Issue #45: The Greatest Story Ever Told by The Lawrence Arms
December 12, 2016
Released On September 23, 2003
Released By Fat Wreck Records
The Lawrence Arms embody everything that I want from a rock band. They are firmly rooted in the DIY culture of punk, but there is so much more to unveil in each and every one of their songs. A lyrical stride will find itself waxing poetically about the Incredible Hulk at one point and referencing Mikhail Bulgakov a few beats later. There might even be a Ghostbusters reference that is attached to a narrative detailing the adventures of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The way that the band can blend the abrasive snotty vocals of bassist Brendan Kelly with the cleaner, smoother voice of guitarist Chris McCaughan is a dream to me. It seems like one of those things that shouldn’t work, but it is executed seemingly effortless.
I chose The Greatest Story Ever Told to include in this week’s Off Your Radar, because it might have been the record that solidified my love for The Lawrence Arms. Some of my favorite material from the band appears on the prior three LPs and several of the B-Sides included on Cocktails And Dreams. Yet, this record seems like a solid effort from start to finish. “Fireflies” illuminates thanks to McCaughan and is a pensive look at longing for past moments and trying to remain optimistically hopeful. Another strong moment for McCaughan is on “Chapter 13: The Hero Appears.” In this instance, our protagonist is painted poignantly. In its refrain, a passionate McCaughan pleads for safety from the dangers that surround us, and it sets the stage for the strongest moment on the record. As the record reaches its close with “The Disaster March,” Kelly takes center stage as he looks at the potential apocalypse that awaits all of us. As he muses, “I’m a man with guitar, I am three’s company / It’s the end of the world, sit and watch with me.” As a crescendo of collective howls take over, the refrain from “Chapter 13” returns in the nick of time to conclude the tale with the idea of “good friend, how loud do you want life to shout her answers in your ear?” In this moment, every dilemma and concern that is introduced throughout the narrative of The Greatest Story Ever Told is considered and the bleak future that Kelly paints is given a glimmer of hope.
Outside of the strong songwriting and witty lyrical content, the way they operate as a trio continues to impress me. Tastefully finding every pocket to throw a fitting fill between Kelly and drummer Neil Hennessy. McCaughan knows how to maneuver within the structure of a punk tune and still throwing a strong lead here or there. One particular instance to point out is in “Alert The Audience.” The hints of guitar swelling after a palm muted accompaniment that hit at the fifty second mark is pure bliss.
What has always been funny to me is that considering the magnitude of The Greatest Story Ever Told, you’d think this was the record they put more thought into than any before or after. Despite including a detailed list of footnotes for every reference made throughout, their biggest challenge would be its follow-up, Oh, Calcutta! For that outing, the band considered what made their favorite rock albums great. They dissected records by bands like Fifteen and Operation Ivy they considered inspirational, and how they could go to even further lengths to combine their unique vocal attributes to create a unanimous, dynamic joining of the two. For me though, The Greatest Story Ever Told is still the record I reflect on frequently. It will definitely go down as one of my favorite records and one that I will use as the bar set for how to write intelligent punk rock songs.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Workhorse musicians. Dazzling scribes. Die-hard punks.
I pretty much missed the boat completely with regards to the pop/punk/alternative/etc. boom that happened mostly in the early-to-mid aughts. If I had been paying more attention, though, I imagine The Greatest Story Ever Told, by The Lawrence Arms, would be conjuring some serious nostalgia for me as they would in many others who came of age when these genres were at the height of their popularity. Even without the nostalgia factor, though, The Lawrence Arms bring so much to the metaphorical table that one doesn’t even need such a crutch to find enjoyment in their music. On first listen, TGSET is, essentially, a good pop punk album. However, there’s a depth to these songs that rewards closer listening without taking away from their instant melodic appeal. Lyrically, many songs connect to one another, referencing and reusing lines from earlier tracks in a way that I’m sure I’ll come up with lots of theories to once I comb through the lyrics more thoroughly. In addition, the band’s utilization of two vocalists is extremely effective, with Brendan Kelly’s harder edge contrasting nicely with Chris McCaughan’s sweeter timbre. It’s a mature, intelligent album in which the band takes a genre and pushes it to its limits in an exciting and satisfying way.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Well, here we are nearing the end of the first year of Off Your Radar and it has finally happened. Someone suggested an album that I’ve actually listened to before. I guess it’s been more than 13 years since I read the AP (Alternative Press) review of this album (which I can’t find on the internet) that called it something like The Saddest Album of All Time. So I picked it up. And it was good. But Alkaline Trio were my Chicago pop-punk trio of choice, so I sort of let The Lawrence Arms fall by the wayside. I listened to songs (mostly “On With The Show“) every now and then, but not as much as I might have. In fact, I have checked Last.fm for exact numbers. From the day I signed up on February 15, 2006 through the end of this past November, I listened to 77 Lawrence Arms songs. So, averaging, let’s say, 7 songs a year. I certainly haven’t listened to this album all the way through in quite a while and I’m pleased to find that it holds up very well… maybe even better than I remember! Listening through it again reminded me of something that I used to think about back in 2003. It may be chucking any “I used to listen to this back when it first came out” cred that I’ve earned straight into the ground, but they always remind me of the Goo Goo Dolls. A more punk rock and far less mainstream Goo Goo Dolls, but it’s an apt comparison. Chris McCaughan has a smooth, sexy voice and sings the more melodic songs like “The Raw And Searing Flesh” and “Drunk Mouth Kitchen Smile.” He’s Johnny Rzenick. Brendan Kelly is the Robbie Takac. He has this harsh, raspy voice, but he sings the faster, more driving songs like “On With The Show” and “Alert The Audience!,” that, as is the case with Goo Goo Dolls, I always end up preferring.