Album Review: The Haymarket Squares – “Light It Up”

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The most self destructive thing I do is listen to folk punk. Seriously it’s sad drinking tunes, generally meant to make you feel bad or to reminisce about things that make you happy that aren’t happening any more. Sometimes there is a political message, sometimes there are tracks about drug use, but for the most part it’s a lot of depressing nihilistic shit.

Perhaps the depressive nature of the genre is part of the reason why Phoenix Arizona’s The Haymarket Squares don’t call the politically charged upbeat folk music they play folk punk and opt for the self created genre of Punkgrass. Because the Squares music for the most part is far to hopeful to fall in line with the catchy yet sad tropes of Ramshackle Glory or the almost wholly drinking inspired crooning of Mischief Brew.

Their latest offering Light It Up is easily the greatest punkgrass album ever made (the other contenders being The Squares previous releases Punkgrass For The People, Dancing in the Streets, and Righteous Ruckus) but the record, which was recorded by the much lauded Bob Hoag of Flying Blanket Studios in Phoenix Arizona, is also obviously one of the best folk punk records ever as well.

Arizona’s original protest band brings a level of precision to their execution that most other folk punk acts purposefully avoid while still maintaining complete authenticity and a nearly immaculate record of unpermitted rowdyism in the streets. They are a pedigreed bunch of Phoenix musicians who aren’t even slightly afraid to bring their more technically proficient musical arrangement featuring seamless four part vocal harmonies on nearly every track out in front of even the crustiest of crusties in the dingiest of venues.

The new record starts off with one of The Squares favorite topics to attack, organized religion. In a band featuring two ex Mormons and an ex full blown Christian there have been a few songs that take a swing at the institution of religion one of which is their pro gay marriage tune “Opinions” where ,mandolin player Mark Sunman brashly proclaims “this is not an opinion I am right and you are wrong” to those who would attempt to use the bible to excuse their bigotry. For this record’s opener “Heaven” bass player Marc Oxborrow takes the lead on the old school style gospel hymn and states “there ain’t no heaven we got to make one here.” A very “Square-ish” way to jump into the music for anyone who has been following the string quintet for a while.

Track two, “Horrible Inventions,” tee’s up and takes a crack at United States border policy, an issue which as a Phoenix based band The Squares live right on the frontline of. The song waxes philosophic about the unity of people and how those trying to cross the border are exactly the same as the people who live on the American side of it. As well as taking shots at the amount of money spent every year on the high tech border wars. All within a fast paced danceable folk song.

Working Reward” is the third track on the record and it borrow’s a little bit from the talking heads with a chorus “the best days of your life” but otherwise it’s an anti-work anthem reminding the listener that no matter what job you work “you’re worth more than they’ll ever pay you.

“Lets Start a Riot” is the next step in The Haymarket Squares anti-work politics. Basically once you learn the lessons “Working Reward” teaches you about self worth you’ll be so fed up with your job you’ll be prepared to burn it all down. The song is a jazzy riot in a four minute track that was once named “song of the year” by Modern Times Magazine.

“High Demand,” as hard as it may to believe, is another politically charged tune taking aim at the private prison industry. The track is all about how American corporations are building an in demand industry out locking people away in prison. Simply enough they are saying “death to every corporation that profits from incarcerations,” and pointing out the obvious dubiousness of an industry that make it’s profits from people being sent to up the river.

“Jump The Border” is a track written by the Squares acoustic guitarist John Luther and employs a healthy dose of The Haymarket Squares signature wit. The song has a bit of south of the border spice too it, and is about why maybe leaving America for freer pastures may just be the way to go. The lyrics have a few good chuckles in them but ultimately points a fairly serious finger at many of America’s short comings.

“King Me” is another song that brings out the Squares quick wit and satirical nature as bass player Marc Oxborrow leads the vocal arrangement in a tune about the virtues of monarchy. While “No Such Agency” takes pot shots at a different level of totalitarian rule, the American surveillance state. Both tracks slow it down a little, not quite as much as “Lets Start a Riot,” but not every song needs to be a barn stormer for them as any one of them would admit their number one overall goal is to serve up great tracks and not just paced moshworthy songs.

“Gritty City” is a track that follows somewhat of a Haymarket Squares tradition of having a tune about their hometown of Phoenix on every album. It’s a fair and balanced look at the dusty southwestern city that doesn’t give the states ridiculous politics or blazing heat waves a break. But as Sunman puts it on the track “this fucking towns my home, and I love, and I love this gritty city.”

Following “Gritty City” is melancholy activist ballad “Part of the Problem” where the quintet points their high and mighty finger at themselves and beg the question of how much they are really doing to better the world. It was an interesting artistic choice to bring the tune in directly after paying homage to their hometown, a city where without massive amounts of pollution and man made alterations would be completely uninhabitable for human beings.

Credence Clearwater Revival cover “Fortunate Son” is the next track on the record and just like their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” off of Righteous Ruckus The Squares play it as if it was always meant to be played by an acoustic group. The song is just as powerful as it was when it was first released and it is truly accentuated by the Squares signature four part vocal harmonies. It’s also awesome to hear Squares steel guitarist Mark Allred, who usually lets his fingers do the talking, take up the vocal lead.

Finally the record closes on what might be its catchiest tune “Goodbye” which is an upbeat danceable ode to human excess. The song sings a cheery goodbye to the blue planet as peoples industrial contributions continue to harm the planets delicate ecosystems. A last track entitled Goodbye isn’t exactly a revelation but the Squares cheery and somewhat dystopian dancing song was definitely a powerful way to close out a fabulous piece of music.

 5/5 Stars


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