on their albums. These covers blend the band’s ska-punk style with the style of the original artists gracefully as if you are listening to two bands at the same time.
However, some of these songs falter, such as with the case with “Skyscraper”, originally written by Bad Religion. The song is boring and does not go anywhere, as well as including some of the worst singing Kalnoky has done since Everything Went Numb. The only interesting thing about this cover is the organ solo halfway through, something that Streetlight has never used in their songs. In addition, “They Provide the Paint…” does very little besides turn the amp up to 11. It strips away the things that made the original a classic and just speeds it up a bit, as if the song was never punk enough for Kalnoky. The song is still good, but I question why it was included on this particular album.
Besides the previously stated songs, the rest of the album is quite good. The highlights on this album include “Red Rubber Ball” and “Such Great Heights”, which display the typical Streetlight sound and will no doubt have repeat listens. “Red Rubber Ball” sounds like something that could have been included on Somewhere in the Between, with its anthemic horn melody and driving rhythm section. “Such Great Heights” takes a chance at taking an electronica song (or “indietronic” for you hipster label-makers) and drastically transforming it into something different and interesting. The horns play off of each other in as intricate a way as the electric bits did in the original. The guitar and bass blend perfectly together and carry the verses at a fast pace, while duel guitar riffs do their best to reproduce what The Postal Service did years ago. It will make you nostalgic for 2003.
“Linoleum” slows things down a bit and carries itself with reggae-style upstrokes on an acoustic guitar. It proves that Streetlight does not need horns in every song to still be good. It is the most emotional song on the album and adds something to the song that NOFX never did. The violin piece and the guitar solo keep the song interesting and flowing perfectly as to not make the song boring and repetitive, something NOFX also never did. It is very reminiscent of “A Moment of Silence” from Everything Went Numb.
In general, 99 Songs of Revolution: Volume 1 is a good album that deserves respect, but in the end it is just another cover album. But you need to take it for what it is: a collection of old songs that have that familiar Streetlight flare to them. The album still retains what people like about the band, and it adds quite a bit to their already unique style, while simultaneously shedding a new light to the original songs. 99SoR will not go down as a classic or enable Streetlight Manifesto to break through and gain mainstream recognition, but it will leave most fans satisfied until they release another album of original material.