Something Fierce, Don’t Be So Cruel
Something Fierce is out to change the world. Not in any kind of end-world-hunger kind of way, mind you, but still, that’s the feeling I get after listening to Don’t Be So Cruel, the trio’s latest full-length. I mean, sure, they’ve always been about making things better in general — they’ve never been a tear-it-down punk band so much as a what’s-gone-wrong punk band — but up to now it felt street-level, focused right here on the scene, the people, the relationships directly around them.
Right from the start of Don’t Be So Cruel, however, it’s immediately obvious that that’s not what’s going on. The title track opens with a warning-slash-admonition that serves to lay the groundwork for the rest, seemingly pointing a finger at the people out there in the world at large who live pretty much to ratchet up the hatred and divide. As singer/guitarist Steven Garcia warns, though, it can’t last: “It’s okay if you don’t wanna be nice / but all that hate is gonna find you.”
From there, the band rolls through a smart, sharp-edged manifesto of sorts, one that points a finger at the world around us without getting on a soapbox. That’s a damn good thing, mind you, because only a small, small handful of bands can really pull off the truly pointed political punk song, and far, far too many more try their well-meaning hand at it and fail miserably. Something Fierce takes that yearning for change and turns it, instead, into a wide-open call to arms for anybody and everybody to sit up and pay attention.
Gone (well, mostly) are the songs about The Kids and love gone bad, with all the vitriol that entails, replaced by lyrics that are more far-reaching, almost global in their scope. It’s like the band sat up and realized that all the day-to-day bullshit was just that and decided to focus on the world beyond the swampy Houston streets. Even the songs that do aim lower, like the poignant, thoughtful “Before You Raised The Gun,” are cautionary and melancholy, more world-weary than angry.
I have to admit, by the way, that on first listen, I was a little worried. In the past, one of the best things about the Something Fierce crew has been their ability to blaze their way through fiery, furious little songs, tracks like the classic “Teenage Ruins,” “Hey Houston,” or “Come For The Bastards,” but that kind of barnburning fury’s in short supply here. For Don’t Be So Cruel, the band’s turned down and taken a step back, and I was nervous that, well, it just wouldn’t work.
Thankfully, they pull it off. One reason is the sly, Clash-like intelligence lurking in those songs — the band’s had it all along, from Come For The Bastards through to now, but it’s been almost drowned in breakneck drums and amps-on-10 guitars on previous releases. By stepping back a bit, Something Fierce tightens down its overall sound considerably and demonstrates that, holy shit, they can really write some great, great, nearly beautiful songs. Seriously — listen to the revved-up Northern Soul of “When You Hurt” and tell me I’m wrong.
Musically, The Clash casts a huge shadow over the whole thing, from the “Clampdown”-esque “What We Need Now,” which in itself reads like another warning, this time that they last thing we really need are the talking heads that surround us every day (and which also has an intro riff that fools me into thinking I’m about to hear “Whole Wide World”), to “Before You Raised The Gun,” which makes me think of “Hateful” more than anything else, to “Afghani Sands,” which (duh) can’t help but evoke “Rock the Casbah.”
There’s a heavy Jam influence snaking throughout, as well, particularly on tracks like “Future Punks,” “Ghosts of Industry,” and closer “Empty Screens” — the latter, by the way, is a hands-down classic that demands flinging your fist in the air (right after you turn off the TV, that is). The band channels some of that earlier roar on the There Are No Answers reprise of “Aliens Two” and “Dying Young These Days,” tempering things enough that it all flows together with scarcely a bump.
Hell, there’s not a bad song on here; probably my least favorite is the straightforwardly punkish “Bad Choice,” but even then, that’s not bad, just not-as-good. Highlights for me have got to be the murky “Afghani Sands,” the bouncing, finger-snapping “When You Hurt,” the grooving “Ghosts of Industry” (especially the hopeful-sounding mid-song break), the thoughtful smackdown of “What We Need Now,” and the aforementioned “Empty Screens,” and those are all hard, hard calls.
Taken as a whole, Don’t Be So Cruel is a huge step forward for this band. With this album, they’ve simultaneously made the risky move to turn down and branch out musically and tried to look beyond the often-petty crap 99% of all punk bands out there write about. And it’s fucking awesome. And yes, possibly even world-changing, at least in some small way. Somewhere up there, Joe Strummer is kicking back with a wide, wide grin on his face.