Rank Your Records: The Lawrence Arms' Brendan Kelly Explains Why 'Oh! Calcutta!' Is Their Best Album
All six-and-a-half albums from the long-running pop punk band, ranked.
The Lawrence Arms, photo by Ben Pier
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
To use what is possibly the stalest cliche—not only in music history, but in the history of the English language—The Lawrence Arms have truly aged like a fine wine. Where most pop punk bands tend to lose their edge with their hair, the Chicago three-piece has been the exception to the rule that says that the genre can’t age gracefully.
Last year, they released Metropole, their first album in nearly eight years and it is, arguably, the most mature pop punk album ever written, with seemingly no rust needing shaking off on the band’s part. But it was a long road to get there. For several releases early on in their career, The Lawrence Arms struggled to find their identity after forming from the ashes of The Broadways. But once they finally hit their stride, they were outrunning everyone alongside them.
We asked bassist/singer Brendan Kelly to rank the band’s six albums (and one b-sides compilation) in order, from his least favorite to most favorite. This is what he came up with...
7. A Guided Tour of Chicago (2006)
Noisey: So Guided Tour is your least favorite?
Brendan Kelly: Yeah, well first of all, most of those songs were written by the time we had a lineup of a band and it was more of a response to having been in a political band before and wanting to do something different. If I could use a lame analogy, it was like a bird who had been in a cage, now stretching its wings for the first time and I’m fully aware of how lame that is. It was me as a songwriter dipping my toes into the idea of writing songs that had a sense of humor and weren’t overtly political and me just trying to see what I was gonna be like as a grown up.
How old were you?
That record came out in ’99 so I was 23. And you know, it’s just not that good. We recorded it in a day. We played the entire thing live, I sang the vocals, and the dude who was recording it, who was a crazy dude who is now sadly not with us anymore named Mike Giamba, he goes, “Oh dude, you guys ran out of money!” So the record never got mixed. That’s the rough mix that you hear on the album.
It’s not easy to enumerate the ways that that album is not that good: A little half-baked from the perspective of me as a songwriter, it’s completely half-baked from the perspective of getting any sort of detail into the instrumentation, and then it’s not even mixed. And it’s a terrible representation of our band. Part of our appeal is that we’re a band of dual singers which is more or less not utilized on that record at all. It’s really before we found our voice.
6. Ghost Stories (2000)
Next on your list is Ghost Stories. Did you progress on that one?
Well, the interesting thing is all the songs on Ghost Stories were also written before we’d ever played a show. And that record came out six months after Guided Tour. [Laughs] So you can see the amount of meticulous time and effort that we put into crafting it.
Big plus on this record: Chris sings, he brings some awesome songs to the table, I think “The Last One” and “Turnstyles” still to this day rank among the best Lawrence Arms songs. Negative side: I don’t know that I wrote any good songs on this record. I was trying a lot of shit and I just don’t think it coagulated. There’s that song called—oh what’s it called, it’s so fucking goofy—”Here Comes the Neighborhood” and that was my first attempt at doing out there shit and it was just ridiculous. It was a record of experimentation.
5. Apathy and Exhaustion (2002)
So next you have Apathy and Exhaustion, which came out two years later. So at least there was some spacing there.
A lot of things had happened by this point. We’d joined Fat Wreck Chords, we’d gotten a little bit of a bigger budget, we’d gone back to recording with Matt Allison, we’d recorded a bunch of EPs and really found our footing as a band. As far as I’m concerned, this is our first full-length. I’m proud of it, I think there’s cool stuff on there. We were trying to write pop songs for this. The first two albums operated in this sort of weird linear songwriting narrative. This was the first album where we experimented with verses and choruses. I think the record is kind of uneven.
4. The Greatest Story Ever Told (2003)
The next one you have is The Greatest Story Ever Told and it’s worth pointing out that so far, these have ended up being in completely chronological order.
Yes, that is correct. A lot of bands catch lightning in a bottle on their first record and then they’re never able to recapture it. We were lucky that our first record kind of sucked. And so we were able to learn and build off all the mistakes we’d made.
This is a record that seems to be something of a fan favorite. People love the subtle literary references.
Yeah and you know, this was a really fun record to make in a lot of ways, but in a lot of other ways, this was our first experience with growing pains. Our band wasn’t quite as cohesive as it had been in the past. This record came out the day I got married. It was the first record we’d made where Chris and I weren’t roommates. It wasn’t a dark time by any stretch of the imagination but as a band, it was the first time where it wasn’t the three of us rolling around together all the time. We tried to use that fragmentation to our advantage. It’s a back and forth between pensive songs and these quick bursts of energy. I really enjoy this record and I think I enjoy it more in retrospect. I like listening to it more than I liked making it. It was the first time we sat down and were like, “Wow, this is what our band really, really sounds like. This is who we are.”
