Thursday, November 11, 2010

Smoke or Fire - 'The Speakeasy'

2010 has so far seen a dramatic increase in studio activity from Virginia punk band Smoke or Fire. After a seven-inch and an acoustic solo split from frontman Joe McMahon with The Lawrence Arms’ Brendan Kelly, Smoke or Fire finally gets down to releasing a proper full-length with The Speakeasy.

At this point, Smoke or Fire has developed a style that needs little deviation. Rapid-fire drum beats feed angry vocals and socially conscious lyrics. McMahon’s songs are fast and straightforward. Speakeasy, in that sense, feels very much like a continuation of This Sinking Ship. The production hits a sweet spot, though. As great as the band’s debut, Above the City, sounds, it sounds like ass. This Sinking Ship went too far in the other direction; it’s an overproduced record that still wins based on its musical content. Speakeasy eases up on the gloss without sacrificing clarity. It’s the record that most accurately depicts Smoke or Fire’s live show.

McMahon sometimes falters as a lyricist – too earnest, too many clichés – but he tackles issues far bigger than the typical punk “fuck authority” view point would allow. At the same time, he doesn’t get as preachy as, say, Propagandhi. Either he posits questions for the listener to consider, like when he argues against the 24-hour news cycle on opener “Integrity,” or he tries to find a dash of humor, like when he combats the bitter taste of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on “Honey I Was Right About the War.” Sometimes he even pulls out a hook, like on “Sleepwalking” or the title track.

The Speakeasy is a grower. It shouldn’t be, considering it’s stock punk rock, but it gradually builds. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t experiment too much. Maybe it takes time to adjust to the fact that, for all his punk rock fervor, McMahon’s songs translate to Johnny Cash-style acoustic country songs. Point is, given time, the songs will bury themselves in listeners’ brains. Hopefully, that’ll tide them over until the next Smoke or Fire release, whenever that may be.

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