The Lawrence Arms: Buttsweat & Tears 

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The Lawrence Arms Buttsweat & Tears

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Where might The Lawrence Arms be without booze? Knowing how frequently the Chicago trio uses alcohol and its attached subtexts as lyrical fuel, it’s hard to imagine their woebegone, crooked punk devoid of this cliché. A jog through the group’s plastered past: They’ve discussed a floor covered in hundreds of empties, used spirits to burn down their hometown, been on a “Boatless Booze Cruise,” offered a “drunken mouth/kitchen smile,” and observed that “the years fly right by with the drinks.” To them, being soused isn’t about keggers or benders but instead an opportunity to reconsider the world and what the hell you’re doing in it. The possibility of a life beyond alcohol is the true source of intoxication. Problem is, staying clean would mean getting rid of analyzing their beloved subject. That’s not something they’d like to do.

Buttsweat & Tears confirms this. Every track on the EP (found only as a 7-inch or a digital download) references alcohol, whether directly (“Line up the bottles of Beam from the crib to my grave”) or as part of a metaphor (“I was drunk on the radio waves”). After a while, the device loses its power. Ten years after using their first drinking metaphor, the apparent alcoholism contains some resonance, yeah, but it’s mostly ho-hum.

As is the norm with the Arms, the playing is agile and lively, the production is clear but a little raw, and the hooks are omniscient enough to be modern rock hits in a parallel galaxy. Both vocalists are strong: Bassist Brendan Kelly’s bark still oscillates between caustic and endearing, and guitarist Chris McCaughan’s near-melodramatic delivery has gained a dry, mature sensibility.

Yet, Buttsweat is too competently done. There are no surprises. The only thing mildly eccentric is the understated “The Redness in the West,” a song in which McCaughan peppers a portrait of Old West discontent with lines cribbed from Half-Baked and an outdated Will Ferrell meme (“I’ve got a fever for the cowbell”). By its end, though, “Redness” gains distortion and evolves into what you would expect from the Arms. They’ve experimented to spectacular results before (2003’s The Greatest Story Ever Told was framed around a Mikhail Bulgakov novel) so why resort to tameness now?

Three suggestions for the Arms before they pen the next full-length: Swear off the sauce, shelve conventional songwriting habits, and wade out somewhere weird. No guarantees that the undertaking would be a success, but a risk itself would be entertaining. Fat Wreck Chords

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