Mighty Mighty Bosstones Listening Party: While We’re At It

Cover art for Bosstones' album While We're At ItOh hey, remember how like two years ago I was listening to the Bosstones’ discography and writing about it? The band put out a new album. Like a year ago. Let us get started with this ultra-timely review/listening party.

While We’re At It was released in June of 2018. Officially added to the band’s membership in the liner notes is John Goetchius, on keys, and Leon Silva, on saxophone. (Silva has also played with Justin Timberlake and I’m pretty sure I saw him in Bruno Mars’ backup band during a Superbowl Halftime show.)

Disclaimer that I’m going to be hitting pause a lot because I haven’t listened to this album as much as others and still need to refer to lyrics.  (I’m sure you will both notice and care about this.) Also I saw a review of this album that referred to Dicky Barrett’s lyrics in general as “cynically positive” which is actually a pretty great descriptor.

1. “Green Bay, Wisconsin.” I love this song. So so much. There is so much in here that this no-coast ska-loving girl can relate to. “She drew Walt Jabsco with a Sharpie fine point marker.” Check. All over my school notebooks and on a few tshirts. I didn’t have a Fred Perry parka or a Vespa, but driving all night to get to a show (rather than a motor scooter rally)? Check. Drove from Denver to Reno. Denver to Oklahoma City. Denver to Florida. Denver to Chicago. Denver to Bozeman. And more. All for shows. “She had to let the living part of life begin.” I remember being in high school with the very explicit feeling that I was waiting for life to begin. Like high school was just a thing I had to get through to get to the next thing, and I couldn’t wait to get it done (and then of course, life snuck up on and slipped past me, as it’s wont to do). “Moving on forward, she rallied and she ran/Romped the moon stomp she did the running man/Skanking and a-ranking full stop and full force/One step way beyond with no apologies regrets shame or remorse.” There’s something in here that’s like a fan letter to fans, a love letter to people who love ska. Something for people who couldn’t make ska (or motor scooters) their life, couldn’t do it for a living, but still centered it and loved it and marked their lives by it. Also, I enjoy the hell out of Joe Gittleman’s bass on this song.

2. “The Constant.” I have heard that this song is better live than on the album, but I haven’t heard it live yet (soon! December! Soon!). I admit this doesn’t stand out as one of my favorites on the album, but it is for a lot of the 737. If I was still working in coffee shops, spending a bunch of my time bored and frustrated with hurting feet, I would probably relate to this song a lot more, but as it is I see it as a song that’s about a lot of true things that don’t (mercifully) apply to me, not at the moment. Also I just noticed that Jimmy Kimmel has a writing credit on this with Dicky instead of any of the usual Bosstones.

3. “Wonderful Day for the Race.” The band released this song as a single before they released the whole album, so I had a lot of early love for it, love that has not abated with many repeated listens. It’s an optimistic song for a not-so-optimistic time. I love the fake out ending. I love running to this song, it’s got a great tempo that more or less matches my running cadence (“Graffiti Worth Reading,” off the album Pinpoints and Gin Joints, also matches my cadence. And because the first lyric is “The end is near,” I try to put it toward the end of the playlist). Dicky has written a lot of songs over the years about people. He’s a storyteller, and I think he finds people interesting. He’s one of the few songwriters I can think of off hand who writes songs about people that he’s not romantically interested in (though he writes those too). Boston politicans, his mom, old guys in bars with stories, homeless people. Dicky seems like a guy who cares about people. He doesn’t make a thing of it, he just does it. “Every day until it’s done, I’m talking about the human one.” Yep.

Also the song is ending! Oh wait no it’s not! One more chorus!

4. “Unified.” A sweet, sorta rootsy ska song. When I look at the lyrics as a whole, I admit I’m not sure I know what this song is about. Sometimes I feel like it’s about social and political movements, about gaining ground in a culture war that wants to grind you down, in which case I’m not super fond of the lines “We are with you not against you/We only hope you have the common sense to/Realize we’re on your side,” because I see sentiments like that get thrown around on Twitter all the time when somebody, say, calls out the racism or ableism inherent in some otherwise-well-meaning white person’s unintentionally fucked up comment. (“Could you guys all stop yelling at me? I’m on your side!”) Such sentiments are natural and understandable but also not helpful. But there’s also nothing in the lyrics that point to a political movement, except for words like “unified.” Similarly, it could be about Hillary Clinton, except I don’t have much to back up that theory except the timing of the release of the album and it’s juxtaposition next to “Wonderful Day for the Race” in the track listing.

