It’s hard for me to talk about The Lawrence Arms without a lot of my own life bleeding in. So much of my love for the band is tied into places, emotions, and times in my life. So, at the risk of getting too autobiographical, I will try to tie together the two in a semi-coherent manner. With YouTubes, because it’d be pretty boring otherwise.
The Wikipedia entry:
Brendan Kelly – vocals, bass
Chris McCaughan – vocals, guitar
Neil Hennessy – drums
Slapstick vs Freshman Year High School
The roots of TLA, as I will abbreviate from here on out, is in the ska band, Slapstick. I first heard Slapstick on the Asian Man Records compilation Mailorder is Fun and was sold. Angling more towards a punk sound that a lot of the other “third wave” stuff, what immediately hooked me was Brendan Kelly’s vocals. Raspy but clear, it stood in really good contrast to the almost lounge affect a lot of ska bands had going at the time.
I was slowly getting into music on my own (as in, going to record stores, finding out about zines, that sorta stuff) when Slapstick came along. A friend had made me a mixtape of bands like Mr T Experience, Screeching Weasel, Boll Weevils, and a lot of those sorts of pop-ish punk. Back then, mixtapes and compilations were how you found out about bands that would probably never tour your way. I really liked what I heard and bought their one and only release. (At least that I knew of. Things were harder to find back then.)
Slapstick, of course, broke up. But somehow, the resulting bands ended up being even better. Alkaline Trio, The Broadways, Tuesday, Honor System, Falcon and Smoking Popes all can trace their lineage back to Slapstick.
The Broadways vs Senior Year
After Slapstick, 2/3rds of what would become TLA played for a band called The Broadways. This band was raw with a political bent. Lots of anger about capitalism, consumerism and corruption. You know, punk stuff. What do you need, a roadmap? That’s where I was at my senior year. Really disillusioned with the government and politics. It was 2000 and I was pissed at the world. I had good grades and a good SAT score but my dad basically told me that he couldn’t afford to send me to (what I thought at the time) were the schools I wanted to go to. Ended up being one of the best things that happened to me. But lots of angst was fed to late night Walkman listens of Broken Van and Broken Star
The Lawrence Arms vs Real Life
Freshman year in college and I was a weird guy. I was caught between that angry/angsty teenager (I went to college at 17) and I guess what would be a young adult that was starting to learn there was a lot more to life than just than my feelings.
I wouldn’t put money on it, but it kinda felt like that is where TLA was at around that same time. While their first release, A Guided Tour of Chicago still had some political stuff, it also had a lot more personally reflective songs that really hit home with me. Guided Tour of Chicago was the first of two Asian Man records releases for TLA. Brendan Kelly would sing all the tracks on this album but guitarist Chris McCaughan would assume more vocal duties starting with the next album, Ghost Stories. Guided Tour would probably be in the “Graduate Level” studies if this were a Primer. Not that it is bad, but a large part of it was rooted in it’s time.
Ghost Stories would mark the last album under Mike Park’s Asian Man Records. Also left behind was much of the political nature of the previous albums. It felt like a much more personal release. The sound was much improved, as well. McCaughan’s singing voice provided a nice counterpoint to Kelly’s rawness and I think allowed the band to evolve stylistically and musically. And for all you Simpson’s fans, it featured a little ditty called “Asa Phelps is Dead”. Stylistically, it was a shift towards a more “friendly” sound that was accentuated by the different style of vocals that helped define a lot of the pop punk bands that emerged around this time (Alkaline Trio, of course, springs to mind with the Matt and Dan vocals)
Apathy and Exhaustion marked the beginning of a new era at Fat Wreck Chords for TLA. This is when the formula really started to click and the band’s “sound” came together. While sounding “cleaner”, production wise, than anything previously, they balanced out the singing duties and moved more towards shared vocals to a really good effect. This trend would continue through the rest of their releases.
I turned 21 in 2003 with TLA quite literally. I saw them right around my 21st birthday in a TINY club. They opened for Hot Water Music and A Static Lullaby. Hot Water was great. A Static Lullaby brought in a TON of Hot Topic types. The crowd was really weird. One of my favorite nights ever. After their set, I screwed up the courage to say hit to them at the merch table. Brendan bought me a few beers and gave me a free t-shirt. Felt like an older brother passing on the keys to mom and dad’s car or something like that. Here’s is some footage from that show.
That same year, The Greatest Story Ever Told came along with, what to this day, is my favorite TLA album. It features my favorite song to run to – March of the Elephants. The Greatest Story Ever Told is probably the best reviewed album of the releases and if I had to pick a jumping off point, this would be the one. The song writing definitely feels stronger overall. The different vocalization duties hit that perfect mix. Lots of literary references to make me feel super smart and one hell of a CD liner, back when that meant something. If I had to pick a “classic” album from them, this would be the one.
(Don’t ask me about this thumbnail…)
2006 was a big year for me. I had just got done teaching English in Korea for a year. I had just proposed to my now wife. Everyone who wasn’t in my head was probably thinking I had it all figured out. I really really didn’t. I was a complete mess. I knew I needed to find a career and quick. Luckily, Uncle Sam was hiring. Despite everyone I knew telling me I was an idiot for signing up at pretty much the worst time in history, I went to an Army recruiter and signed the scariest paper of my life. Six years. Boot camp. Follow on to OCS. A guaranteed deployment. It was all a blur after that. I had one of those super cheap MP3 players (Sansa maybe?) and I listened to The Devil’s Taking Names off of TLA’s 2006 release Oh, Calcutta!as the bus pulled up to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for the next crazy phase of my life. It worked out fine. Dunno why I was so worried…
Metropole came out in 2014 and AV Club gave it a B+! And the comments section was a trainwreck! They took their time to come out with it, releasing a few B sides in between. Lots of side projects in that space, as well. Brendan Kelly found time to hate on REM, which didn’t make people too happy because it was too easy? I dunno, you’re a fickle bunch.
And now, I am an old fart. Luckily, so is TLA. As the song says, “Dying young just didn’t work and so I guess I’m dying old”. I know it’s weird to talk about a band that is almost a friend and sorta feels like it’s always been and always will be there. But for real, I would really hate to wake up one day and hear they called it quits. But in a different way, I wouldn’t hate them because they sure as shit didn’t die young. Now if you will excuse me, my prescription refill for Flonase is ready at CVS…