OK I need to admit something right now: I like Pop-Punk. Maybe even love it. There I said it. Glad to get it out of the way.
All of which is a segue into this review of Impossible by the Artist Life. The Artist Life do not hide their pop-punk style - press material, web info, and other references to the band consistently affirm the suburban, pop punk basis for their music. But the band has been working hard for a while - formed in 2006 by Ian Blackwood (formerly with Jersey) on vocals and guitar and Dean Richards on guitar and vocals, the four piece has had some lineup changes and now includes Jake Parsonson on drums and Justin Zoltek on bass. The band's Living EP lead to some rotation on MuchMusic as well as a positive comments from Alternative Press and ChartAttack.
Musically, Impossible falls squarely in the pop-punk mold: soaring vocals, fist pumping chants in response, melodic, fast guitar riffs, head bopping beats, and fast songs are evident on almost every track. Alkaline Trio, Hot Water Music, and Boysetsfire all come to mind when listening (though the more hardcore tendencies of the latter two are not present here). Yet the band has given us a hint of diversity in "I'm Not the Same Anymore", which features lovely acoustic strumming with electronic string arrangements.
Lyrically, The Artist Life has the standard stable of love songs. Title track Impossible is typical - "We were young and reckless. But I was crazier than you." Lost Again has the friends forever approach down pat: "When you're lost again, I promise I'll be there". Dear Suzanne is a letter to an old lover, asserting (but letting go) of old grievances. Suicide Girl delivers a complex message about loving someone who might be considered a misfit and who is in trouble and confused about her situation: "She's on the brink of love and I'm on the brink of death." These songs are not surprising, as they tackle the subjects most likely to gain popular radio play and record sales with typical pop punk fans. They're fun, for sure, but nothing that stands out in that genre.
But thankfully the Artist Life are much more than that. The band's name is taken from their own existence: the life of relentless touring, poverty, and dreams about actually making money from their craft. Music Is My Misery captures the inherent contradictions of the business of being a Canadian musician: you do it because you love it but you hope to at least make a living from it, however hard that is. This paradox is echoed in the chorus: "Music is my misery. And this is my cure." Yet the band still rejoices in the pleasures of bringing music to the people: "I dream of crowds that go on forever. See somebody singing together. Moments so perfect with one another. I dream this lasts forever."
That nod to the socio-economic problems facing musicians is a natural bridge to the band's more political tunes. In an article published by the Gazette, a paper at Western in London, Blackwood talked about his influences: “Music should make you think and inspire you. It shouldn’t be some lame song about nothing; it should give you a message, whatever that message is. I don’t care if it makes you want to drink a beer or if it makes you want to help somebody." That interest in social issues is taken up on several songs on this record, most notably the opener, Working Class Revolt.
It's interesting that I write this review just as CUPW workers are being ordered back to work by the Federal Government. The Artist Life capture the difficulties of working for basic necessities ("Trying to forget! We're not desperate."), while at the same time praising and supporting direct actions in the streets: "Can you hear the voices sing? Heroes marching on the streets." This song is a prescient reminder that most Canadians are workers for a living. Steel City picks up on this theme, not surprising from a band mostly hailing from Burlington. The song is a tribute to a hard working parent, while lamenting the limits of that working arrangement. Teeny Was a Friend of Mine takes the social commentary in a different direction: Teeny is down and out on the streets, not even able to work. His family has abandoned him ("His whole family thinks he's dead."), and the song is a plea to give him another chance.
The record closes with the hard-hitting Fighter Planes vs. Foreign Aid. The Artist Life pull no punches here. In a direct attack on Western nations who are fighting overseas more than giving, the band challenges its fans to address this issue: "The choice is up to you and me.....You want to call this a democracy?" These lyrics fall squarely in the tradition of great political punk bands, from The Clash to Rancid to Hot Water Music. The Artist Life know their punk history, and it takes guts to emulate it in these songs. The band does a great job of combining pop-punk friendliness with both traditional love songs and bold political statements. I hope they continue to explore the socio-polital aspects of songwriting, as they clearly have a powerful, positive message to give.