Riverboat Gamblers - Underneath the Owl
Record Label: Volcom Entertainment
Release Date: March 10, 2009
Getting old sucks. No, I can't complain about the aches, pains and general woes of old age - hopefully, decent fitness habits will keep those away for a long time to come - but with advanced age comes certain societal expectations, in terms of maturity and what behaviors are deemed acceptable. I've always vehemently denied that I'll ever grow up, but deep down, I've always had the nagging suspicion that it's inevitable. If any proof of this were needed, it comes in the form of Underneath the Owl and the evolution of the Riverboat Gamblers.
If there's a band that's earned the reputation of being relentless party boys, it's the Gamblers, but this record finds them taking it a little bit easier. It's not that their sound has changed all that much; this album sounds a bit more polished than their previous work, but they haven't gone all New Wave on us. It is their scope, however, that has broadened beyond that of the band who penned lines like "The kids in juvy know who I am!" on their first album. There's still fun to be had, no doubt, but Underneath the Owl exudes a sense of balance, an acceptance that there's more to life than just letting the good times roll.
Sonically, there is also a little more diversity on this album than in the band's previous work, which could be considered exhausting and one-dimensional, though thoroughly enjoyable in the right time and place. You wouldn't know it from the outset, though, as "Dissdissdisskisskisskiss" opens the album with a quick shot of fast punk, squarely in line with the band's back catalog and clocking in at under two minutes. "A Choppy, Yet Sincere Apology" is an immediate change of pace, featuring guitars that ring, rather than riff, and singer Mike Wiebe addressing depression.
The early highlight is the rollicking "Catastrophe," which rocks in typical Riverboat Gamblers fashion, but carries a decidedly dark tone for these typically freewheeling Texans, as Wiebe sings of "a world in flames." Similar imagery turns up on "Alexandria," with the lyrics "Even if the headlines got it wrong, where there's smoke, there's some fire and some burnt remains." The song treads the stylistic middle ground between straight-up NOFX punk and the garage aesthetic of Mando Diao. Not content to stay confined within the boundaries of their trademark sound, the band lay down a surprising mid-tempo groove on the verses of the grim "Pilgrims in an Unholy Land," before the raucous singalong chorus erupts.
No matter what hat the Gamblers try on, the songs remain immediately accessible. Observe the driving classic rock rhythm of "Sleepless" and try not to nod your head during the almost post-punk "Robots May Break Your Heart" (is that a glockenspiel in there?!). Perhaps the most unexpected moment on Underneath the Owl is the slide guitar-dusted ballad, fittingly titled "The Tearjerker," which sounds much more like the work of a Nashville producer than that of famed metal specialist Mudrock.
Just when you think they've gone all soft, the band follow up their foray into country with "Keep Me From Drinking," a free-spirited ode to alcohol and narcotics. "Steer Clear" probably has the flattest melody on an album that's otherwise jam packed with hooks, but it's saved by searing guitar work and widely relatable lyrics about avoiding going to places where you might run into an ex you'd rather not see, especially with her new boyfriend. The album closes in light-hearted style with "Victory Lap," which is appropriate, as this is the Riverboat Gamblers' most triumphant effort to date.
With Underneath the Owl, the Riverboat Gamblers show that they still know how to have a good time, but also exhibit a more worldly awareness and the maturity to recognize that they exist in uncertain times - the maturity to distinguish between living in the moment and living for the moment, and not becoming too preoccupied with either. It's a maturity that's come, not with reluctance, but with grace. For their latest album, I raise a tall glass to the Riverboat Gamblers. Perhaps growing up isn't so bad after all.
EDIT: my copy finally arrived and god damn this a quality album. The best thing about the gamblers is each album is really a step forward in their sound and yet they all fucking rock just as hard as each other.