"It's a feel-good summer jam!" says Dropkick Murphys guitarist Mark Orrell as he slouches in a chair and picks at his Les Paul. "Roll the windows down!"
He's talking about "Sunshine Highway," the sing-along single from The Warrior's Code (due Tuesday from Hellcat). And he's joking. But the anthemic burst, with its rollicking accordion and coruscating chorus, comes about as close to a "feel-good summer jam" as the Murphys are likely to get. Its radio-friendliness is a small departure for these Boston-bred Irish punks. ("What?" wrote one incredulous blogger. "This from the band who wrote 'Boys on the Docks' and 'Barroom Hero'? This is the closest thing they've ever written to a song by the Turtles.") But then you notice the lyrics: "Thorazine . . . Paraldehyde . . . Drop me off, sign me in, clean me up, and let me out."
"The song's basically about going to detox," says singer/bassist Ken Casey, who's convening with Orrell and the rest of the band at their Southie practice space. But if "Sunshine Highway" deals playfully with a serious issue, much of The Warrior's Code takes somber subjects --- war and the soldiers who fight it, urban poverty, fallen friends --- and sets them to the bruising but melodic punk that's the Dropkicks' stock-in-trade. There's plenty of fun to be had here: the bawdy trad-Irish cover ("Captain Kelly's Kitchen"), a hilarious takedown of young punk wanna-be thugs ("Wicked Sensitive Crew"), even a sheet of found Woody Guthrie lyrics cast as a thunderous sea chantey ("I'm Shipping Up to Boston"). But the songs that resonate most on the Dropkicks' fifth full-length are the ones sung with a straight face or a teary eye.
If you don't count "Tessie" --- the Red Sox fight-song single tacked on to the end of the disc --- The Warrior's Code is bookended by two songs dedicated to fallen friends. The first, the ferocious, bagpipe-filled "Your Spirit's Alive," is a paean to Greg "Chickenman" Riley, who was killed in a motorcycle accident last May. "He traveled with the band, kept us in good spirits," Casey says. "He was always there to keep things in perspective, and his passing was a shock for all of us."
The lyrics of "Last Letter Home" take the form of an epistolary exchange between a soldier and his family. Casey reveals, "We based it on correspondences: parents to a son in Iraq, wife to a husband in Iraq, the soldier to the family, with the third verse being the notification from the military that the soldier had died." Then the Dropkicks were forwarded a letter from Andrew Farrar, a Marine sergeant from Weymouth who was killed this January in Fallujah, in which he told his family that, should anything happen to him, he wanted the band's version of the mournful Irish ballad "The Fields of Athenry" to be played at his funeral. "The letter was a carbon copy of the song," says Casey. "The whole thing was very eerie, how they paralleled each other. So we rewrote the song to include excerpts from his letter." The band attended the funeral and played "Fields" on the pipes as Farrar's casket was carried into the church.
Singer Al Barr stresses that "Last Letter Home" is not an anti-war song. "Being Americans right now, living in this country, and having friends and family . . . everyone you know knows somebody over there. The subject matter obviously hits everybody. As Americans, I think it was a way for us to write a song about what was going on without being for or against."
"The people who are gung ho pro-war need to think a little bit longer and harder about the people they're sending out to die, and whether it's worth it," Casey says. "And the people who are gung ho against war need to at least respect the people who have gone and given their lives." Echoing that sentiment is the band's reading of "Green Fields of France," a funereal parable about a World War I enlistee by Australian folkie Eric Bogle. But that song's anti-war sentiment was merely coincidental; the band had been meaning to cover it for years. "Again," drummer Matt Kelly says, "it's the human element of the war rather than just some diatribe."
And the album's title has nothing to do with soldiers in the field. The title track is about the Lowell welterweight pug and working-class hero "Irish" Mickey Ward. (That's him landing a vicious left hook on the album cover.) "In sports nowadays, there're very few people who make you think it's not all about money, who really have the heart and do it for the love of what they're doing," Casey says. "And Mickey somehow did that. He'd be fighting big fights and working construction on the side. Just didn't appear to be in it for the glitz and the glamor. We're kinda documenting history. I feel that's kind of what we do, whether it's family, military, regional, local, whatever it is."
When the Dropkicks head out once again on the Warped Tour this weekend, they'll have their old friends and new labelmates the Unseen along for support. (Warped hits Northampton's Three County Fairgrounds on August 15.) "Thank God" they're on the tour," says Barr.
"We're gonna try to park all our vehicles and make sort of a compound," Casey interjects. "A lot of these bands we don't know or like. And they probably don't like us. But that doesn't mean you gotta be in the lunch line giving people dirty looks. They're young kids, they're on a major label for the first time and having a party every night, and you're on a bus with your child trying to get some sleep. And sometimes . . . " Kelly finishes the thought: " . . . things get a little wacky!"
THE UNSEEN have graduated from stints on Anti-Flag's AF Records and the Youth Brigade--founded BYO, and Casey thinks their Hellcat debut, State of Discontent, is their best yet. He should know; he produced it. "It's heavier than their previous records, and more melodic at the same time. If you keep those elements, you're able to keep old fans and win over new ones."
Over Budweiser longnecks at the Common Ground, magenta-mohawked singer Mark Unseen, bassist Tripp, and guitarist Scott all agree Casey was the man for the job.
"He knows what we're supposed to sound like," says Tripp. "We've played with them forever. I think the Dropkicks' first ever show outside of Boston, they played with us in like '95. We stayed at the same level, and they skyrocketed to international superstardom." His mates laugh. "It was good to have someone like that. Someone who could help us maintain the raw intensity of our sound and help us bring in more . . . I don't want to say polished elements, but elements that are outside what we're used to doing. It makes it a little more of an appealing record for people that aren't straight-up diehard, mohawk, leather-jacket types."
It was Casey's idea for the band to include an excoriating cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," and to enlist his cousin Laura to play cello on Discontent's cataclysmic opening track, the anti-suicide "On the Other Side." A decade ago, cello was not something you'd have expected to hear on an Unseen song. Tripp says, "I look over and I see Ken with this weird look on his face. He always looks like he's got a hundred ideas in his head. He looks at his cousin, and he looks back at us, and I knew right then. I was like, 'I know what you're thinking. You're thinking of using a weird instrument in the song, right?' "
It's a fitting beginning for a CD that takes the hurtling rage of the Unseen's earlier work and focuses it into a soundscape of razor-sharp guitars, lightning drum salvos, and propulsive bass. They're all corralled into a roller-coaster of whiplash stops and starts, deceivingly placid lulls, and cathartic releases.
The lyrics are also a departure. The Unseen have always been political --- even, says Tripp, in the "warm 'n' fuzzy" Clinton years. But this, says Mark, is "actually one of our less political records. The name State of Discontent could have two meanings. A lot of people aren't happy with the way things are being run right now, so that's one. But also, in everyday life . . . say you're going through a tough time now, you can't pay your bills, or you broke up with a long-time girlfriend or whatever, or your life just sucks."
One of the CD's more explicit political statements is the apoplectic "Weapons of Mass Deception," a fulmination against manipulative network news and political discourse screamed in beet-red fury amid a swirling vortex of static and garbled broadcast media.
"Bush bashing is so popular right now, it's kind of a hindrance to us," Tripp admits. "We've always been political. That was part of our selling point. Now we live in a world where bands like Good Charlotte and Simple Plan are writing political songs. They're stealing the only thing we had going for us! I'm glad that people are finally starting to take their heads out of their asses, and realizing how awful things are. On the other hand, we're losing our gimmick, man!"
BY MIKE MILIARD