There are very few bands you can listen to without spotting their influences. Scratch that. I can’t think of any. Even bands with a sound as distinctive as that of, say, The Flaming Lips, reveal their record collections to you if you pay attention. The real test, then, is whether or not your band can put a unique stamp on a great record collection. For example, no one will deny that Cream did amazing things with their influences – they fed Robert Johnson magic mushrooms and took him on a wild, psychedelic ride (for you youngsters in the crowd, this was waaaaaaaay back in the day, before Clapton started to suck as brutally as he sucks now). As a counterpoint, you can tell from listening to John Mayer that he owns and has committed to memory every single Stevie Ray Vaughan album. And he’s translated his love of SRV into… becoming a poor man’s Johnny Lang (for those of you who don’t know who Johnny Lang is, just understand that being any man’s Johnny Lang is unacceptable).
Any first listen of any given Radio America tune will betray a love of The Clash and The Beatles. The Radio Americans are not shy about their political leanings, but they understand that melody is a good thing. But The Beatles and The Clash are epic figures in our musical heritage and the brazen taking-up of their respective mantles is problematic. If you’re going to stand on a stage in 2008 (or “2007”, the lead-off track to Radio America’s new You Will Pay for This EP) and declare, “There’s no Beatles, Clash, or Rolling Stones/ and we’re finally on our own,” you’d better have the chops to back it up. Radio America has set these stakes for themselves and have rose to the occasion admirably.
Since 2006’s Raise High, the band has undergone some personnel shifts – Tom Stuart and Jesse Reno, original criminal masterminds for the group, are still present but have added Gabe Wilhelm and Robby Van Saders on, respectively, guitar and drums. The sound is still loud and brash, but there’s a new dynamic on You Will Pay for This – Radio America is stepping a little bit away from their punk rock roots without ever losing track of where they came from. The EP still bears the mark of some kids who have memorized London Calling but these kids are smart enough to know that, while imitation is a sincere form of flattery, a little goes a long way and too much makes for a boring listen. So You Will Pay for This starts off with vocals front and center: “Bones/On/Bones” starts off “2007”, which goes on to suggest that the Rolling Stones your alcoholic stepdad is paying $400 to see are not the Rolling Stones who gave us Exile On Main Street. “2007” stakes Radio America’s claim on the flag of their forebears – for better or worse, these guys (originally from Worcester, MA but now hanging out in New York) are going to weld their punk politics to their pop sensibilities and it’s a good thing. Because it’s 2008: there’s no Clash (raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer) and there’s really not much of a Bad Religion anymore either.
“27 Octobre” follows “2007” with Reno’s bass and Van Saders’ drums propelling the song under a Dick Dale guitar riff. And then in comes Stuart singing about the “deafening clash/ of riot gear” and buy the time he gets to the refrain, the backing vocals pop up (truth be told, Stuart’s never met a “bop-bop-ba-dudda-dudda” he didn’t like; see “Mahabharata” for keen examples of this). “27 Octobre” showcases the vocal dynamic between Stuart and Jesse Reno – Reno’s the growler, Stuart’s the crooner (for want of a better word – put it this way: Tom Stuart sounds more like Joey Ramone and Reno’s voice has evolved to a snarls like Tom Waits’ vocals on “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” Hmm… note to Radio America – round of beers on me on September 20th if Jesse sings “Anywhere I Lay My Head” during your set at Lobsterfest.). Stuart and Reno make great use of their respective voices all over You Will Pay for This, but never to greater effect than on “Battle Hymn,” the centerpiece of the EP and a song I’ve literally just listened to five times in a row… make that six.
“Battle Hymn,” starts off with a little pseudo-reggae lick and then jumps full bore into a loud-ass guitar squall. Then comes Reno, growling “hold on to courage/ hold on to pride”, building toward the chorus, warning a brave soldier not to scream, “there’s blood on my hands.” “Battle Hymn,” also features Stuart’s trademark pointedness: “Boy/ don’t you ever mix conviction/ with compassion” is a great lyric (although it would be helpful if it weren’t a Republican Party plank as well) that rivals his admonition to kids who “bleed red, white, and blue” to make sure they can reconcile their nations history with their beliefs on “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” (from Raise High).
“Nazarene” follows at break-neck speed; the scene unfolds at a nightclub, a “den of vice and sin” where the holy rollers are “begging you to welcome them back in” but the kids aren’t cut out for salvation – they’re just ordinary Nazarenes. The point of the song seems to be that Jesus went out for a pack of smokes 2000 years ago and, would ya lookit the time, he just hasn’t made it back yet. And he’s unlikely to, no matter how the holy rollers “compliment or spin.” The song features a breakdown that is an instrumental nod to “Death on the Stairs,” by The Libertines (this is the kind of pop culture reference that pervades Radio America’s catalog; little guitar licks here and there that call to their influences but only the musically well-read will catch them. If you listen to “(Raise) Higher,” the 10 minute epic from Raise High, you’ll notice a guitary nod to “Marquee Moon” by Television. Or you won’t.).
The last new tune on You Will Pay for This (it closes with a live version of “Mahabharata”) is “Dead Man Rock (Pistolero)”, Radio America’s modern spaghetti-western soundtrack song (apparently Ennio Morricone has joined Strummer/Jones and Lennon/McCartney in the Radio America pantheon of heroes). “Dead Man Rock” marks Radio America’s furthest departure from the sound of Raise High, proving that they’ve expanded their horizons with no loss of quality, asking “How many people/ will honestly teach you/ to stand up and fight for your rights?”
Overall, You Will Pay For This marks a new and exciting direction for Radio America and will hopefully garner them a little more widespread attention (although they’re getting rave concert reviews on the East Coast, I’m very excited to see them coming to LA next month. Radio America is exactly what a city that still loves Motley Crue needs right now). You can still spot their influences in every song, but what you can’t do is deny the earnestness of their intentions, the cleverness of their lyrics, and the volume of their awesome. To Tom, Jesse, Gabe, and Robby – big ups to ya, see you next month, and I’m totally serious about the “Anywhere I Lay My Head” thing.