For the most part, the Dropkick Murphys don't play their instruments all that well. Vocalist Al Barr sounds like the cookie monster, and bassist and co-vocalist Ken Casey won't make anyone forget about Frank Sinatra either. Their songs are short, simple, and heavily indebted to punk bands of old. The likes of Beethoven probably roll over in their graves whenever these guys release a new album.
So why the lofty rating? It's simple, so simple in fact it can be expressed in a single word: heart. The Murphys put more of themselves and their emotion into their music than just about anyone I've ever heard. Their booze-soaked, Irish-inflected punk rock sound is the sound of a band of regular guys that actually care about what they're doing, not about what will get them on the radio or endear them to the pretentious. They've gotten away from those roots a bit on their last two albums, especially the recent "Blackout," which while competently written and played, doesn't display much of the fire and energy that once characterized the band. However, on their debut "Do Or Die" and its followup "The Gang's All Here," the Murphys can be heard in all their raucous glory.
For "The Gang's All Here," the Murphys faced the rather daunting task of replacing departed singer Mike McColgan, but Al filled the bill so well the guys didn't miss a beat. Al's cookie monster-growl may not be quite as endearing as Mike's brogue-tinged shout, but it's still more than adequate. Indeed, it's hard to imagine such songs as "Blood And Whiskey" and "The Only Road" performed by anyone else.
In the end, though, what makes "The Gang's All Here" such a triumph is the fact that, like "Do Or Die," it's filled with classic songs. "Blood And Whiskey," "Pipebomb On Landsdowne," "Perfect Stranger," and "The Only Road" are all perfect examples of prototypical, foot-stomping punk anthems. They're loud, they're fast, they're short, and they'll likely have you banging your head and reaching for a beer in no time (although I wouldn?t recommend that second part if you're driving). Matt Kelly is an excellent drummer, way above the punk standard, and his maniacal skin pounding may well do more than anything else to separate the Murphys from the pack. What the guitars lack in sophistication they make up for in raw power, and the same can be said of the vocals.
The adrenaline rush provided by the songs mentioned above and a few others may be the best thing about "The Gang's All Here," but the quality doesn't stop there. Songs like "Upstarts And Broken Hearts" and the positively heart-wrenching "Wheel Of Misfortune" slow things down for more of an emotive and thoughtful approach, with some surprisingly intelligent lyrics to match. My personal favorite here, "Curse Of A Fallen Soul," starts out as a slow and melancholic elegy to a dead friend, and the first time I heard this song I thought early on that it would be another slow tune. Well, I thought wrong, because about a minute in the song turns fast and heavy on a dime for a dynamic roughly equivalent to having a safe dropped on your head. In another surprise, the band does an all-instrumental cover of the classic "Amazing Grace," and their mix of bagpipes and hard-driving punk riffs works a lot better than one might expect.
Hearing this album, it's easy to see why the Murphys have become such heroes in their (and my) native Massachusetts. They've packed them in for multiple shows at one the biggest clubs in Boston for two straight St. Patrick's Day weekends, and justifiably so. Success may have dulled their edge a bit, but it's still easy to tell that these guys are at the very least making efforts to stay in touch with their fans. Hopefully they'll be a source of good music for a while to come.