By respectively leading two of the greatest punk bands of the modern
era (Drive Like Jehu and Rocket From the Crypt), Rick Froberg and
John Reis could happily retire if only their brand of
intelligent punk made them money. Fortunately, their relative poverty
(just guessing here) is our treasure trove since the pair reunited in
1999 as the Hot Snakes, releasing Automatic Midnight, one of
the best records of the decade. Eschewing their previous side-project
party line, Reis and Froberg, along with Delta 72 drummer Jason
Kourkounis, have re-teamed for another amazing Hot Snakes release,
Constructed with the same trademark guitar sounds that garnered their
other bands notoriety, Suicide Invoice will seem instantly
familiar to DLJ and RFTC fans, but completely alien to three-chord
punkers. Froberg's and Reis' guitar playing swirls, attacking
melodies from unexpected angles with nary a power chord in sight.
Best of all, despite their obvious talents, it feels completely
tossed off, brawny but smart.
The duo's astonishing abilities allow the guitars, rather than the
vocals, to do the emoting on Invoice. With the expressive
duties shifted to the six-strings, Froberg's voice, which isn't
anything special, manages to convey a sense of desperation without
resorting to vocal bullying. In the title cut Froberg sings the
striking line, "And when I dream/ I keep my promises to you/ I really
do," but he wisely lets the guitars take the lead with a brilliantly
simple descending guitar line. The passage is restrained, and all the
more powerful for it.
Even when the guitars weave through complex lines, as in the album's
opener, "I Hate the Kids," they're balanced by Froberg's
self-control. While Reis' growl is much stronger and more distinctive
than Froberg's, the Hot Snakes' muted tone lends itself to the
latter's unadorned style. The guitar interplay is, at times, so
intricate that a more flamboyant vocalist would be distracting.
The best songs on Suicide Invoice, like the title track, are
deceptively simple and melancholy. Typically, when punk bands try to
sound sad, they go to extremes playing either kitschy '80s
covers or acoustic throwaways. The Hot Snakes, on the other hand,
convey feelings of desperation while avoiding potential
cringe-inducing moments, primarily by keeping the music's volume and
tempo just as aggressive, but letting chord changes and curbed vocals
dictate the tone.
Both "Suicide Invoice" and "Unlisted" employ this technique.
"Unlisted" possesses an impressively melodic chorus, vaguely
reminiscent of Paul McCartney's songwriting style, that Froberg
completely downplays. It begs to be screamed, yet Froberg merely
mutters it. His reservation feels like a boast: "Look at what we can
do without even trying!"
Still, Suicide Invoice can't top Automatic Midnight
but that's a lot to ask for. Midnight was a flawless
punk record energetic, smart and fun. Invoice maintains
those qualities, but to a slightly lesser degree. Considering the
perfection Reis and Froberg have previously achieved (Yank
Crime, Scream, Dracula, Scream and Automatic
Midnight), though, expectations for them will always be
stratospheric, and they rarely let us down.