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Music is infinite in a number of respects — frequencies are endlessly divisible, notes can be arranged in more ways than you can imagine — but one especially fun way you can look at music as infinite has to do with the alchemy that transforms everyday events into lyric-worthy episodes. If you can turn what you experience into a verse or chorus, you can write a song. And if you can lend meaning to those experiences, you can take something quick or small and turn it into as big a deal as you want it to be. This kind of escalation is all over The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s right there in the album’s title, and it’s especially present in the songs Chris McCaughan sings. Endings always feel more meaningful than beginnings or middles, and in “Chapter 13: The Hero Appears,” McCaughan says “If this were a book, I’d call this song the final chapter,” casting a consequential pall over all the other lyrics in the song. The same self-conscious elevation takes place in “Fireflies,” with “Steal this moment / Make it worth saving” and the comparison of smoking to “fireflies at our lips.” But what I think I like most about The Lawrence Arms is how the songs Brendan Kelly sings complement that yearning for consequence, with humor (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a goddamn shame”) and self-confidence (“Love what you are not what you would like to be”). The moral of the story? Get you a band that can do both.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I knew there was something to Chicago punk rock band the Lawrence Arms’ The Greatest Story Ever Told when the first few notes of “The Raw And Searing Flesh” began and I literally stopped what I was doing and focused on the music and lyrics. It’s very rare that a song demands I pay attention to every facet of it. I love good punk rock like this — something that unapologetically smacks you in the face but backs off to let you hear it shine. “Drunk Mouth Kitchen Smile” and “Fireflies” are personal favorites. 2003 was a very good time for this style of punk music to make its mark and the Lawrence Arms took what I love about bands like Less Than Jake and Lagwagon and built upon it. From start to finish, The Greatest Story Ever Told is a great listen.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
Here is a band that delivers a wordy concept album about the circus and Hobo Clowns… and makes it important, relatable, and just brilliant.
The key to any good punk band is a killer drummer. Without that, you’re lost. The frenetic pace of the genre dictates it to be so. Luckily, The Lawrence Arms have a mad man in Neil Hennessy. The fills and turnarounds on “Drunk Mouth Kitchen Smile” are ridiculous. I love the dynamics on this particular record — no 4 measures sound exactly the same. “The March of The Elephants” is exactly what you think it is: pure energy and aggression anchored by Hennessy’s handiwork. Also refreshing is the overall mix on The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s awfully hard to mix punk music, again, because of the frenetic nature of the genre. It’s meant to be heard live, in a smokey, musty club rather than on a disc full of zeroes and ones. So to capture the intended vigor and loudness without living in “the red” is quite a task. But The Lawrence Arms really went the extra mile here to ensure a strong yet balanced product from start to finish. The drums and guitars bang like they’re supposed to, but I can still understand the lyrics. It sounds simple, but it’s not, and should be commended. Golf clap.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Brace yourself — the first three tracks of TGSET could make your neck snap. Starting with a cough and twenty seconds of faux folk, then a hairpin turn into grandiose and utterly sincere post-emo popcraft (“I never want to see you / In the raw and searing flesh” is an opening line all emo bands would kill for, if violence didn’t make them feel so vulnerable), before hurtling into the steep grade of “On With The Show.” That last song sounds like the bratty younger brother of the previous one, all hardcore tempo and sneering vocals. This dichotomy continues throughout the album, lending a two-for-the-price-of-one flavor to the whole affair. We all have a bit of a split personality, don’t we, so why not add guitars?
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
I’ve spent the past week pumping a few dozen hours into Final Fantasy XV. It’s the kind of game where the setting, the characters, and the story just allow you to sink into a unique world and just lose yourself there. “Fireflies” by The Lawrence Arms felt like that. It’s a song so full of details that it conjures up its own vivid, almost cinematic, universe. It’s rain soaked and rich and I’m having a bit too much writer’s block to properly articulate how much I love it. If it were the only highlight, this album would still be a hell of a gem. But The Greatest Story Ever Told is so full of lines that make my little teenage emo heart sing. “You’ve been looking for yourself in other people’s eyes” or “If this were a book, I’d call this song the final chapter” or my personal favorite “I should be on trial for everything I haven’t done.” It’s all so very good, and so very much what I needed right now.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
From Goethe and Jesus to Alf and Bill Murray, the references alone makes hearing this music absolutely mandatory.
