Somewhere along the line, Unwritten Law morphed from a SoCal skate-punk band into a more mainstream-oriented aggressive rock band. The change was fairly gradual; UL’s self-titled album contained songs that were something other than traditional punk (“Cailin,” “Before I Go” and “418” aren’t standard punk tunes by any stretch). “Elva” continued the shift, but was still very much a UL album. “Here’s To The Mourning” came next, and marked the band’s first album without founding drummer Wade Youman. It also finalized the band’s transition to a “post-grunge” sound. “Swan” is a little bit of a return to form (not to “Oz Factor,” but maybe to “Elva”) in some ways, but don’t expect another “Superman” in its midst.
“Swan” marks UL’s first studio album as a four-piece, and introduces their fanbase to new drummer Dylan Howard (who had previously appeared on the band’s live album and on lead singer Scott Russo’s “Scott + Aimee” side project). The album lacks traditional rapid-fire punk rock beats, but Howard is rock solid behind the kit: the drum sound throughout is big, tight, upbeat and syncopated. Russo takes on rhythm guitar duties for the first time, and he and Steve Morris tend to mirror each other on many of the album’s tracks, creating what, for the most part, is a “big” sounding rock record. Here’s a track-by-track rundown…
1. “Starships and Apocalypse” – trademark UL (of late)…full guitar sound through the intro/chorus, a little more stripped down and bass-heavy during the verse…builds to chorus again. This will become a common theme. “Starships” was described in our interview with the band as being a song about “about losing all inhibitions and following your gut,” and is written from the point of view of a “fucked-up party girl,” which makes sense as it bites from some of Ke$ha’s vocal stylings in the pre-chorus. As much as it pains me to say, “Starships sounds reminiscent of Good Charlotte’s “Anthem” in the chorus, and begs the listener to accompany the band to “La La Land.” If you’re a UL fan from the old school, you probably feel like you’re already there.
2. “Nevermind” – features a drum-driven, group chant introduction and break-down style verse. It also features a synthesizer which, when added to the group chant, gives the song a European club feel at times. The synthesizer is an interesting addition. Remember, this ain’t “Superman.” Nevertheless, it’s the kind of song that will bore its way into your brain. The lyrics find Russo taking “you to the end of anywhere and (saying) just about anything to get you there.”
3. “Dark Dayz” – uptempo , fast-paced, all upstroke verse. Given the turmoil the band has been through over the better part of the last decade, the line in which Russo states that “I can’t tell you it’ll be alright” sounds particularly poignant. “Big guitar” sounding chorus about “dark days and darker nights.”
4. “Last Chance” – another dance style beat (but thankfully all live drums) that actually reminds me of old Shootyz Groove. The intro and verses make the song feel like it is building to something big in the chorus, but it never quite gets there. More of a modern arena-rock soud than anything. Contains one of my favorite lines on the album: “Love ain’t nothing but a word in a song.”
5. “Sing” – This one is an acoustic ballad, but the sound and chord structure are unlike your normal, run-of-the-mill punk-goes-acoustic tune. “Sing is actually a very sweet song about needing your other half to complete you and make you whole; about needing someone there fighting with you in your darkest hour and coming out “alright.”
6. “Superbad” – Another aggressive rock track. Big, drum driven song that features a pretty heavy guitar riff. Lyrically, “Superbad” is the most outwardly honest song; it actually addresses the aforementioned turmoil (jail, rehab, Scott’s house burning down) head on and focuses on fighting through all of that crap.
7. “Let You Go” – Follows the formula of most of the rest of the album. Standard, aggressive rock fare, though lyrically the song comes off as the album’s most introspective and honest in its approach to matters of the heart. The swagger and bombast of many of the other rockers is gone, in favor of lyrics that claim that “it might be better if we weren’t forever…cuz forever is a long time.” Other particularly poignant lines: “I want you if you promise not to be a thorn in my side” and “I need you but don’t think that I’ll never leave you.”
8. “Chicken” – features seminal Oakland rapper Del The Funkee Homosapien (of “Mistadobalina” fame). Conceived over a bucket of Roscoes Chicken & Waffles, “Chicken” is a guitar driven, agro-rock style party song. Not the most lyrically “deep,” but it serves as more of a rallying cry.
9. “On My Own” – melodic, a little more “mid-tempo.” Lyrics about being in that unfortunate place that many relationships get to…”walked away 1000 times since yesterday…keep on running but been around so long that we’ve got nothing to say.” This is one for the ladies, methinks. Catchy, repetitious chorus.
10. “Love Love Love” – Another stripped down ballad, but I don’t dig the programmed drums. Sounds out of place, on the album, coming from UL, etc. My nana always told me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. We’ll move on.
11. “Swan Song” – back on track. Guitar/drum driven. Also fits the recent UL formula. More of ‘Russo on Russo: “19 but I knew it all/ two bad tattoos and an attitude problem.” Agro-rock guitars again. This one will have fans of the band clamoring over what it hints to concerning the band’s future: “Can’t go on any longer…listen close my friends/ I may be moving on. Please think of me when I’m gone/ this is our swan song.”
I may be somewhat biased, because “Oz Factor” and UL’s self-titled album have never fallen out of my regular listening rotation. While not a traditional punk rock album by any stretch, “Swan” is not without its very high points and obvious punk inspiration. To make a long story somewhat short, if you jumped on to the Unwritten Law train around the time that “Elva” had “Seein’ Red” plastered over the airwaves, this album will be close to a “five star” album for you. If you’re from the “Blue Room” era, it may be closer to one star. I split the difference.
**The Album Reviews published on Dying Scene are written and submitted by fans of punk music, just like you. If you disagree with an album’s rating, feel free to voice your opinion and give it your own rating in the comments. If you’d like to submit your own review do it here.