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| June 30, 2008 | 0 Comments

“Andy just said, ‘The only thing you guys need to worry about is going into the studio and making a record that you love.’ He’s like: ‘That’s all you need to do. Don’t worry about us. Don’t think about anything else.’ And that’s what we did, and then Andy came in the last day when we were wrapping everything up, [he] was just like: ‘This is a great record. Nice work.’ And that was it.

“You hear about bands signing to labels, and the label comes in and they just have them change things all the time — over and over and over again, and there’s nothing left of the original idea, and we’re really lucky we didn’t have to deal with that.”

Skiba is uncharacteristically upbeat about working with a major. In an old issue of Punk Planet magazine, he was quoted as saying: “It’s important to work with someone who shares the same ideas that we as a band have, as far as keeping music independent and free of commercialism. Once you get into that other realm, you’re not working with people who love your music, you’re working with people whose job it is to make money off you.”

While planning Agony & Irony, he says the band studied 1980s corporate rock for tips, finding production cues in Def Leppard’s back catalog, Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, and the Reagan-era hits of Pat Benatar. “There’s definitely kind of like an ’80s pop vibe going on on the record that I’m not ashamed of.” He extols the virtues of Epic’s old script logo, a fancy, swirly thing, revived in 2006. “We love Epic. We grew up on a bunch of Epic releases, and we dig that they’re using the old-school Epic logo, so we wanted to make it as big as possible [on the record].”

His overt enthusiasm for the mainstream, however contradictory to his past musings, echoes in upbeat patterns on the band’s light new album. Agony & Irony is the most radio-friendly effort of Alkaline Trio’s discography, which will undoubtedly disappoint fans who took 2003’s fatalistic Good Mourning too literally. (Live performances on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “Late Show With David Letterman” should have tipped fans off to even that era’s intentions.) Weighing in at 11 concise tracks, Agony & Irony buries a good deal of Crimson’s faux-goth excess, signaling a return to the one thing that remains from the trio’s salad days in Chicago’s scene: hooks. “A record should not be longer than 40 minutes,” Skiba maintains, and now he means business.

For starters, his voice is unusually clear whenever he sings lead vocals on the album. It’s a marked contrast to the fine-grade sandpapering of his previous melodic peaks. On “Help Me,” a song more uplifting than its title suggests, Skiba channels the clean, commanding throttle of power pop relic Dwight Twilley, with the secular spiritualism of Destination Failure-era Josh Caterer (“I Know You Love Me” with cheese). Andriano and drummer/vocalist Derek Grant, of Indianapolis, paint the background with “Pour Some Sugar On Me”-style gang vocals, adding layers of “la las” onto one super-processed stretch. But don’t blame Epic: Skiba says it was all the band’s idea (with help from the label, of course).

“I took a lot of vocal lessons even before we did our last record, and I think I’ve had time to heal from past injuries and sort of relearn how to sing. Regardless of what label this was going to be on, I had hoped that my vocal performance would be as strong as [it is] on this record. The people we were working with were really pushing me vocally. There would be things that I felt I couldn’t do, and they would be like, ‘Yeah, you could totally do it, you’re just thinking about it too much.'”

“Calling All Skeletons,” another pop nugget, name-drops a Minutemen album, but the performance is straight-up Material Issue. A simple chord progression from the skeleton of “Debaser” elicits playful handclaps, setting the stage for the second coming of Jim Ellison (or at least a tribute in disguise). Skiba evokes the forever-lovelorn frontman, who killed himself in 1996, with respect and big, sing-along hooks. “I love Material Issue,” he gushes. “I was just playing them for my wife. She couldn’t remember if she had heard them . . . I played her ‘Diane.'” Material Issue were one of Chicago’s more divisive bands in the early-’90s — a power-pop trio adored for their infectious songwriting, and hated for being silly. Skiba acknowledges the similarities between the two bands, adding, “Those songs are amazing.”

But even an Alkaline Trio album full of sugary pop has its dark side. This is Alkaline Trio, after all, the band who have been publicly associated with the Church Of Satan — the band whose 1998 debut album, Goddamnit (remastered and re-released this year on Asian Man Records), features three clocks in a row on its cover, each set to 6 a.m. (That’s either an awfully early wake-up time or 666, depending on your definition of evil.)

On “I Found Away,” Alkaline Trio partner with Douglas Pearce, frontman of controversial Australian neofolk band Death In June, who incorporate European military symbols, paganism, camouflage, and masks into their aesthetic — leading to accusations of racism, fascism, and Neo-Nazism. In December 2003, Death In June were booked to play the Empty Bottle in Chicago, but after public pressure from a faith-based activist group, the show was moved to another venue, Deja Vu, where it was eventually canceled.

“Death In June uses some pretty nefarious imagery, and people were under the impression that they were anti-Semitic,” Skiba says. In an interview that month with the Chicago Sun-Times, Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman was quoted as saying, “I think that this is going to leave a black mark on the arts community for a while.” Skiba is inclined to agree. “I’ve been a fan for years,” he continues. “We happened to play in Adelaide [Australia] a couple of years ago, and I got in contact with Doug. We have some mutual friends, so I got his e-mail and hit him up, and invited him out to our show . . . and he came out and hung out, and we drank some Australian wine, and we chatted for a while. He’s a really nice guy.”

When assembling Agony & Irony, Skiba asked Pearce if he would prepare an introduction for one of the album’s songs. At the time, Death In June were recording a new album in Adelaide, so Pearce recorded three different spoken-word excerpts of Dante’s Inferno and sent them to Alkaline Trio. “It was really nice,” Skiba says. “And I said, ‘What do we owe you?’ And he said, ‘Just credit me on the record and we’ll call it even.'”

“Midway on our life’s journey/I found myself in dark woods/The right road lost,” begins Pearce amid a loop of choppy, post-industrial noise. Alkaline Trio soon take over and guide the track toward the light of the album, imagining Joy Division lifted by unknown pop pleasures. “It’s not safe/Don’t follow me,” Skiba pleads, as if warning his new fans to stay away from him.

On the telephone, Skiba laughs at the idea of Pearce on “The Hills” — decked in full World War II-era German camouflage and a creepy mask. “He was there,” Skiba fibs, laughing, “and the girls — they were just a little frightened, so they kept him off camera.”

He amends the story: “No, Doug was not there. I wanted to borrow Doug’s mask, though.”

If only the agony and irony were that real.

Mike Meyer

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