Friday, July 8, 2011

Alkaline Trio - Damnesia

Quick summary for those who don't know what Alkaline Trio's newest release is about: It's called Damnesia and it's a collection of songs from throughout their lifespan as a band, "re-imagined" alongside three new tracks. It can sort of be seen as a Greatest Hits, although it could also be said that since it omits a lot of classics it's not really like a Greatest Hits at all.

In short: If you haven't been too fond of the band since Maybe I'll Catch Fire, there's a good chance you aren't even reading this. However, if you already enjoy most of Alkaline Trio's discography chances are you'll like this one, too. It's not the "perfect, must-have" album that sums up their entire career (it's hard to reach that status when 80% of the material is pulled from previous releases) (actually... I guess that kind of does mean it sums up their career) but it doesn't really do any harm to the band either. 

The acoustic guitar on the cover should have tipped me off on what was to come.

So how do the songs sound? Mostly the same- just acoustic arrangements. With all the press releases pushing that the album is full of "re-imaginings" it gave me the idea that the songs would be drastically different... maybe a new vocal melody arrangement in the chorus or verses that were taken out when recording the original. What listeners are treated to instead is a good number of the songs being played in the same way, but with acoustic instruments and an occasional, minor lyrical change. This works fine for some tracks because the song translates well to the format ("Clavicle," "Radio" and even "Mercy Me"). Other songs just don't really cut it. Do we really need an acoustic version of "Blue in the Face" when the original was already acoustic? What about an acoustic version of "We've Had Enough"? It's a fun song, and it still is, but if it's supposed to be a re-imagined version, why it is played the same way but with an acoustic guitar? Okay, so the singing is a bit cleaner, but it could have easily been substituted for another track like "Trouble Breathing" from Goddamnit, "Crawl" from From Here to Infirmary or even Crimson's "Sadie" all of which have the potential to sound beautiful if given an acoustic rearrangement.

One more major gripe before I get around to the good things: the track listing. There are fifteen songs, three of which are brand new in terms of studio release (more on them later). That leaves twelve tracks pulled from their seven studio albums. It's fair that not everyone's favorite songs would be present, because it'd just be impossible to please everyone. I can also handle that most of the songs are from 2003's Good Mourning because I know a good number of their fans would cite that album as what turned them on to the band in the first place. What's disappointing is the lack of Dan Andriano songs. No doubt that a lot of Matt Skiba's songs are the ones released as singles and the ones that people would be more familiar with, but while I think a majority of Alkaline Trio fans first come on board for Matt's songs, they stay because of Dan's. They're both solid song writers, but I think that only having three tracks in total sung by Dan (four if you count the end of the chorus to "Mercy Me") is a gross misrepresentation of the band.

Enough of the negative critique. Right now I'm coming off as if I hated listening to this, when it's been almost the opposite. Some of the songs did actually get some neat rearrangements. "This Could Be Love" gets a whole buttload of pronounced strings (guitar) (and piano, too, I guess if that counts as a string instrument) layered on top, so even though it keeps the same melody and chord progression, it sounds good. "Nose Over Tail" gets slowed down a bit in the process (as acoustic songs usually do) but it still remains one of the finest songs the band has ever performed. "You've Got So Far to Go" is updated in a way that makes it sound oddly similar to "Fine" (it's probably not a coincidence that both songs are Dan's songs). Even "Clavicle" sounds good, although being the lead "single" has given it time to grow on everyone. "Radio" kicks off with a light drum intro before going back to the song we all know and love, featuring a slight improvement in the lyrics (from the original "it helps you to rule out the sorrow, it helps me to empty my mind" to "it helps you to rule out the sorrow, it helps me to drown out mine"). However the song that sounds the best here, at least in terms of being rearranged to sound brand new, is (ironically?) "The American Scream" from last year's This Addiction. The guitar is replaced almost completely by a piano and the tempo is slowed down to make the song become a ballad. Maybe it's not the best song on the album but it's no argument that it's one of the most drastically different sounding from its original.

At this point, you might be thinking "That's great about the re-recorded tracks, but what about the new ones?" and to that I say: pretty good. "Olde English 800" is a tune that Matt Skiba wrote around the turn of the century (when the band would have been about a toddler's age) and it's a jingle. A jingle for what? Try Olde English. It's a fun, catchy tune about alcohol, as Matt's songs tend to be. The band also tackles "I Held Her in My Arms" a cover of the Violent Femmes song from their 1986 album, The Blind Leading the Naked. It has a high energy to it with a very twangy sound (probably the first time that "twangy" would ever be used to describe Alkaline Trio) Once fans learn the lyrics, and if the band plays it live, will be a fun sing-along at shows to come. The other new contribution, "I Remember a Rooftop" is a classic Andriano tune about a failed love. Interestingly enough, while the other two new songs feature full band instrumentation, this song is performed solely by Andriano and an acoustic guitar- perhaps this was done on purpose as a foreshadowing to his upcoming solo release.

What is the final verdict? I have two. As an album that I was expecting to be full of completely new arrangements, I think it is a little on the weak side and disappointing. If you've ever heard the Acoustic in London bootleg that was released around the same time as Crimson, a lot of the songs from that set list make it on to here and sound very similar. However, as an album full of new versions of songs that I (mostly) love, I think it's a wonderful addition to my collection and it will help tide over Alkaline Trio fans until the next proper album. Or at least until Hurricane Waves by Dan Andriano in the Emergency Room drops.


  1. There's an acoustic version of Sadie they released with the advanced copy of Crimson and it's fantastic. I agree with your disappointment but I totally think it was a wise move on their part in order to teach younger fans their older songs.

    xoxo Nikki G

  2. Would you happen to know if that version of Sadie is the same one on the Acoustic in London bootleg?