It could be about another band making it big and finding out that that’s not everything they hoped for? Dicky has written about the dangers and mixed rewards of “making it big” before (“Failure has far too many fathers/Succeed and you’re an orphan till you die”). There is some in here that sounds like that: “Make a killing if you’re willing to do what it takes and then/If you’re willing then have at it/Have a field day if you haven’t had it/And have the wisdom and the wherewithal too call if you should break again…It’s not something you signed on for/What you were built for or designed for…”

Chris Rhodes’ trombone in this song is so sweet and warm in this song, too. And there’s little rolls that Joe Sirois plays on his drums.

In the cover art for this album, there’s hints that this is the last in a trilogy, which Dicky has also basically said in interviews. It’s the third album they released after reuniting. Am I going somewhere with this thought? I don’t know if I’m going anywhere with this thought.

5. “Divide.” Gee, I wonder what made them decide to put this after the song called “Unified.” This is probably also why I think of “Unified” as more political than it maybe is, because this one has some fairly obvious allusions to US politics. “Unpredictable/Unstable and erratic/As loose as any cannon/And that’s being diplomatic” is probably about one specific guy. “Divide/Let them think they have a choice/Tell them that their rights are equal/Tell them that they have a voice” could be about right-wing propagandists and media outlets that make profit by enraging their audience/readers. They make money by dividing people. I don’t really know. It’s a short little song, not very specific.

6. “Closer to Nowhere.” I love the groove in this song. I can totally dance to this. I’m not sure what it’s about, except that it starts with somebody trying to tempt Dicky into a card trick. The second verse is him getting sold New Age hokum (he mentions a God’s eye, bonsai, rosary beads, Buddha, dreamcatcher, sacred bell, Hindu tapestry…and that’s not even the end of the New Agey decor list). This song contains the excellent line, “I flipped through a copy of Eat Pray Love/I didn’t judge, you know I don’t sometimes,” which I find hilarious. I don’t personally find Dicky judgmental but maybe that’s because I usually agree with him. I have heard some people put forward the opinion that they think the Bosstones should stop talking about politics at their shows which, if you know literally anything about the Bosstones (personally or musically) is a hilarious thing to say.

The last verse of this song mentions a couple things that I have no context for (Barney Blackstone and Monday Moonbeam), and I admit I have very little context for understanding the chorus or the title and how it fits in with the stuff going on in the chorus (anyone want to enlighten me?) but I still enjoy the hell out of the song.

7. “Walked Like a Ghost.” I don’t know what to say about this song. It’s one of those happy-sounding ska songs that’s actually about something unutterably sad. The Sarah, Lily, and Grace that are mentioned are the Badger sisters (ages 9, 7, and 7) who died in a house fire on Christmas Day, in 2011. Their grandparents were also killed. Their mom and their mom’s boyfriend survived; the girls’ father (who the song is about) lived in Manhattan. He died in 2017. “He walked like a ghost/Up until the day he was/When something like this happens/I guess that’s what someone does.”

8. “The West Ends.” More ska! More lyrics that I love from Dicky! More songs about gentrification and Boston changing and how much that sucks! (See also: “I Want My City Back,” on the album Jackknife to a Swan.) Also about what people say about other people, when they’re moving in on their space and tearing it down and making it so that they can’t afford to live there anymore.

I realize that a lot of what I’m writing in this entry is about what the song’s about, instead of what I associate with the songs. A big part of that is just how new the album is; it hasn’t had time to work its way into the fabric of my life that way that, say, Let’s Face It has. But this song does bring to mind walking around Boston with the Skippy and Christine and Adam and Flynn and Steve looking for hot chocolate or cannolis, or dim sum, or pizza. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to the West End. “This one’s a bullfinch, I love every brick/The streets are so narrow and the accents are thick.” They spell it bullfinch in the published lyrics, though it’s clearly a reference to Charles Bulfinch, an 18th-century architect responsible for many prominent buildings in and around Boston (and also, apparently, DC). His son wrote Bulfinch’s Mythology. According to wikipedia, “Bulfinch was responsible for the design of the Boston Common, the remodeling and enlargement of Faneuil Hall (1805), and the construction of India Wharf. In these Boston years, he also designed the Massachusetts State Prison (1803); Boylston Market (1810); University Hall for Harvard University (1813–1814); the Meeting House in Lancaster, Massachusetts (1815–17); and the Bulfinch Building, home of the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital (1818), its completion overseen by Alexander Parris, who was working in Bulfinch’s office at the time the architect was summoned to Washington.” So basically, he’s responsible for so much of what makes Boston, Boston, at least up until somebody built the Citgo sign and the Prudential Tower.

