The Meanest of Times
once stumbled upon this rather accurate assessment of Primal Scream: After 20-plus years and eight studio albums, Bobby Gillespie is still unsure what direction he wants his band to take. It’s a casual observation one can filch when discussing the Dropkick Murphys.
Pro-union and collared in blue, the Boston act contributes to compilations toting regrettably unclever titles like Rock Against Bush, Volume II, yet interviews find bassist Ken Casey (the outfit’s only original member) professing a desire to avoid the “political band” toe-tag. Traditionalists at heart, they eviscerate the classics (hear: “The Auld Triangle” from 2005’s The Warrior’s Code). And the most head-scratching contrast of all: Influenced heavily by Irish folk, Dropkick Murphys’ lineup includes a gentleman who plays bagpipes—and dons a kilt.
Of course, artistic quandary is the mother of conflation and Dropkick Murphys’ are-we-or-are-we-not-fill-in-the-blank? dilemmas have produced some rather thrilling, Sybil-like moments. Case in point: 2005’s “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” featured on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and touting lyrics cribbed from a Woody Guthrie poem. Swelling with an Irish folk-induced tension (accordion and banjo), the pressure-dissolving pinprick arrives in the chorus: pounding drums, raspy shouts of the song’s chorus, and what sounds like a tin whistle. The song is pure Shane McGowan, all fluthered, withering, and bipolar.
Unfortunately, the group’s sixth album only occasionally matches such heights. The best track on The Meanest of Times, “(F)lannigan’s Ball,” is a trad / thrash dust-up livened with colorful imagery: “Free beer on tap and wine for the ladies / Ziti and sauce for Mark Porzio / There were Faheys and Bradys, McAuliffes and Daleys / Courting the girls and dancing away.” Al Barr and Casey trade couplets with a pair of legendary, gravelly-throated vocalists: Spider Stacey (the Pogues) and Ronnie Drew (the Dubliners). And while the music isn’t undeniably Irish, the melancholic, suffer-for-your-art theme certainly is.
Another gem, “State of Massachusetts,” flaunts a banjo prologue nicked from any early Clancy Brothers’ album, before scampering away from the band’s sonic attack: a punishing tempo, three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust, and a rhythm section with all the energy of a back-room pub- session.
“Fairmount Hill” (a reworked version of the Irish folk lament “Spancill Hill”) is an ode to Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, a prodigal son returning to a childhood enclave. Dropkick Murphys still hammer out tunes with a proletarian bent (the gritty “Tomorrow’s Industry”), but equally affecting are the songs where they mine a self-dubbed “wicked sensitive crew” vein. On “Fairmount Hill,” the group highlights the more positive aspects of their everyday relationships: the tribal loyalty, the undeniable trust, the friendly succor. The hearthstone warmth and humanity of standard Irish folk is missing in Dropkick Murphy’s electric jigging, but it’s clearly evident here in the written words.
Ultimately, The Meanest of Times stumbles when the folksy frayed stitching is torn away, exposing nothing but atrophied punk muscle. “Vices and Virtues” falls short of eliciting a requisite fist pump (a derisive snort is more like it), thanks to its canned sloganism in the chorus: “Whiskey, war, suicide, and guns!” “Shattered” strives to be a stabbing Oi! anthem, only its lyrics are just too dowdy: “What’s the matter with the human race / Everybody’s fighting for more power and money / Braveheart’s a racist / The paperboy’s a junkie.”
Unlike previous pop artists who’ve borrowed Irish folk’s intimacy (the Pogues) or its ability to spellbind (Clannad), Dropkick Murphys tap into the genre’s visceral energy. But as The Meanest of Times proves, the band’s often clueless in where exactly they should channel it.