Red Animal War releases its second full-length album, Black Phantom Crusades, on September 17, and it's appropriate, if not entirely coincidental, timing. The fifth song on the disc, "When I Get the Feelin' (Back in My Hands)," directly addresses the aftermath of September 11: "I'm waking up to the sound of New York coming down/I never knew we could be so scared."
Coming a year later, it's obviously not the first song to deal with the events of that day or the mood in the months after. Actually, there have been almost too many to keep track of, and that's even excluding all the various benefit tunes and such. Most notably, there's Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," and much of Bruce Springsteen's latest, The Rising, talks about it, in one way or another. Oh, and, of course, Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," from his recent Unleashed album. We said it before (see Hear, There, August 15), and we'll say it again: Patriotism and getting 'faced are two separate things and should be kept that way.
(Then again, what do we know? "I am one pissed American, and I know sooner or later we will kick a boot up someone's ass who made this song possible in the first place," wrote one reader, whom we will call James, because that's his name. And we have to agree: Yes, it would be a great idea to put a boot--or a size-9 Puma, in our case--up the ass of the person who made this song possible. But we're pretty sure Keith wouldn't enjoy that, um, invasion of his privacy. Side note: James claimed he, too, was ticked at the events of "6/11." Did we miss something?)
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"When I Get the Feelin'" handles the situation much more delicately. Well, kind of: "I heard someone say America the Beautiful/Blame the Catholics, blame the Christians, blame the Muslims/Blame the Jews, blame your mother, blame your father/But blame never got anyone anywhere." Where Keith's song only encourages the lynch-mob mentality that was prevalent in the months after the attacks, Red Animal War (singer-guitarist Justin Wilson, guitarist Matt Pittman, bassist Brian Pho and drummer Jeff Wilganoski) is trying to smooth things over. Wilson isn't looking to put a boot up anyone's ass; he just wants to "build some bridges across this land."
Black Phantom Crusades, however, is much more than just one song. Released by Deep Elm Records (which issued Red Animal War's debut, last year's Breaking in an Angel, as well as a split EP with Slowride a few months ago), the album is the sound of a good band getting better, going its own way confidently. Wilson sings more than he has before (see: "The Day After Yesterday"), instead of screaming or speaking, and the music sings instead of screams as well, making room for acoustic guitar ("Making Zealots"), saxophone ("Straight Lines for Construction Workers") and piano (all over the place). (You can hear for yourself if you can't wait a few more weeks; Black Phantom Crusades is already available through the Deep Elm Web Site, www.deepelm.com.)
That said, the bomb-ticking intensity that pervaded Breaking in an Angel remains here, in the guitars that stop on a dime and make change, the rhythm section that punches you in the heart, the lyrics that swing for your head. It all comes together so well, even the strange choices make sense. For example, "Gattaca" basically distills the plot of the Ethan Hawke vehicle of the same name into a three-minute burst; as in, "Life is always hard when everyone is putting you down/These are days when your baby is born genetically perfect." On paper, it doesn't work, and it shouldn't. On Black Phantom Crusades, it's one of the best songs. And "Straight Lines for Construction Workers" is a song the band might not have been able to pull off a year or two ago, a straight-ahead story about suicide ("So they found the note that read/'So long, farewell cruel world/But folks die everyday'"). And while Dave Laird's sax almost makes it sound hopeful, or at least less depressing, it only works because of the group's gentle touch. In their hands, it's less a funeral than it is a wake, not an end but another beginning.
In a way, the same could be said for Red Animal War. Black Phantom Crusades feels like the start of something. Let's see where they go from here.