By way of introduction, this has turned out to be another collaborative review. Main writing credit here goes to Alex – I just piggybacked onto this like a cheeky monkey. It would have been remiss of me not to point this out. – Tony
Alex: To start off with lets just get one thing absolutely clear – Off With Their Heads are an absolutely top drawer band. They’re one of the best out there in fact, and so I’m approaching this review already having a very positive outlook when it comes to their music.
They’ve always managed to write songs which explore the darkest recesses of a damaged mind and openly express emotional turmoil without seeming in the least bit fake, or as if they’re seeking attention. They just give it to you exactly like it is without any sugar or water.
Tony: Being a bit of a self-admitted minor lunatic, it’s obvious that I’m predisposed to being absolutely in love Off With Their Heads. Well, apart from the In Desolation record, which for some reason I’ve just never managed to get along with musically, although the words have an undeniable truth to them. For me, Ryan Young is one of the most honest song writers out there in the contemporary punk rock scene (along with White Trash Rob, Brendan Kelly and Dave Hause amongst others). He puts it all out there, raw, unadorned, with no frills attached.
Although I have had a vastly different experience in terms of my own mental illness, and it’s root causes, I really identify quite closely with so much of what Ryan has to say. The way in which he describes experiencing the feelings relating to depression and anxiety for me are pretty much bob-on. A few years back, I even came out of mosh retirement (for one night only), when Off With Their Heads played at the Fighting Cocks in Kingston. I was feeling it that night, I tell thee.
Alex: On paper, taking some choice cuts from their back catalogue and converting them to acoustic versions is almost a no-brainer, and I can absolutely understand why they chose to do it – Ryan most certainly has a strong and distinctive enough voice to pull it off, and they have an arsenal of huge tracks in their back catalogue.
Tony: Being a jaded old fucker, I can get a bit precious about people making the transition to acoustic. It’s fair to say that it’s become a bit of a clichéd thing to do. It can often seem like everybody in a band and their dog is doing or has already done an acoustic record, or a solo record. Making a decent solo and/or acoustic record is something that I look upon as something of a real acid-test of whether somebody has true chops as a songwriter. For example, Chris Wollard from Hot Water Music, well his Ship Thieves project, I thought it was dire. Whereas, The Draft, which he did with a couple of other dudes from Hot Water Music was pretty decent. What does that tell you?
Alex: On certain levels, Won’t Be Missed absolutely does work, with some of the tracks hitting the target unplugged and a few going straight through the bullseye. It starts off with an absolutely gorgeous version of Clear The Air. When Ryan sings “Goddamn it I’m falling apart!” his voice is brimming with anguish and you can hear uncomfortable breathing on the recording as he chokes with emotion.
Tony: I’m wondering at this point in the article how many times I’m going to refer to Ryan as coming across as really honest? There’s something about the lyrics to Clear The Air that really gets to me. I think (similarly to the song Night Life on the Home album) there is something incredibly potent about trying to explain to (or put in to words for) a loved one how you are feeling, particularly in relation to your mental state. Trying to find a way of explaining in terms that they can understand or appreciate can be a real emotional ordeal. The dude nails it.
Alex: Old Man, which is about his father is equally touching, as is Don’t Laugh where he struggles with jealousy and anger when an ex-lover finds someone new (the broken, desperate refrain of “I’m the one for you” is heartbreaking). But, the greatest moment for me is definitely ‘Want You To Know’ where the absolute devotion of the line “You’re always on my mind” is overwhelming.
I wish I could stop the review there and give them the kind of mark that the aforementioned tracks deserve. Unfortunately a lot of the other choices just don’t hit the mark for me – not because they’re bad songs, but because I don’t think that they translate as well to acoustic versions. I’m not going to pretend I know what the recipe is for acoustic to work. I guess when it’s stripped down it just needs certain characteristics to really lift it into your conscious.
Maybe with punk tracks there’s a lot of reliance on vocal hooks when you remove those drums and buzzing electric chords, and if the song wasn’t written acoustically in the first place then it doesn’t necessarily translate when you convert it. I dunno, I’m basically speculating here as I don’t play guitar. Guitarists please give me your 5 cents on this.
Tony: I was quite disappointed actually that there weren’t many songs from Home and From The Bottom on this record. However, Start Walking is a highlight for me, as is Go On, Git Now, the crescendo of which I thought was pretty awesome. I’m also gonna have to throw out there that Stolen Away makes for an ideal translation to an acoustic number. I have to say, I’d lose the tambourine though. It just reminds me of early school years, when I got given either a tambourine or a triangle to hit in music lessons because I was too shit for anything else.
I mentioned earlier that I really didn’t like the In Desolation album, but I have to say the versions of the songs from that record that appear on here I like a lot more.
The songs that stick out like a sore thumb (i.e. in terms of not being up to scratch) for me are I Hope You All Die and I Just Want You To Know. I just don’t feel like they should have been included here, but hey, I’m not in the band, so, er, whatever. In the grand scheme of things, whether or not I personally disliked these two songs is largely irrelevant!
I’d have chosen, personally speaking only, for them to have recorded versions of Nightlife, I Am You and most definitely I Hope You Know. That’s mainly because they are probably my favourite OWTH cuts of all time, and because they speak to me on that special level.
Alex: I actually think it’s worth listening to this for all the good moments I’ve mentioned above, and because you’ll probably be less cynical about it than me and outright love the album. I hope so. I’m giving it a 6.5/10.
Tony: I reckon this is kind of cool as a thing. There are some real moments of awesome on here, but as I said above, if I’d been in charge, I’d probably have chosen some different songs to go on here. Having said that, I wouldn’t have included stuff off In Desolation at all, so I’m really glad they put some of those songs on there. It’s made me find an appreciation for them that I just didn’t have before. To be honest (which is the entire point of writing these things, I suppose), I am unsure whether I would choose to listen to this record over Home and/or From The Bottom, but I think that may have more to do with my adulation for those two records. I think that all in all, Ryan and Nice John have done a pretty good job though. I’d have to give it a 7.5/10.
As always, you should go out there and have a listen yourselves over at New Noise
You can pick up snazzy vinyl versions direct from Ryan himself over at Anxious & Angry
You can subscribe to / listen to Ryan’s Anxious and Angry podcast on Soundcloud (recommended)