Best of 2012: We know something’s died
This year’s release from Hostage Calm is one of the boldest, most audacious records of 2012, hands-down. The Philadelphia pop-rock band with a political bent not only sought to continue broadening its sound with Please Remain Calm but it also endeavoured to encapsulate what life is like for everyday Americans in the post-recession United States. It’s an album that absolutely could not have existed in any other point in time (although I suppose you could probably say that about every album ever and it would be at least somewhat true, but you know what I mean).
I’ll be the first to admit that I was overly laudatory in praising the band’s self-titled album. Steering away from the more-generic hardcore punk sound of their first album the band expanded its palette at the time to include more pop elements and oddball arrangements. On the basis of half a dozen perfect tracks I named it one of the best albums of 2010, overlooking a few others that were either just okay or missed their mark. That’s not an issue this time around, however. Hostage Calm has pushed itself even further into that melodic pop territory while honing its lyricism into a tight thematic arch.
It’s an album rife with difficult subject matter, plumbing the depths of the American psyche in the post-Bush era and the desperation that exists alongside the economic collapse and the raft of home foreclosures that left so many people all but destitute. The stage is set from the start with a hat trick of some of the most tightly-arranged pop rock released this year. “On Both Eyes” starts things off by examining the plight of Americans whose homes were foreclosed on after the market crash in 2008. “It’s a distant land, the one where we live,” they sing, “but it slipped from our hands. The grass overgrown, the broken family home. See the place where we grew up turned a circus for gamblers and gawkers and thieves. When the word got around, we spilled out on the streets as the banks decorate every house in defeat.” The tempo rises and falls throughout the song as the five-piece barrels through the passionate number with abandon, reflecting the beaten-down and broken spirit of so many Americans. However, the tenacity of the downtrodden is embodied in a single line of optimism: “We knew we didn’t have much but it was ours.”
The tenor is also much the same just minutes later on “Brokenheartland.” Lead singer Chris Martin (no, not that Chris Martin) has worked hard on his singing voice in the last few years and he’s in top shape here, going from nearly speak-singing some of the faster verses to hitting a remarkable high note at the song’s apex. “No one knows who won the wars,” he insists, reflecting on his country’s on-going armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, “but we know something died. Sleepless, workless, Stuck in line. Giving in for the first time. We just stopped waiting for someone to save us. ” Desperation is the overriding emotion here but disbelief and cynicism also can’t help but make an appearance as he ends the song wondering, “They tell me we got something to lose. Like what, to whom?”
An album written and recorded in the midst of the Occupy movement can’t help but cast a wider glance as well. “Impossible!” touches on the upheaval in the Middle East, connecting the discontent in their home country with that being seen around the world. “Can’t you feel the unease? From these ‘troubled states’ to the Middle East, the youth of the world are alive in the streets. When the bell strikes four on the trading floor will freedom ring? In the scorching streets of the Arab Spring Tarhir Square sings, ‘Will freedom ring?'” After the big-rock guitar riffing of a song like the preceding “Woke Up Next To A Body” the band pumps the brakes and focuses on adding more texture. Acoustic guitars, handclaps, a bouncy rhythm, and glockenspiel add new elements that haven’t been seen before in their catalogue.
The group also attempts to make encapsulate the personal issues people are facing in the midst of so much economic trouble. “The M Word” does it by examining the state of marriage and its devolving history. Against slight acoustic guitar parts and a tear-jerking string arrangement the song’s narrator cautions a young woman that she shouldn’t consider a proposal from her boyfriend. He outlines the suitor’s open criticisms of their relationship and his family’s legacy of broken homes and marriages, about the poison view he has of marriage and how that will lead to treatment even worse than the abuse she already suffers at his hand.
The song is a terrific musical transition into “Patriot” as well. Together they serve as further evidence that Hostage Calm is shadowing the musical transition of their pop-punk forefathers Bracket, who shifted their power chord-laden sound into an acoustic, Beach Boys-influenced, harmony-laced, glockenspiel- and accordian-flecked version of sunshine pop. “Patriot” comes as close to the Beach Boys as the group is able, consisting of multi-tracked a capella harmonies for most of the song with nothing more than some subtle percussion backing them up most of the way. The lyrics place the blame for America’s decline and the loss of a home squarely at the feet of the banking sector and government, proclaiming that, “Men of priviledge and class, they danced, they drank, they robbed the whole place blind. And drunk with pride, you hurt, you stole but I still carried you home.” The full band eventually kicks in for a stirring instrumental closing, featuring a rollicking guitar solo highlighted by ecstatically-bent strings.
To my mind that would’ve been the perfect ending for the album. It would’ve more than stood on its own as a nine-song record when the nine songs are this good. The number that follows, “Closing Remarks” would’ve also been a good way to end things. It brings the album full-circle musically, returning to the pop rock tone of the opening trio. Lyrically they return to musings on the state of the working class and the white collar types that brought them to their knees.
If there’s a stumbling point it’s the final song. “One Last Salute” feels somewhat tacked on. It attempts to be an epic but takes too long to get where it’s going. It’s down-tempo opening makes it sound like a mournful Christmas song thanks to its acoustic guitar strums and syncopated sleigh bell percussion. The band sounds almost bored before amping up into a more punk rock personage more than halfway through. But while the music proves less compelling the lyrics tie everything together in the last lines: “We been knocked around, we been kicked down. When the floor gave out we found common ground.”
The accomplishment of Please Remain Calm is that it avoids the sloganeering bent of more staunch, militantly political groups like Propagandhi; instead it focuses on the direct human impact of what the band sees as failed policy, on the malaise and suffering of the people impacted by it. Hostage Calm has distilled the desperation of a country at war with itself, creating a tapestry of empathy against the backdrop of ideology and partisanship that seems to be put above the need to improve the situation of those forced to the bottom. And it’s all set on a bed of some of the catchiest rock music assembled this year.
Please Remain Calm is more than just an album title to this band and its fans. It’s an excoriation of the panic, knee-jerk criticism, and illogical reactionary antagonism that emerges at the drop of a hat in our modern world. These songs are more than songs; they’re an attack on ennui, cynicism, desperation, and hopelessness. All the more impressive then that the songcraft is so damn good.