Dead to Me - Moscow Penny Ante
Record Label: Fat Wreck Chords
Release Date: October 25, 2011
"So early in my life, I'd learned that if you want something, you better make some noise." - Malcolm X
Fittingly, Dead To Me's style of politically doused punk rock triggers a lot of commotion: unprovoked middle fingers; googly-eyed Clash homages; metaphorical album titles/imagery that romanticize peoples of the Global South; and underdog solidarity chants. 2009 felt one of Bay Area's rowdiest brew an experiment-to-taste for reggae and rock lovers alike on African Elephants, but while genre-surfing can embolden wild forays such as the Clash's rude boy schticks and X-Ray Spex's charismatic sax numbers, the staying power of African Elephants flipped into a mangy thicket. Whether the band was sticking to trial and error arrangements or sticking together was difficult to discern.
When Jack Dalrymple's musical offerings went comatose (he left the band after Little Brother for fatherhood duties), Dead to Me's heartfelt prose erupted tenfold. Moscow Penny Ante a la head vocalist Tyson "Chicken" Annicharico trades thematically heavy punches, tailored for the sick, the brave, and the hustler. Not only does the three-part name equate to artist bootstraps subjected to corporate backwash, but also to an iconic Black man's expression concerning the "penny ante" aka crooks (in this case, corporate crooks vs the artistic hustler). And that name is Malcolm X. Thus, it's very tempting to judge that an "I'm so punk I'm dripping with elitisms" complex clothe them based on such profound inspiration, but it's more an "I'm badder and realer than Run DMC" tantrum charging us. When a rush of sensitivity overtakes "Dead Pigeon Tricks" to mic an up close and personal Annicharico: "Paint all my pain away, avoid all the pain today", we get it. His drug addiction ode, it is the most magnetic song on the album lyrically speaking.
Chicken's high register bristle adds a blissful bump, and if it was absent, Sam Johnson's ska-esque downstrokes and note lingering in opener "Undertow" would limp, not bounce. If it wasn't for the natural vibe between Johnson and fellow guitarist Ken Yamazaki, "The Monarch Hotel" would lose its surefire grip on '95 Epitaph era punk and Descendents sifted chord progressions. If it wasn't for Chicken's upwardly facing outcries, saucy closer "The Whole World Has Gone Mad" would have its attention seeking card revoked. Its catchy, pummeling chorus:"The whole world, the whole world's gone maaaad" resonates as loudly as the current marches on Wall Street. The most uninspired moments are wedged in between those aforementioned solid tracks. Monotone riffs and surprisingly deadbeat vocals in "The Evolution Will Be Tele-Visualized" and "The Hand With Inherited Rings" de-twinkle the songs and suckerpunch any built up excitement. Charming political story-tales or not, mediocre tracks are about as interesting as a math statistics documentary.
Moscow Penny Ante nevertheless opens up to a good bit of exotic adventures: xylophone jingles, provocative drumming, and red carpets for Gil-Scott Heron, Oscar Wilde, Malcolm X, and countless other polemicists to traverse. In their best revelations, one could say Dead to Me slept on frayed couches for two years, were jolted awake by blips of inspiration, and defenestrated that radiance into their songs. But overall, Moscow Penny Ante is a less musically time warped African Elephants, a more elaborate Cuban Ballerina, and partial b-sides.