The longer the wait for a highly anticipated album, the more the question “Will it be as good as we’ve hoped?” festers in the back of my mind. By its April 30th release, we’ll be near 6 years since the last original Streetlight Manifesto album, “Somewhere In The Between” (my review here). Those 6 years did yield a cover album, “99 Songs Of Revolution Volume I,” which seemed to splinter some fans with its delays, false starts, premature release dates, etc (sound familiar?). Moreover, compared to 2 (let’s just say 3) fantastic original albums, a cover album seemed underwhelming. It seemed like Streetlight Manifesto may have peaked and were on their way down the decline.
(Read more here).
Proudly, from the other side of this album, I can say with conviction that “The Hands That Thieve” is a fantastic album. While a few tracks are mediocre, other songs like “The Three Of Us,” “If Only For Memories,” and the title track are among the band’s best work to date. Punctuality aside, the work put into this (it was announced in 2010) has paid off. Streetlight continues to display musical growth and the product is a well-polished and well-intended record full of rousing, defiant anthems and superior musicianship. The years have not slowed frontman Tomas Kalnoky’s tongue down from its high-speed chase that seems almost inhuman. That is one of this album’s flaws: often times the lyrics are cluttered or missed altogether, even upon going back for deciphering.
Which leads me to my next complaint: a lot of the lyrics of this album seem significantly dull. There’s boring lyrical cliches scattered here and there, which may not be completely “untouchable” by some bands, but I guess I expected better. Kalnoky also seems uncomfortable with leaving to much room between vocals; filling gaps needlessly with too many needless “yeah yeahs” and “oh my god’s”. Lyrically and musically, many of the album’s musical transitions are too abrupt, awkward, or uncomfortable.
“The Hands That Thieve” presents music that we have an immediate familiarity with, yet earns its own identity that sets itself apart from earlier material. The richly dark flavor that Streetlight is known for is still a driving force behind many songs, but it has been re-imagined and re-worked. The same new spin lies behind the lighter and upbeat songs that are also reminiscent of earlier work. This is the work of musicians who are comfortable in the fluidity of their sound but have not completely abandoned the core elements of their style.
The horns have once again outdone themselves, blazing through the center of the record and punching hard. New(ish) trombonist Nadav Nirenberg quickly proves himself (this being his first recording with the band, following former boner Mike Soprano’s departure in 2009) in “The Three Of Us” with a bazooka of a solo and plays with a caffeinated level of intensity throughout, as does the entire group. The solos all-around are a real pleasure to listen to; bari sax player Mike Brown has a blues-y few bars in “Toe To Toe” that epitomizes “cool” in that old jazz sense. Additionally, the rhythm section is superb throughout, and they do some instrumental expansion that sounds great (upright bass, piano). Pete McCullough jumps between fulfilling traditional bass player duties as well as using some unusual harmonic runs to counter horns and vocals. Drummer Chris Thatcher is a competent backbone and shines in tasteful fills peppered throughout. Both Kalnoky and McCullough more frequently use their acoustic instruments, which always seems fits in well with its surroundings.
Recording-wise, there’s another flaw here, specifically with the trumpet track. While it’s louder and sticks out more than the other horns, it sounds “splat-y” and lacks attack and articulation. It’s impossible not to notice.
Nobody will ever accuse this band of lacking diversity. As with the others, this album grabs influences from all over the board, including familiar territory like ska, jazz, latin, and traditional Eastern European music, as well as new ground like folk, progressive rock, and metal influences that might sound familiar to those who’ve seen the band live in the last few years. The track “If Only For The Memories” is bright with Central American themes (Mariachi El Bronx comes to mind) and makes me wish there was a punk version of salsa dancing (get on this, mosh pits of the world).
Perhaps best of all is the return of an in-your-face punk rock sound which was mostly absent from the last record. The band has always rocked gang vocals and shout choruses, and it’s no surprise they fit right in to these faster-paced tracks with classic punk tones of distortion. Like good punk albums do, this meets(okay, maybe exceeds) its quota of “whoas.” “Ungrateful” is a great punk anthem of the jumping and moshing sort and is sure to be a live favorite.
This collection fits nicely into band’s musical tapestry. While containing its own distinctive flavor, there are notable stylistic similarities that tie the previous Streetlight releases together. The album begins sounding very much like “Somewhere In The Between,” making it seem like a few seconds lie between the records rather than 6 years. However, that is absolutely not to say it’s a musical continuation of SITB. It carries its own distinctive tenor, expanding upon earlier music rather than carbon-copying it. Knitted somewhere into the fabric are elements from all over the band’s discography; the regal horn lines and dramatic build-ups that were essential to SITB, the faster and punk-er sprints that were so much a party of “Everything Goes Numb” and “Keasbey Nights,” and what seems like a lyrical reflection upon the former three albums. There are lyrical callbacks to the “We Will Fall Together” and “Somewhere In The Between,” just to name a couple.
I’d happily wait another 6 ½ years to hear this kind of work again. “The Hands That Thieve” is another solid release that secures the band a lasting place in punk rock. It will be out April 30th via Pentimento Music Company and Victory Records, and will be accompanied by an acoustic companion album.