Maybe because I have a backyard, or live close to everything like I do, my house is the one we all congregate at when we want a night in but not alone. Those nights, sometimes with a fire in the pit downstairs, sometimes loud and dancey, sometimes quiet conversations under the twinkle lights with the whiskey bottle at hand, always end up in the living room beside the stereo. One of my favorites, one of the nights I remember when Shannon and I were becoming better friends, saw he and I and a few of our other friends taking turns playing our most important, most striking songs for the others. So many of these nights I have seen Shannon dance jumping around my living room to music very much like what we are given in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Drums mixed lower but that sound like they are getting the most precise beating of their lives underline the kind of guitar that plays disaffected in the verse, one chord struck, then another, taking on more fury in the chorus in songs like “Drunk Mouth Kitchen Smile,” among others. There is a distinct early 2000s vocal sound, an almost flat talk-sing delivered slightly through the nose, which is fully embraced in this album. In that time, I was delving into the past, more into ’90s riot grrl and Motown than I was the vein of punk where we can find The Lawrence Arms. But watching Shannon dance around in the half dark with other people I love, hearing his stories of going to shows, and watching him listen to music like this that has existed so far away from my experience, I am learning how and why to love this music.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I can’t remember if I ever saw Lawrence Arms. They’re one of those bands that was always packaged with bands headed (or coming home from) the Fest. A lot of my friends were into these bands, but my tastes tended to land on the Plea for Peace side of this circle rather than Warped Tour. After listening to The Greatest Story Ever Told a few times, it’s clear The Lawrence Arms are not of the cookie cutter variety and they never wanted to be a mere spectacle in the steady stream of the mall punk generation. They paved the way for bands like Titus Andronicus with their long list of historical and pop culture references. Plus, I always knew Gordon Shumway was a rocker, but his vibraslap performance on The Greatest Story Ever Told is truly out of this world.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Kinda strikes me as The Getup Kids meets The Decemberists. Energetic Emo with a thematic overlay. Might be a little thick with the Tom Waits inferred “Hobo Clown Chorus,” but I’ll give it to them. Is it just me or is the just a bit of a Sponge melody in “On With The Show?” The guitars gush and howl and it’s pretty much anything you’d require of a snappy pop-punk record. Let’s all ride the pick-slide! Chunk chunk chunk chunk. There’s that slippy squishy Les Paul through cranked overdrive sound that has become a hallmark of bands of their ilk. I dig it. While they definitely sound like a later iterative guard, the album holds together well. It’s shiny despite some raggedness. “Wishful Puppeteer” gets into a little bit of The Anniversary territory. A great one to call in from the bench if you need something toe-tappy and head-knoddy. Per usual, I go for the slower numbers and “The Revisionist” sounds pretty perfect.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
Musically, this is a fine record, and certainly one of a higher caliber than most punk around the time of its release. The vocal contrast on display from Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan is particularly noteworthy and some of the sonic decisions — like the structure of “Wishful Puppeteer” — are pleasantly surprising late in the record. It’s all fine and enjoyable, but what makes The Greatest Story Ever Told something worth talking about over a decade later is the lyrics… and I don’t even know where to begin with talking about them. Well, let’s start by saying I’m discussing these lyrics blind because the liner notes to the record come equipped with a staggering amount of footnotes, and I’m told by some people who read them way back when that they would put the Bill Simmons/Grantland style of writing to shame. Reading over the lyrics online, I can definitely see where these footnotes would come in handy. I mean, why reference Down Periscope and Hot Shots Part Deux? Don’t get me wrong, both are great, silly little comedies, but preceding a lyric that says “The rope that I’m hanging from keeps telling me what to do?” Yeah, I’m missing something here. What I’m not missing though is that The Lawrence Arms are incredible writers in a very literal sense. They’re able to deliver off-handed lines that sound like life-affirming mottos (“I’m not impressed in past-tense”), while also using pop culture references to really cement a point, like when they say “I’m a shit stain slave with a grind of my own / I work day and night, less respect than a Juggalo.” Forget the ICP slam (though it did come years before slamming the duo was really fun), they used a pop culture reference to reference and reinforce their own music, specifically that Hobo Clown refrain: “I’m a clown, I’m just here to entertain / Tear me up and stuff me down the drain.” You can’t spend too long fixating on it though because they got dozens more like it coming your way. It’s brilliant writing, even without the context that I’m desperately going to seek out soon. Chances are my appreciation for the band’s writing will only grow once I find it.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
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