Seeing that it features an album-length commentary by two of its members, Poster Children's No More Songs About Sleep and Fire their first album since 2000's DDD, and ninth overall poses an interesting dilemma: How does one discuss an album that virtually reviews itself? In my case, I've sworn off on listening to the commentary until I've submitted this review. Which poses a small challenge, because music this smart and energetic makes you want to do just about anything but sit at the computer.
But write away I do as the band's powerful punk-tinged rock washes over me, from urgent opener "Jane" right through to the penultimate track. Poster Children's strengths are on display throughout: Rick Valentin and wife Rose Marshack's (oft-processed) Midwestern vocals; Rick and brother Jim Valentin's muscular guitars, which conjure up everything from hives of bees to runaway trains; Marshack's bulldozer bass rumble; and new guy Matt Friscia, the latest in the band's long line of top-notch drummers (Poster Children drumming alumni play in acts as diverse as Tortoise and Blue Man Group).
On a musical level these new songs are clearly identifiable as the Poster Children's work, but the band covers a broad array of lyrical turf on No More Songs About Sleep and Fire. Political themes recur throughout, notably on the Orwell-/Fox News-/Bush-inspired "The Leader." "The leader speaks from the heart, not the mind/ The leader tells us what we want to hear/ The leader knows what's best for the rest of us/ Citizens, you must trust the leader," Rick intones in sinister fashion through echoing, multi-tracked vocals, answering back with a chanted "We know/ he lies/ we love/ the lies/ we need/ the lies" on the chorus. All the while, the band makes a calamitous noise behind him.
Powered by Marshack's lead bass line, "Flag" cautions against symbolism, empty-headed rhetoric and ad hominem attacks, kicking off with "We don't agree/ That's fine with me/ But you seem to think that that means/ I'm the enemy," a situation all too common in our times. Most powerfully, "Now It's Gone" encapsulates the sense that 9/11 represented an opportunity since blown apart like/by so many cluster bombs for the world to reflect a bit and work together toward peace rather than starting endless wars on abstractions like "terror." Songs about politics can easily verge into empty sloganeering (e.g., Billy Bragg) or drown in quickly dated specifics (e.g., Dead Kennedys or New Model Army), but Poster Children straddle the line by sticking to generalities where too many of their predecessors have strayed. (For the record, I'm still a fan of the three acts I've just dissed, but believe that they all tended to bludgeon where some finesse would have served them better.)
A number of lighter songs offset these serious-minded tracks. "The Bottle" offers good, clean fun pop while feting Chicago's Empty Bottle club, host to many a Poster Children show over the years. "Western Springs" finds Rick employing a country-ish drawl to describe a (too) peaceful Midwestern town, with Jim's droning, synth-style guitar solo a highlight. The stuttering "Sugarfriend" rails against fair-weather friends, while "Jane" goes to the other side of the coin in celebrating Marshack's titular straight-edge kung fu sister. "Hollywood Pt II" has it both ways, seeming to simultaneously praise and question escapist entertainment. Closing track "Midnite Son" offers a quiet, unsettling respite from the 11 previous tracks, meandering about a bit and ending the album on somewhat of a down note.
With No More Songs About Sleep and Fire, the Poster Children offer a clarion call to kick off this (American) election year while successfully steering clear of preachy polemics. At least, that's what I make of it. Now, I'm off to insert the disc into my CD-ROM drive to hear what the band has to say about these rollicking numbers.