Many things have changed over the past 15 years, both in the world and in the world of music; pop-punk has gone from a novelty to taking over the MTV airwaves. All the while, MxPx has stuck pretty tightly to the formula that made them popular in the mid-90s. Before getting into the meat of things, some background is necessary. MxPx has had more impact on me as a music listener than any other band. I was wading in the tepid pool of CCM until hearing Teenage Politics as a 14 year old and before long bought the album of the same name. For the first time I was listening to music that captured the energy, confusion, rebellion, and anger that I felt at the time all the while maintaining an overall positive outlook. I'm over 10 years older now, and of course my musical tastes have matured and branched out, but I have always looked forward to the next MxPx album. So with this confession of personal biases out of the way, let's examine MxPx's eighth studio album.
Secret Weapon comes on the heels of back-to-back releases that most fans would consider disappointments. Before Everything & After (2003) sounded like they were trying too hard to grab the Good Charlotte audience and while 2005's Panic was a step back in the right direction, few songs differentiated themselves from the others. Both releases lacked the energy and passion that were trademarks of the band's earlier work. However, a return to their original label at Tooth & Nail seems to have marked a return to form as and none of these criticisms apply to Secret Weapon.
There's nothing but energy in SW's first two tracks. Several things are on display on these first few songs that are in indication of band's "renaissance." First of all, we start off fast, furious, and heavy. Second, it's obvious that more care has been put into the instrumentation on this record. Tom's work on the guitar in particular really shines in both the album's title track and "Shut It Down" (more on Mike's exceptional bass work later). Finally, there's the intangible feeling that there's meaning behind the lyrics for the band once again. By the time Mike bellowed "Shut it down!/Shut it down!/This is the end of the line!" to cap off a phenomenal bridge in the album's second track, the band had managed to put a huge smile across this long-time fan's face for the first time in many years.
The album goes all poppy on us with "Top Of The Charts," which comes off as "The Next Big Thing: Part II," while seeming to address some of the criticisms listed above of their more recent releases. Picking up the pace a little (but still with a healthy dose of pop) is "Angels," which is about exactly what its title suggests. With "Punk Rock Celebrity" serving as the bridge between the pop and the punk, "Contention" follows as the album's traditional "yelling song."
Following the somewhat forgettable "Drowning," comes a string of three songs that may all end up as classics. "Chop Shop," complete with the always-welcome Bremerton reference, is an undeniably fun murder song. Yeah, you read that right. Segueing more naturally than you might think, "You're On Fire" is a song of personal renewal that uses the classic MxPx formula to perfection - relying heavily on a riff that was stuck in my head for days. Completing this trilogy of sonic goodness is "Bass So Low," which may very well be my favorite cut on the album. It kicks off with a bass line that rivals "Chick Magnet," and never lets up. From the vocals to the impressive bass work in the bridge, this song is carried entirely by Mike Herrera.
From that high point, the album can only go downhill, and it does. It doesn't take long for "Sad Sad Song" to send my finger for the skip button. "Never Better Than Now" is vaguely reminiscent of "It's Undeniable," and is solid but unspectacular. Apparently forgetting they weren't Fall Out Boy, they decided to name the next track "Biting The Bullet Is Bad For Business" which is actually about as catchy as the typical FOB song is. "Not Nothing" is another skip button casualty for me, but "Tightly Wound" is a solid album closer.
Most of the major drawbacks are the typical ones of an MxPx album, and if you're aware at all of the kind of music they play then you should be aware of them. Don't pick up this disc looking for some groundbreaking musicianship or mind-blowingly deep lyrics. To do so is to miss the point (and if that's your aim, you probably know better anyway). The album is formulaic pop-punk through and through, so if you're looking for Sgt. Pepper, look elsewhere. This one's for blasting loud in the car stereo or working out on your iPod. Casting the obvious negatives aside, a few of these tracks should have been cut. Running at about 50 minutes, Secret Weapon peters out a bit at the end and runs a tad long - especially considering there are a couple obvious filler songs along the way. One final criticism, albeit an inconsequential one: if my eyes had wrists they'd be slitting them every time they saw the cover for this album. Of course, it could be worse - much, much worse (think Before Everything And After).
In conclusion, coming from a completely biased fanboy who has never completely disliked an MxPx album (with Before Everything & After coming dangerously close), this is the year's top pop-punk release to date - Christian or non. The band has turned the corner and made what was becoming a somewhat obligatory biennial CD purchase into the first MxPx release that I've been truly excited about in seven years.- PReview date: 6/19/07, Review date: 7/10/07, written by Mike Ward for Jesusfreakhideout.com
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