Popularity can be a mixed bag for a band. With mass acceptance often comes a form of indentured servitude, with each entitled fan expecting the band to continue his or her personal notion of the band's trajectory, even if that trajectory is effectively standing still. Moody pop-punksters Alkaline Trio have been butting heads with that particular demon over the course of their last few releases, which have been met with a consistent salvo of boo-hooing from longtime fans who complain that the AT of Agony and Irony isn't the same as the AT of fan-favorite debut Goddamnit!. Of course, as the band grew in prominence, new fans jumped on each album's bandwagon. With less history, these new fans encouraged AT, even as the band moved from the raw, throaty, heart rending vitality of its earliest work to encompass a more polished, pop friendly sound. Soon, Matt Skiba and company found themselves lodged between the adulations of fans weaned on the more mature, even-handed sound of albums like 2005's Crimson, and the bitter nostalgia of lifers who seem to want nothing more than a reworking of the band's debut.
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This Addiction, released late last month, is like Alkaline Trio's Rosetta Stone, offering a common language for interpreting the band's catalogue thus far, with enough diction borrowed from both old and new Alkaline Trio to please both ends of its fan base. Releasing the album on the band's own brand new, Epitaph-based Heart and Skull imprint allowed Alkaline Trio the freedom to craft the album entirely in its own image, without an "A&R man breathing down our necks," says Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba. The result is an album that feels at once like a tightly controlled distillation of the band's history, and like a reset of sorts. "I think it's a bit of a culmination. It's its own thing, but I think it's very representative of the band; where we're at now, but also of where we've been", says Skiba.
It's kind of like AT is trying to grab its past and pull it forward to catch up with its present, and it works strikingly well. The band goes a long way to mend fences, crafting a set of songs that harkens back to its earliest years of straightforward rock efficacy bookended by the raw edge of punk and the melodic sensibilities of pop. At the same time, This Addiction continues AT's efforts to adopt the composed attitude and polish of a pop album, and expand its sonic palette. "We never want to make the same record twice, but we wanted to go back to the way we wrote Goddamnit! and From Here To Infirmary. We wrote those records in our practice space, when we all lived in the same city. While we were touring with Agony and Irony, we wrote this album at sound checks on stages all around the world. I think there's still a progression there, we've brought in some elements we've never used before, but I think the spirit is there." While the album focuses on simplicity, with fairly sparse production and an aggressive, guitar-centric sound, there's also a sense of finesse at play, as if the band is more comfortable with this material than any of its previous work. Where This Addiction offers up novelty, it comes likewise couched in uncomplicated terms, like a simple brass part popping up in the middle of a punchy, melodic guitar rave-up. Fences mended or not, this album shows AT more capable than ever of straddling the line between punk spirit and pop flourishes. Hopefully their fans will be willing to take that stride with them. With Cursive and The Dear & Departed, 7 p.m. Friday, March 26, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483 or www.warehouselive.com.