The Menzingers – ‘From Exile’

By Ash Bebbington

It’s hard to think of a better name for ‘From Exile’, the latest release from Scranton, PA’s The Menzingers. The record is a track-for-track acoustic reworking of latest album ‘Hello Exile’, and was completed in lockdown – or exile, if you will.  Recording occurred remotely, with each band member playing their parts, sending them to each other and – in the words of vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett – prayingit all made sense when pieced back together”. Thankfully, it did, and the result is a superb re-imagining of one of The Menzingers’ best records.

The Menzingers are not the only band to have released a reworking of old material while in lockdown. Fellow Pennsylvania band Code Orange, for example, recently released ‘Under the Skin’, a live album featuring acoustic versions of songs from throughout their career. There may be a financial motivation, as well as a creative one, behind this trend. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, bands were forced to return home from tour and cancel any future live dates, cutting out many artists’ main source of revenue overnight. New releases like this are a way that bands can bring in some much needed income at a time when opportunities to tour seem like a remote possibility. So, if you are a Menzingers fan, stream this record. If you can afford to, buy a physical copy when the vinyl is released in November, or pay for the audio files through Bandcamp. As well as being well worth your time, this record is an opportunity for fans to support a band they love through a difficult time.

‘From Exile’ is not your typical ‘punks go acoustic’ album, where a gruff punk band picks up an acoustic guitar and re-records everything note for note. The band have clearly put some serious thought into each song, reworking them to suit a more acoustic sound to the point where many are unrecognisable. It almost seems like they’ve approached their own songs as though they were covering someone else’s, looking for ways to put a different stamp on each one.

The whole album has a jam room essence, and at points it appears both vocalists are feeling their way through the new rearrangements of the songs, trying to figure out where their lines fit. This is probably a result of the album being recorded remotely, and may well have been a conscious choice, but it adds a great relaxed, rough around the edges feel to the album.

As soon as you press play, ‘From Exile’ is a very different proposition to its predecessor. Opening track ‘America’ – a gruff punk protest song against Trump’s America on ‘Hello Exile’ – is reworked to be an upbeat, cheerful folk song. Barnett’s vocals are much softer here, ditching the furiously spat anger from the original version to fit in with the changed musical style.

‘Anna’ is the track that benefits most from receiving the acoustic treatment. The full band version is a fun, upbeat punk song that’s only slightly tinged with melancholy; in the chorus, Barnett begs his girlfriend to come back home, but in the bridge tells her to “take as long as you need to take / I’ll be fine on my own”. On that version, it sounds like he misses her but is coping with it just fine. On the acoustic version, Barnett sounds completely wracked with anguish. It’s testament to Barnett’s proficiency as a lyricist that the same set of lyrics can have such a profoundly different impact when the song is played a different way.

‘High School Friend’ is reworked in a comparable manner, taking a relatively upbeat song with sad lyrics and turning it into a slow, melancholic acoustic song. The overall effect is similar to ‘Anna’, where the song’s already despondent lyrics take more of a front row seat and have a greater impact.  In terms of instrumentation, ‘Last to Know’ is probably the biggest departure from the band’s other work, featuring a drum machine and a violin. The structure of the song is largely unchanged, but the violins add an extra layer to the choruses under Tom May’s vocals.

On ‘Strangers Forever’, Barnett’s vocals take on a more ghostly quality, compared to his ordinarily gruff delivery. While the original sounds like an angry ‘fuck you’ to an ex-girlfriend, on the acoustic version Barnett sounds laid back and indifferent, in a similar vein to ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ by Bob Dylan. This is an interesting spin on the track, taking the old lyrics and giving them new meaning. Not every track transitions smoothly into acoustic territory, however – in particular, title track ‘Hello Exile’ has barely changed and is slowed down to a crawl. It’s noticeable that the original really benefits from that couple of extra beats of pace. It’s still a great song, but this version is just a little bit too slow and lacks urgency.

‘Portland’, ‘Strain Your Memory’ and ‘Strawberry Mansion’ are all brilliantly reworked as charming folk numbers, with the lead guitar parts from the originals redone as upbeat fingerpicked parts. All three songs sound as if they could’ve been recorded as acoustic tracks first, rather than as reworkings of full band material. The reworking of closing track ‘Farewell Youth’ sounds like something from Bruce Springsteen’s seminal acoustic album ‘Nebrasksa’, with slow, major guitar lines and an understated vocal.

With ‘From Exile’, The Menzingers show that they’ve got many more tricks up their sleeve than just the Americana punk sound that has brought them such acclaim. The Philadelphia punks have demonstrated that they are accomplished acoustic players, and they understand how to construct a song in this medium. If they decide to slot an acoustic number or two into their next studio album, this record shows they have the skill to pull it off.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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