Ever since Billy Bragg made it okay for punk rockers to carry acoustic guitars in the 80s, a small fringe of musicians have followed suit in blending roots music with traditional three-chord punk with varied amounts of success. In recent years however, underground interest in folk-punk has begun to reemerge, and at the forefront of the movement is Andrew Jackson Jihad.
With their latest full-length album, “Can’t Maintain,” the Phoenix duo have retained the potent and, at times, bitingly cynical lyricism that made them DIY legends but added a revolving door of guest musicians to help flesh out their once exclusively acoustic sound. The new direction beats listeners over the head right on the first track: an electric, battle-charge of a song called “Heartilation.” While excessive symbol crashing dominates this first song, Andrew Jackson Jihad’s signature sound still manages to bleed through the sonic cacophony both through the soulful vocals and the sheer catchiness that they so skillfully craft.
Following the opening track, the band returns to a mainly acoustic set, with “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock” being the only other solely electric offering on Can’t Maintain. The band strips down to its purest form of acoustic guitar and stand-up bass only once on the record. How seamlessly that one song blends with the rest of the album is, however, where the genius of “Can’t Maintain” lies.
While the band chooses to expand musically by adding violins, mandolins, horn lines and the occasional female vocalist, it does so while treading lightly and keeping the in-your-face experimentation to a minimum. Violin lines are used mainly to complement bass lines that are already being delivered with a bow; horn lines are used almost like vocal harmonies, staying mostly in the background and dropping in and out as necessary. At the end of the day, the record’s instrumentation manages to keep songs fresh but is subtle enough so that, with few exceptions, any one of these songs could have slipped into one of their previous releases almost unnoticed.
Just a few tracks keep “Can’t Maintain” from falling into brilliance. “Olde(y) Tyme(y)” draws much too heavily from stereotypical ragtime music and “Kazoo Sonata In Cmaj,” no matter how well executed, is still a song featuring kazoos that can’t help but be very annoying. The pairing of these two tunes, one after the other, in the dead center of the album that makes for an exceptionally mediocre middle.
Despite any shortcomings, however, Andrew Jackson Jihad has shown that a band can show real musical progress without alienating the fans who made them who they are. “Can’t Maintain” builds upon the band’s usual formula of fast-paced strumming, bouncy bass lines, and perfectly deranged lyrics to create a less lo-fi but more mature sound.