(Originally posted on AbsolutePunk.net)
The Celtic punk rockers from Chicago are back, and while the recorded disc cannot possibly capture the euphoric atmosphere of a Flatfoot 56 live show, they’re getting closer than ever. Since Jungle of the Midwest Sea, the band lost original mandolin-and-bagpiper Josh Robieson to married life and needed two specialized members to replace him. Flatfoot 56 have lost none of their energy, though, and Black Thorn is easily their strongest recording to date.
The intro track promises us an adventurous escape from “the everyday grind”, and that’s what we get for nearly forty minutes. The bagpipes feel a little lighter this time around, though there’s plenty of room for growth, and the mandolin provides plenty of rousing riffs and stylish solos. Guitarist Tobin Bawinkel sets the tone and leads the vocals, but he shares the mic a lot with his brothers on bass and drums. The vocals come in rough or hoarse at times, and sometimes an extended phrase will feel lightly forced into the fast-moving measures, but they probably don’t really care too much.
After all, Flatfoot 56 are first and foremost fighting for their fans, and these songs were clearly conceived with circle pits in mind. One can almost feel the rotating reverie in repeating refrains such as “House of straw!/House of sticks!/Can’t shake this house of bricks!” This is not to imply that the sound is weak or chaotic; indeed, the band feel increasingly confident in their sound, winding up and down and around their varying instruments and vocals, begging the listener to join in the movement. They’re even kind enough to throw in a couple of stripped-down acoustic numbers to give us a chance to catch our breath. “Shiny Eyes” is perhaps the first true ballad the band has ever written, and it’s beautiful, sad, and happy all at once.
The music isn’t the only admirable quality here. Singing along with a rowdy crowd is even more fun when the lyrics convey themes worth singing about, and the songwriting is as improved as the musical production. In “Courage,” the Bawinkels honor everyday hardworking heroes: “Not because of a movie or a magazine/But because of your example you inspire me/Sacrifice in the midst of pain/Brings a tear to my eye when I hear your name.” Hard times and failures are endured in “We Grow Stronger”, and God’s grace is given in “Son of Shame.” “Way of the Sun” would be a fitting closer were it not followed by the random admonition of a foolish “Hothead.”
Through both the silly and the serious, Flatfoot 56 give us another gift of hope for the hardships of life, encouraging us to sing and dance together. With Black Thorn, they stick to their signature sound while taking the quality to the next level. Even with these strengths, the album left to itself could easily become repetitive and uninteresting after too many listens. It may always be true that the primary purpose of listening to a Flatfoot album is to learn the songs for the live show, but until you have that opportunity, this is the next best thing.