Ten years, a decade – this seems like a logical span of time, one long enough for ups and downs, shifts in the modern musical topography, and countless clashes with a stubborn record label. And with a decade of existence falling on Tomas Kalnoky and his compatriots in Streetlight Manifesto, the band has finally released their third original and fifth overall LP, The Hands That Thieve.
As with any Streetlight release, fans have been eagerly waiting for this album since rumors circulated that it would be released in summer 2012. Then a November release date came and went . . . and a January 2013 one as well. However, this constant waiting game is now a formality. The album exists and everybody can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that this is the best work of their career.
The Hands That Thieve is an amalgam of Ska, Punk, Eastern European Folk and a myriad of other genres, with songs such as “Ungrateful” sounding like skate punk throwbacks from the days of bands like NoFX. From a logical perspective this album cannot and should not cohere, but that is where the genius lies. Kalnoky and company are such a cohesive unit that mixing these seemingly insoluble ingredients is not impossible, but rather the norm.
Lyrically the album remains faithful to the simplistic, yet thought-provoking style that Kalnoky has employed from his time in Catch 22 up through his work in Streetlight Manifesto. Kalnoky shies away from grandiose language, while simultaneously distancing himself from common speech in the myriad complexities that his lyrics take on. One of his greatest skills as a lyricist is his ability to write lyrics that offer multiple readings, thus allowing his listeners to identify with his words in a multitude of different ways. The lyrics on the album are written in a manner in which they will resonate with any listener, regardless of background.
As with previous Streetlight efforts, certain thematic tropes exist within the album. Kalnoky examines the idea of rearrangement and its effect in multiple songs on The Hands That Thieve. In “The Littlest Things” he closes the song with the line “I took the medicine / But the pills won’t work / The pills they don’t do anything / But rearrange all the littlest things,” an idea easily relatable to by a generation of youths prescribed more drugs than ever before. In the closing track “Your Day Will Come,” Kalnoky once again brings up the theme of rearrangement, this time detailing the effects of war in the line: “A young man becomes a soldier / He’s isn’t much older than a boy and that’s a shame / They will lead him into battle / Hand him medals when he comes home rearranged.” The Hands That Thieve also touches on themes of mystery, lies, and truth, all with the brilliance that only Kalnoky can convey.
Although Kalnoky’s lyricism is certainly brilliant, it is complemented by the equally impressive musicianship of his band members. The horn section of Matt Stewart, Jim Conti, Mike Brown and Nadav Nirenberg crank out infectious melodies throughout the album, making this one of the most horn-intensive albums of Streetlight’s career. This added focus on the horn section is something which will have many fans eager to sing along to their favorite horn-lines on The Hands That Thieve during Streetlight’s upcoming tour. Furthermore, the rhythm section, consisting of Chris Thatcher on drums and Pete McCullough on bass, adds a level of undeniable funk to the album that will have fans bobbing their heads and itching to dance.
While Kalnoky, speaking on the behalf of Streetlight, says that the band will continue to write music even after their time as a touring band ends, there is the chance that The Hands That Thieve is the last anybody will ever hear from the band. With that possibility hanging heavily in the air I feel compelled to remark on “With Any Sort of Certainty,” which, to me, is the defining track of Streetlight’s illustrious career. This song is filled with witty lyricism, spot-on production and horns that are to die for. However, the final crescendo in this song, climaxing in the line “Oh my god I will hold my tongue / And I’ll breathe easily / If anyone can say with any sort of certainty / That there is something to believe!” is not only the greatest musical “moment” of the band’s career but serves as the epitome of all that Kalnoky and his fellow members have created up to this point.
Plain and simple, The Hands That Thieve is the best album Streetlight Manifesto has ever released. It is a completely genuine and moving work of art; the labor put into it by the band members is evident on each and every track. Years from now I will look back at this album not with jaded cynicism, but instead a sense of nostalgia in knowing that this album has endured.