Going on 17 years since the Dropkick Murphys’ humble beginnings as Boston’s little streetpunk band that could, the seasoned Celtic punks have taken their earnest, workman-like brand of street-smart hardcore to unprecedented heights of mainstream popularity. Back in 1998, when hoards of leather-clad, liberty-spiked punks once tipped cars in riotous protest after being locked out from seeing the band at an all-ages show in Cambridge, MA, it seemed like the Dropkicks, then a traditional four-piece with a different singer, had already found their niche. After all, the dingy bowels of rock club life suited the band’s gruff, no-bullshit punk stylings perfectly.
But the last decade or so has proven that the band had not hit the ceiling by being Beantown’s reigning punk band of repute. Instead, they expanded their membership to include a revolving door of fiddle, mandolin, and bagpipe players (oh, Spicey McHaggis, we hardly knew ya), built to expand on the Irish and folk touches only grazed on early albums like Do or Die and The Gang’s All Here. In the process, the Dropkicks became more than a band, instead a cultural signpost for all things Irish, blue collar, and rowdy. You want to get fucked up and throw your arm around an old pal for a few sing-alongs? This quickly became your band.
That’s all fine and good, and it’s no doubt served the motley punks well. But as bit by ambition and big ideas as they’ve become in recent years, Signed and Sealed In Blood, the Dropkicks’ latest, is iron-clad proof that the band is at its best when it cuts the fat and lets its loud, rugged everyman tendencies bleed out. It was hard not to scoff a little at 2011’s Going Out In Style, a muddled stab at a concept album that fell apart from overindulgence. But if nothing else, Signed shows the band has refocused itself after such missteps, hitting a nice balance between their punk rock roots and their affinity for Celtic, folk, and classic rock.
Yes, the Boston band has found its way back to what it does best, a point established early on the aptly titled album opener “The Boys Are Back.” When the band collectively jumps over the refrain, “The boys are back and they’re looking for trouble,” it’s hard not to read into it with a healthy dose of foreshadowing. Elsewhere, the band expertly splits the difference between its rabble-rousing punk rock ways and its penchant for Irish folklore. The hard-charging “Burn” motors along at a break-neck pace, accented by banjo, tin whistle, and frontman Al Barr’s trademark sandpaper bark. “Rose Tattoo” is another banner entry in the band’s growing list of anthemic rally cries, while “The Season’s Upon Us” tips its cap to debauched merriment with the kind of gusto not seen since The Pogues’ heyday. And while you can’t replicate “Shipping Out To Boston” note for note, “Prisoner’s Song” is a track cut from the same rollicking cloth.
All told, Signed and Sealed In Blood is an album every bit as hardboiled as its title would suggest. The Dropkicks have long since stumbled upon a festive musical formula that suits them, and it’s one that they’ve settled into almost too well in recent years. But nearly two decades into their lunchpail brand of Irish punk, they’ve managed to offer up their most cohesive and heartfelt work in years, and that in itself is worth raising a glass to.
Essential tracks: “Burn”, “The Boys Are Back”, and “The Season’s Upon Us.”