Released Apr. 30th on Victory Records
The drama surrounding Streetlight Manifesto’s fifth album is as interesting as their genre-expanding music. First off, the band are notorious for taking a long time to put out records and for announcing plans that don’t pan out. For example, 5 years ago they promised “99 Songs of Revolution”, a massive covers project totaling 99 songs over 8 albums by 4 artists, but to date it’s only resulted in 1 album of 11 songs (if you haven’t heard their cover of The Postal Services’ “Such Great Heights”, please do so now). The Hands That Thieve was supposed to come out in 2012 but was delayed multiple times due to frontman Tomas Kalnoky’s tendency to “remix, rewrite and, in general, redo everything a few times”.
Secondly, they’ve had a much-publicized contentious relationship with their record label, Victory. The bad blood dates all the way back to 1997 or so when Kalnoky first signed to the label at age 16 with his then-act Catch 22, but it didn’t really become evident until around 2004 when Victory sought to capitalize on the growing popularity of Kalnoky’s new act, Streetlight Manifesto, by re-releasing Catch 22’s Keasbey Nights album. Kalnoky viewed the plan as a deceptive cash-grab by both the label and his former bandmates, and instead decided to re-record the entire thing with Streetlight. The relationship between band and label only got worse from there. On multiple occasions Streetlight has encouraged their fans to boycott Victory entirely and to buy the music directly from the band instead, or even just download it illegally. Victory refused to send the band copies of The Hands That Thieve in advance, preventing them from fulfilling preorders, and forced Kalnoky to cancel his companion acoustic album The Hand That Thieves (recorded under his solo pseudonym Toh Kay) on the eve of its release. Meanwhile Streetlight has taken Victory to court over shady finances, under the irony that their own album sales are helping fund the label they’re fighting.
With all this going on, it’s not too surprising that Streetlight Manifesto are retiring from being a full-time band and will be wrapping up their final major tour in the next few weeks. With their contract to Victory fulfilled, they’ll release any future recordings on their own. Knowing all this, it’s easy to read the album title and many of Kalnoky’s lyrics as lashing out at the label. On the title track, for example, he sings “Because the night is long / And our foes are strong / But I know that the road we’re traveling on / It only seems so dark because we’ve almost reached the dawn / And everyone will claim that they knew from the beginning / That what they did was wrong, but they still just went on sinning”. Themes of ethics, morality, mortality, and human frailty come up throughout the album, delivered in a poetically bittersweet manner.
Musically, Streetlight remain unlike most other ska-punk bands, and it’s easy to hear why many looked to them with hope that a fourth wave of creativity and popularity was going to sweep the ska genre (the musical landscape has changed far too much since the ’90s for that to really happen, IMO). Their tunes have always gone well beyond the good-time party music expected of the genre, veering off in many directions filled with musical flourishes and a gypsy-like, anything-goes quality. This is likely attributable to Kalnoky’s eastern European heritage: Of Greek descent, he was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated with his family to New Jersey at age 5; he’s cited Czech folk singer Jaromír Nohavica as a major influence alongside third wave ska-punk acts like the Suicide Machines. Within a single song the band will jump into several different-sounding sections seemingly on a whim. Combine that with an average track length of 5 minutes on this record, and each composition feels less like a cohesive song and more like an assemblage of ever-shifting parts incorporating numerous musical styles and influences into a zesty stew. Naming your favorite Streetlight song may prove difficult, but chances are you’ll remember your favorite parts from several.
The Hands That Thieve is a fine addition to Streetlight’s already-excellent discography, and if it proves to be their last, it’s a good album to go out on.