What the world needs now is a new Mighty Mighty Bosstones album. Seriously. At a time when so much of the industry’s output has become the musical equivalent of junk mail, a new Bosstones album is like receiving a series of postcards from a vacationing friend: handwritten, infectiously fun, wish-you-were-here inclusive, and, overall, personal. And fortunately for the world, the Boston-based wild bunch was recently inspired to record one of its best thus far.
“I just want the people who like the Bosstones to get this album and go, ‘this is great. It’s familiar yet new. It’s what we’ve come to expect from these guys,’” says ring leader Dicky Barrett. “Those are the victories; that’s what we shoot for, which is a lot.”
And A Jacknife to a Swan feels like victory. As the title suggests, the punk, ska and reggae inflected album simultaneously makes a huge splash and gracefully cuts the surface with songcraft perfected over the band’s last two albums, 1997’s platinum-selling Lets Face It and 2000’s Pay Attention. That was the Bosstones’ intent when they began recording their seventh studio album in Boston late last year with producer John Seymour (Sick Of It All, Bouncing Souls, Maxwell).
“We thought we were had some quality songs on those albums, so we didn’t want to go backwards in that department,” says Dicky, who co-wrote the album with bassist Joe Gittleman and new-ish guitarist Lawrence Katz. “But we also wanted this album to feel grittier and sound nastier.”
The vocalist accomplishes that feat with the lyrics alone. On the breakneck “Mr. Moran,” for instance, Dicky sketches a portrait of mafia turncoat Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who used the alias Moran after testifying against mob boss John Gotti and the Gambino crime family.
“I wanted to write a song about a real dark character,” he explains, “but then I wanted to hit the chorus like Dr. Seuss with a simplistic melody and rhyme scheme, so you’re almost singing a nursery rhyme about a killer. And I liked how Gravano’s witness-protection alias was this Irish name. There were like 9000 Mr. Morans when I was growing up in Boston. A Mr. Moran lived on every corner.”
As with past Bosstones albums, many of A Jacknife to a Swan's songs lead back to the group’s hometown—or what’s left of it. “I Want My City Back” finds Dicky in a reflective mood, mourning the loss of Kenmore Square’s Rathskeller club where the Bosstones got their start as a plaid-sporting, Two-Tone-influenced party band in the mid ‘80s. (more) 2 “The Rat was our entire city. After they took down that block, I wanted to sing about that place being the world to me.”
“The Old School Off The Bright” also finds Dicky gazing back to move forward. Over one of the band’s signature horn-punctuated rhythms, the vocalist growls through a virtual Noah’s Ark of scenesters who form the Bosstones fanbase.
“The Old School” is a rallying cry—whatever condition the lads might be in, let’s get them together and blow up again; let’s set it off, which I think can be said about a Bosstones show. Old school, new school, whatever—it really doesn’t matter. It’s an everybody-into-the-pool attitude and atmosphere.”
Fittingly, the band has returned to its roots with this album, signing with the Los Angeles-based independent label SideOneDummy Records after recording for Mercury/Island/Def Jam through most of the ‘90s. According to Dicky, the band’s new label is a “match made in heaven” after spending years fighting major-label bureaucracy.
“You don’t want to live someplace where people aren’t making you feel completely at ease,” he says. “If one person at the label says, ‘I’m not feeling the Bosstones,’ then we’re not feeling the house. It’s like, ‘alright, we’ll take our enormous fanbase and the songs we believe in, and we’ll go someplace else.’”
As the cutting lyrics to “Go Big” suggest, the Bosstones measure success in ways that many labels and bands have seemingly forgotten.
“’Going Big’ doesn’t just mean ‘do you want to completely dominate the world?’” says Dicky, “the song is a personal message to friends rather than us thinking we could be, I don’t know, U2 or whoever. But a lot of my lyrics pose those kind of ‘do you or don’t you’ questions. I always build in these lyrical parachutes. Nothing is etched in stone. That’s always been my philosophy. And even in the songs where it seems like I’m making some broad statement, if you listen closely, you usually find the parachute.”
One thing is for certain, though, after releasing albums for nearly two decades and touring incessantly to deliver the music, Dicky has become a role model for fans and aspiring bands alike.
“Yeah, I’m a role model—but I’m not a good one,” he says with a laugh. “I know how to do the Bosstones, but I don’t know how to do anyone else’s band or music.”
And what’s the secret to his success?
“I set the bar really low on the first album. I sang like crap from the very beginning. Now when I make any improvement, it sounds like I’m Pavarotti, ‘This guy’s getting better!’ That’s just because I underachieved in the beginning. That’s pretty much my advice to kids: Set the bar low.”