They say it in their songs, in their own words -- The Traditionals are the side of punk rock that nobody really wants to see. Cropped hair and cropped drum beats, bulldog-barked backing vocals and thick, loud guitars -- the street-level, violent, primitive growl of Oi has long been the punk genre that everybody loves to hate. But while the media game that punk has turned into over the past decade has still, bizarrely, not figured out what to do with this naughty cousin, Oi -- or, more broadly, street punk -- has never been more popular in America. That's why Dropkick Murphys sell out entire tours and bands like The Business, Cocksparrer and street progenitors Stiff Little Fingers have found audience enough to make once-rare trips to the U.S. worthwhile.
So it's only right that Pittsburgh's longest continuously running Oi contribution, The Traditionals, should start to get a tiny glimpse of the recognition they've so long deserved, right? After all, a musical genre obsessed with the working class, with blue-collar rock cranked through the '77-punk filter, really ought to be coming out of Pittsburgh. So it is that The Trads get a chance to release Dead Society, the follow-up to 1999's cult classic No Choice, on German heavy-music label Impact Records -- not exactly Epitaph, but a step in the right direction.
Yet far less than Dead Society deserves. Because, for a musical genre that one would think to have exhausted all its possibilities by right around 1984, Dead Society jumps out of the speakers with as much of the excitement and honest-to-god life of punk as just about any release in the past few years. Guitarist Dave Harris has that rare combination of superb technical chops and the restraint to use them wisely, and the rhythm axis of brother Joe Harris (drums) and bassist Craig Bolton makes for the punchiest pogo this side of the Sham Army. New (well, new since the last album) singer Rob Faullkner has that unmelodic, post-hardcore chanting voice that American Oi has patented, as though previous Trads singer Donovan Greenaway was an early influence.
Most of all, though, it's the songs that set this apart. Oi started as the white British equivalent of rap's "black CNN," and its American version has borrowed a lot of that -- usually more like "stolen." The Traditionals do a bit of that, singing about weekend nights where they "End Up in the Pub" and walking the streets with "Ben Sherman shirt and your Harrington on." But the band is at its best shouting about things a little closer to home: "Steel Town," with its damnation of "imported sweat shop steel"; the Murphys-esque bedraggled "American Story"; the title track's more desperate assessment of the old Springsteen American blue-collar Joe's horror story.
Best of all are two songs about, in different ways, being in The Traditionals. "We Had a Deal" is one of the best anti-music-industry songs since Cocksparrer, a big Trads influence, did "Take 'Em All": "Strung along like puppets in the industry / waiting around, the weeks turned to years ... music's all we got or else we'll fade away." The Stiff Little Fingers-ish rock anthem "We Just Don't Understand," however, steals the show -- an indictment of the "twenty-dollar show" punk has become, and a sing-a-long call to arms: "We just don't understand / we support the local bands." Instant classic.
In fact, the only track one can readily take issue with here is the cheesily titled Sept. 11 song, "The Day the Eagle Bled." But even if (like me) you disagree with the song's with-us-or-against-us implications, here's a band that made that title into an aggressively catchy chorus. Traditionals, we salute thee.
Dead Society raises The Traditionals to a new level -- with a little distribution and a couple of opening slots for the big boys, this band will not just blow up, but take over. Well, maybe if they grew green Mohawks and pierced their lips they would -- and, thank god, that's not about to happen.