“The boys are back and they’re looking for trouble.” So begins the Dropkick Murphys new album, an obvious nod to one of their influences, Dublin’s Thin Lizzy. In fact the “boys” of the Dropkicks are never gone that long, averaging an album just about every two years since their 1998 debut Do Or Die. A comparison can be made to AC/DC, who released an album every year from 1975-1981; the Murphys put out albums on a regular basis, and they rarely stray from the same formula.
In the Murphys case, it’s a clever mix of traditional Irish instruments and electric guitars, all with a hardcore punk mentality and a furious devotion to their hometown of Boston. At their best, they can make you feel like you’ve been drinking in a seedy Irish pub while still in your own living room. And Signed and Sealed in Blood is the band at their best, a rowdy, blistering, and altogether fun record that mixes the banjos and bagpipes with distorted guitars and slathers Al Barr and Ken Casey’s growling vocals on top of it all.
Though the band garnered plenty of attention with the 2011 concept album Going Out in Style (which peaked at #6 on the Billboard chart), they got even more radio play late last month with the release of Signed and Sealed’s second single, the dysfunctional Christmas anthem “The Season’s Upon Us.” Casey sings the story of his laughably chaotic holiday get-togethers, summed up with the line “some families are messed up while others are fine / if you think yours is crazy, well you should see mine.” It’s the rare Christmas carol that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
All the other elements of a Murphys record are here: the ripping, easy-to-sing-along-with rocker complete with banjo (“Burn”), the love song disguised as a hard rock song (“Don’t Tear Us Apart”) the songs about going out with the boys and raising hell (“The Boys Are Back” and “Out On the Town”), the cranking, life-affirming thrasher (“The Battle Rages On”) and the “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” drunken closer (“End of the Night”). Unlike the band’s most famous drinking song, “Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced,” the band decides in “End of the Night” that hanging at the bar until the wee hours is better than bringing home the girl, as they belt the chorus “it’s the end of the night but we ain’t goin’ home” for all they’re worth.
The Murphys are also inextricably tied to the Boston Red Sox, becoming the unofficial band of Fenway Park when former closer Jonathan Papelbon began using the Murphys version of the Woody Guthrie song “Shipping Up To Boston.” (A song which also catapulted the band to fame with its appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. As usual the band nods at their favorite teams’ history on Signed and Sealed with the song “Jimmy Collins’ Wake,” and ode to the first manager of the Red Sox franchise (and winning manager in the first-ever World Series).
The standout track may be the largely acoustic first single, “Rose Tattoo,” in which Casey recounts his life through his skin art. Mumford and Sons’ banjo player Winston Marshall contributes his stellar finger-picking skills to the track, which lilts and builds as more traditional instruments join in and more members of the seven-piece band join the chorus. Marshall’s contribution is certainly more subtle than Bruce Springsteen’s, who guested on “Peg O’ My Heart” from Going Out In Style, but no less important as “Rose Tattoo” evolves into something sublime.
There are no surprises on Signed and Sealed in Blood, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes a band shouldn’t stray from the formula, especially if it’s working as well as the Murphys’.