Upon first listen to the latest material from The Lawrence Arms (their first new release in almost four years), the casual fan will dismiss the perennial front-runners of the modern punk scene to be hashing out the same old formula: fast, roughneck, gritty punk rock we’ve been hearing from the Chicago threesome since 1999. However, that casual fan would be a numbskull and the failure to examine what the Lawrence Arms actually strive to do is an important aspect at determining why they continue to resonate with such a large group of punk enthusiasts. Like their peers, Rise Against and Alkaline Trio, they are growing and exploring what tools they have available to them. While the other two acts continue to flirt with the mainstream, the three Arms boys continue to do this for themselves, trying out new inspired techniques.
The old school fans of their Asian Man Records days may have very well given up on recent releases, perhaps to the broadening of the band’s sound, ranging from fiercely raw punk material to slower, alt-country ballads. Then again, if a band can’t expand its sound without losing a few elitists, what does it even matter? Not to be an apologist for the band’s shortcomings (of which, for the record, there are very few), but the Lawrence Arms are a rare breed of punk rock and with their latest release, their creative peaks seem to be hitting their stride — and this is after they have given us The Greatest Story Ever Told!
For the aptly-titled Buttsweat and Tears, guitarist Chris McCaughan’s gentler vocals take the reigns and lead the way, careening through five songs that show the Larry Arms still have the spirit they’ve had for a decade, but are maturing as not only musicians — but as human beings, too. “The Slowest Drink…” is cheerfully dreary material obviously influenced by McCaughan’s side project, Sundowner, as is “The Redness in the West” (which is coincidentally sung by Kelly). The two songs are some of the most introspective work the band has recorded and could be in the nominee list for all-time best Larry Arms tracks (which, if you think about it, is funny since the songs are obviously far more alt-country than anything else they have done). Brendan Kelly kicks it off with “Spit Shining Shit,” which is surprisingly more tame than one might expect. It’s still very much Kelly being his same old self, just more grounded. However, when you reach “Them Angels Been Talkin’,” you might be shocked to see a new, vulnerable side to his approach as a vocalist. Perhaps it’s been the influence of Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes), whom Kelly played with after the band worked on side projects during the downtime since their last full-length in 2006. Just to compare: “Demons” is another example of this notion, sounding bold and flirting with a Dillinger Four-meets-Lucero sound. Give it up for the third man in this equation though: Neil Hennessey might just be the clutch man in the rotation; he is a well-oiled machine, with his steady hands bringing composure and balance to a far more rhythmic brand of punk for the band.
As a teaser for a future full-length, Buttsweat is the perfect snack to whet your appetite. If it’s any indication of what is to be expected from an always-reliable band, then the Lawrence Arms have just raised the bar for any and all copycats and coattail riders. Appears that it’s time to catch up, everybody – this may very well be the best EP of the year.