What parts of it felt like you’d finally started doing things right?
We put together the very beginning of the record and the intro, it just sounded so wrong. We thought it was so fucked up and disturbing… and we had to do it. If it elicits that much of a gross out response from us, then it’s the right thing to do. This was the first record where we did things that were a little bit terrifying. I remember when we put those crazy fucking deep-ass vocals at the bottom of “Rambling Boys of Pleasure” and then those high, almost girlish vocals on there. And I just couldn’t believe it was music of a band that I was in. I just feel like we took a lot of risks on that record. I’m not trying to overstate our dynamism. We’re ultimately a pop punk band. So these are small risks, but for us, it was a big deal.
The funny thing is, Fat Mike hated that record. Fat Wreck Chords hated it. Everybody hated it when it came out. And it was only sort of… to use the words of George Bush, history has redeemed it. It’s a thinking fan’s record. I wouldn’t change anything about it.
3. Cocktails & Dreams (2005)
Breaking the rules a bit, next you have Cocktails & Dreams, which is technically a collection of what, EPs?
It’s a b-sides and EPs collection, yeah.
The material on it does seem like a cohesive album in a way.
The thing about that record is, this was those EPs I said where we finally found our voice. Our split with The Chinkees was where me and Chris were like, “Woah, we’re writing good songs.” Not just things cobbled together. We were 22 years old and Chris was like, “Here’s ‘100 Resolutions,’” And I’m like, ho-ly shit, that’s a good-ass song. I wrote “Quincentuple Your Money” the day before we left for a nine-week European tour. And I remember thinking it was the best song I’d ever written and I couldn’t show it to anyone for nine weeks. So I sang it every day in my head for nine weeks because I was terrified of forgetting it. This was the closest The Lawrence Arms had been to that first album lightning-in-a-bottle magic that I was talking about before.
Was it because there was less pressure that it wasn’t for a full-length album?
Well, basically everything we’d written before was left over from our old band, The Broadways, so this was the first time we had an identity as band. Like, we’re not a political band. We’re a band of misanthropic drunks. This is the idea behind our band, this is the brotherhood behind our band, and these are the songs that come out of that.
2. Metropole (2014)
Next you have Metropole which is your newest album.
Right and you know, I think Metropole came together very, very well. And it bears mentioning that I was extremely skeptical about even being able to put something together.
You hadn’t put anything out in a while and also at this point, you were living in different cities.
Exactly. And so the idea of making something that will be on par with the other shit we’ve done that I hold in a high regard, these were the pitfalls we had to clear. But I think the three of us have high levels of self-awareness. I’d liken it to doing a bunch of pull-ups. Yeah, when you’re 28, it’s not that hard, but when you’re 35, you can do it but it’s a lot harder. [Laughs] It’s still a little too new to decide where it sits in our canon but I’m extremely happy it happened with the way it turned out. The only reason it’s number two is because it doesn’t quite have the live chops as of yet. When we play these songs live, they go over pretty well, but they’re new songs.
Well, you know as well as anybody that any passes the age of 35 mark and hasn’t put out an album in several years stands a real risk of putting out the worst album of their careers. We’ve seen it happen so many times. Were you worried you would record something that sucks but you wouldn’t be able to see it?
No, because by the time we decided we were gonna do the record, there had already been enough songs written and we had a cool collection of songs and like I said, Chris and I have really high bullshit detectors. If I had been concerned about this being a terrible record or hastily written record that sounded like a cash-grab or a flaccid version of what we’d done in the past, I would have been the first person to call us out on it, if not Chris, if not Neil.
1. Oh! Calcutta! (2006)
And at the top, you have Oh! Calcutta!
This one was just so fucking fun. It was done at a real high point for the band. This was when it was just the three of us hanging out every day, going out drinking every night, and writing songs. It was a real rebirth.
Sonically, it sounds like your most aggressive record.
Yeah, the thing is, the catalog we had leading up to there, we had some faster songs, we had some pensive songs, and I think we always felt like we fit in with your Dillinger Fours and Hot Water Musics and these sort of aggressive bands but we didn’t have as hard of a catalog as that. But I think when we wrote Oh! Calcutta!, there was a real conscious effort where it was like, “You know what? We can do this kind of shit as well.” I don’t want this to come out like we were telling Hot Water Music and Dillinger Four to stuff everything up their asses. That’s not at all the intention. But we were telling the world, “Hey motherfuckers, you think you know about this style of punk rock? Well stuff this up your ass.”