Monday, October 7, 2013

Return of The Itch!

Is it just me, or has this been the best year for underground music in a long, long time? There must be something in the air (chemtrails, maybe?). Every time I turn around, I'm getting wowed by another new album. There will probably be records that won't even make my year-end top ten list that would have been album of the year contenders in almost any other year. Feel free to lament the sorry state of mainstream music. But if you can't find anything you like these days at the independent/DIY level of rock, you're just not trying very hard. One goal I had for this blog versus my previous reviewing endeavors was to only write about music that I love. Well, if I assumed that that meant I'd have very little to write about and could spend all my free time brawling in bars and perusing art museums, I sure thought wrong! This year in particular, I've been one busy blogger! Tales Of Hard Luck And Woe by The Itch puts a cap on a truly blockbuster summer for LPs. This madness has to stop - hockey season is here!

I last wrote about Joplin, Missouri's The Itch in 2006, when their album The Courage To Be Hated ended up as one of my favorite releases of the year. Over seven years later, we finally get a follow-up from The Itch. And, boy, was it ever worth the wait! As always, this is a band that defies categorization. No two songs sound the same, and the band continues to integrate a wide variety of styles and influences into its rugged punk sound. If you liked The Itch before, you will like them just as much now. But Tales Of Hard Luck And Woe is far more cohesive and intense than its formidable predecessor. This album plays up The Itch's fondness for a storytelling approach to lyrics. And as the title suggests, these stories aren't exactly going to end happily. Colored by both personal hardships and the catastrophic tornado that decimated the band's hometown in 2011, this record is undeniably dark. Yet from a musical standpoint, it's ultra energetic and positively raging. The band lays into these tunes with gusto, and the vocals are delivered with a conviction and ferocity that can be truly felt. And lyrically, these songs radiate with humor and humanity.

Positioned at the crossroads of the Midwest and the Bible Belt, The Itch puts a distinctly middle American spin on the punk/hardcore/indie thing. Originally conceived as an EP, Tales Of Hard Luck And Woe grew into a full album when The Itch faced the pleasant problem of not being able to "throw out" any of the songs it had written. And ultimately, that's the difference with this album compared to The Courage To Be Hated. The material is just a little bit better overall. And the addition of hot-shot bass player Dustin (on board now since 2007) will do nothing to discourage further Minutemen comparisons. The record has its share of kick-ass punk rock tunes ("Picher", "Roses"), and along the way you can expect successful forays into instrumental surf ("Compendium of Failed Cult Leaders"), old school noise rock ("A Letter To Trudi"), retro rock n' roll ("Linda's Dance"), jagged post-punk ("Victims Anonymous") and wildly inventive hardcore ("Legacy of Hatred"). And while I love the visceral thrill of hard-charging tracks like the dark, desperate "Pursuit of Power", my favorite songs here abandon the blueprint completely. The cathartic dirge "God Did Me Wrong" comes off like an anti-spiritual, while the eerie "Harold" reinvents oldtime epic storytelling for the post-modern age. I love music like this - where it sounds like the singer is constantly exorcising demons, and the playing matches that intensity at every turn.

One thing people tend to take for granted about independent bands is how hard it can be just to get their music out there. It takes a ton of money to record, press, master, and package a vinyl LP, and very often bands find themselves with plenty of excellent songs and not nearly enough funds. The silver lining is that when you finally do get the chance to release the music after years of stockpiling A-grade material, the quality is going to be very high. And just as importantly, you really relish the opportunity to put out an album. The guys in The Itch were extremely grateful that Tales Of Hard Luck And Woe was able to get made at all. What this album meant to the band really shows in the finished product. They really nailed this thing. Looking over my original notes, I see complimentary remarks on every single track. And from a production/sound standpoint, this record exemplifies what underground rock n' roll should sound like. It's got that raw, home-recorded charm, but it doesn't sound "shitty". I imagine that what you hear on this album is very similar to what you'd hear if you saw The Itch live. Based on the last two albums and an absolutely terrific EP from 2008, I have to rate The Itch as one of the finest bands working in underground music today. It seems almost criminal that they're not better known. My original impression remains the same: they sound like the kind of group that would have flourished in the heyday of American indie rock circa the mid '80s, back before everyone got so concerned with pigeonholing bands. Tales Of Hard Luck And Woe has the feel of something that could have come out on SST or Homestead in 1985, yet it sounds totally current and uniquely like The Itch. This is one of the year's best albums - and that's really saying something! 


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