Review Summary: A moment of silence please
This album is not transcendental. In fact, it’s not even particularly original or exciting either. It’s a Streetlight Manifesto album, sure, but it doesn’t seem like it’s the same group who made people question the boundaries of ska music back in 2003 with Everything Goes Numb
or dabbled in Eastern European rhythms and let the horns blow the roof off of 2007’s Somewhere in the Between
. Quite literally, they aren’t the same group, as long-time trombonist Mike Soprano was replaced by Nadav Nirenberg back in 2010, while they’re also a group whose career has changed them. Being faced with the adversity of being locked into an unforgiving contract they twice tried and failed to void, a bad relationship with their label and constant lineup changes has taken a toll on the once fresh-faced genre pioneers.
But the cruelest taskmaster of them all may have been bandleader Tomas Kalnoky, the self-described perfectionist whose incredible attention to detail has only sharpened over the past ten years- almost to the point where there is no spontaneity or experimentation to be found. It’s no surprise that the one song with a harder edge, verging on punk, “Ungrateful,” is far and away the best song on The Hands that Thieve
. It’s bold: the drums push the pace, the horns and bass dovetail in the bridge and Kalnoky delivers a trademark anthemic chorus, but it also isn’t a very interesting song; it lacks any semblance of flair, which is in short supply throughout. There are a few twists sonically, like the Latin-accented “If Only for Memories” and the jazzy saxophone on “Toe to Toe,” but the songs themselves are very blasé. The rises and falls in energy are too sporadic and abrupt to have any sort of impact because they are applied at random.
Streetlight Manifesto’s strength has always lied in its songwriting ability. When Kalnoky is waxing poetic about the brevity of life or analyzing suicide, he is at the top of his game. His lyrics, almost by nature, are introspective while being presented through anecdotes. This maxim holds strong on The Hands that Thieve, but the lyrics tend to rely on trite clichés- David and Goliath, crooked lawmakers, schismatic groups- rather than trying to apply original thought to the overarching theme of triumphing over the odds, ironically a phenomenon the band doesn’t have a lot of experience with. Perhaps betraying his unfamiliarity with coming out ahead, Kalnoky seems overly-invested in his songs, which have been polished so thoroughly there isn’t a single bum note. The sacrifice made with this glossiness is some of the rawness that makes ska an appealing genre. Then again, this isn’t really a ska album, it just happens to have horns.
So yes, The Hands that Thieve
is a flawed album, but it’s also a pretty entertaining one; each song is danceable in its own way and is sure to incite much debauchery at live shows. However, this energy doesn’t really translate well onto the record itself. There just seems to be a missing piece, perhaps it’s a lack of volume or too much studio varnish, that makes The Hands that Thieve
an unsatisfying experience. Maybe it’s just my fault. Maybe I expected too much from the album going in; maybe I subliminally hyped it up over the three years I’ve followed this group and expected an earth-shattering experience without even realizing it. The thing is, there’s restraint coming out from everybody except drummer Chris Thatcher, who does an incredible job providing a backbone and dictating tone shifts and Kalnoky, whose guitar is turned up louder than ever despite supplying only the most elementary strumming.
This is a Streetlight Manifesto album. Kalnoky will still have you hanging on his significantly downgraded lyrics and the horns will still make you bob your head and smile but the lack of gang chanting and awkward breaks in the action, like the bridge on the title track, kill the mood. Everything about The Hands that Thieve
screams of it being Somewhere in the Between
part 2, but the band doesn’t have the moxie to execute as well as they could back in 2007. They aren’t phoning it in: certain moments- the choruses of “With Any Sort of Certainty” and "Oh Me, Oh My," the first verse of “They Broke Him Down”- are genuinely exciting. However, the extended moody horn interludes kill the momentum every time. This flaw in song construction is repeated too often for it to be considered anything but a failed stylistic experiment. Frankly, it’s hard to get excited about songs that cut themselves off for 30 seconds at a time or sound insincere; which, unfortunately, categorizes just about every song on The Hands that Thieve