9. “Here We Are.” First thing I notice in this song, besides the lyrics (I always notice lyrics first) is how much I love Joe Sirois’ drumming? He has this really characteristic fill that he does, that lets me know that that’s Joe, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I always like hearing it. I also really love Chris Rhodes’…rap? toast? toward the end. “The lugs are loose on every wheel/On every level, it’s unreal/Lost appetite and lost appeal/Fed up with the set up, where’s the reveal?/…Whose premise whose plan whose bad idea?/That’s not important, get us out of here.” (I also really love the saxophone going under that verse.)

10. “The Mad Dash.” So many of Dicky’s lyrics think me make of social media even though, as far as I know, Dicky is largely not on social media (I think most of the Bosstones’ social media accounts are run by Joe G for some reason. I don’t remember why I think this so I could be completely wrong). This song also seems more about capitalizing on tragedy or politics than it is about social media, but I dunno, whenever he writes about false urgency and divisiveness, I always think of Twitter. I spend too much time on Twitter.

11. “Absolutely Wrong.” Can we also take a moment here to appreciate John Goetchius and his keyboards? They’re lovely. They’re often kind of in the background, but if you turn your ear attention toward them, he’s doing such interesting stuff back there. Also if you go see them live and they play “Toxic Toast” he does an absolutely baller piano intro to that song. Also the Peanuts theme song. He can play that. I realize that a lot of piano players can play that (I’m sure my brother could), but still, I enjoy the hell out of it. I’m glad they found him and got him to join the band/play Throwdown.

This space that I’m writing in suddenly smells like french fries. I want french fries. Where are the french fries.

12. “In Honor Of.” I admit I have no idea who this song is about. I think I’ve seen it mentioned in interviews, but I can’t remember at the moment and don’t feel like going to look it up. It starts out slow and kinda simple-sounding, but in the last minute and a half it ramps up and I think it’ll launch us into the last two songs of the album…but then it sorta slows down again and starts repeating the chorus which is maybe not my favorite thing (I kind of hate using chorus repeats to fade out of a song).

13. “Hugo’s Wife.” This song is, I think, about some relatives of Joe G’s who were on the Hollywood black list in the 1950s. Subtle thing that reminds me that it’s Joe’s relatives: often on songs that are about a band member, that band member’s instrument will be more prominent, like how Joe’s bass brings the song in here, and/or that bandmember will share a songwriting credit (like how “Break So Easily,” on Let’s Face It, has Dennis Brockenborough as the second writer because it’s about an experience he had). It’s interesting to me that even though it was Joe’s grandfather, Hugo Butler, who was blacklisted, the song is called and about Hugo’s wife (who is unnamed. I looked it up, though, her name was Jean. Jean Rouverol). “So you held your head high/You kept it down to get through it/They wanted to control you, but they couldn’t/You just wouldn’t let them do it/No they couldn’t and you knew it/Not on your watch, not in this life/No, not Hugo’s wife.”

The chorus reminds me a little bit of a story that a friend of mine told me when I was a kid. She’s maybe ten or fifteen years older than me, so I was a kid, but she was an adult, one who was already a veteran of progressive politics and civil disobedience. A friend of hers was being interrogated by the police (I forget why now), and being threatened with arrest. The cop was waving a warrant in front of her face, threatening her, saying he had the power to put her away. “This?” she said, touching the warrant. “This is not power. This is paper.” It makes me think about the definition of power: who has it, who thinks they have it, and why. When power is an illusion, and why. Who truly has power, and who just holds it, by virtue of the fact that we, the people, who outnumber them, have decided to let them hold it for a limited period of time.

13. “After the Music is Over.” Going out on a high note. I also love this song! Shocking, I know. Like a lot of Bosstones finale songs, it starts out in one style (kinda swingy/jazzy) and then goes into a different style (the Boston Herald calls it “military march,” which I don’t hear, but then, I don’t listen to a lot of military marches) and then straight into ska. The first part even has Dicky sounding artificially far away, like he’s got an old school microphone. Having the final song on an album sound either completely different from the other songs on the album, or a song that sounds like 4 songs pushed together, is something the Bosstones have been regularly doing at least since Jackknife. It’s also thematically not so far from “They Will Need Music,” another album-ending Bosstones song.

“Fight on with your heart head and fists,” a line sung by Joe G, has been called out by people in the 737 as sounding very Avoid One Thing-ish. (AOT is Joe’s other band, a pop punk band.)

Even though I have yet to hear this song live, I can see it in my head, I can see the band on the stage at the House of Blues Boston, I can hear the crowd singing along, I can see the confetti raining down, maybe other band members from opening bands crowding onstage too…and then the ska starts, and Ben is dancing, and so are all the rest of us, and people are bumping into each other in the pit, making the most of this song because it’s the last one, it’s going to end the set, and Dicky is saying goodbye to everybody, people who have left for the night or left this life forever. And I’m hugging my friends and I’m covered in sweat that isn’t mine and a bunch of us are drunk but all of us are happy.

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