November 22, 2011 - Pentimento
Tomas Kalnoky faces a particular challenge translating the horn-laden songs of his ska-punk band, Streetlight Manifesto, into his solo acoustic guise, Toh Kay. Not that there’s a lot of choice involved: He turns Streetlight’s boisterous, hard-skanking sound inward, becoming as quiet, understated and meditative as the lyrics. Revisiting 10 songs culled from his band’s two albums of originals (as well as brief back-catalog pit stop of his former band, Catch 22), Kalnoky swaps the hoarse folk-punk bellow for a hushed croon more appropriate to the material. Indeed, given its ruminative, moribund tone, there’s an argument to be made that this is the most fitting medium for these songs. At any moment you half-expect B.B. King to walk in and say, “You’re mighty young to write such heavy lyrics.” (It’s a losing argument ultimately as his band’s irrepressible energy nicely balances the songs’ deep, deliberative subject matter.)
Streetlight Lullabies unfolds in a sort of reverse chronological order, running backward from their last release, 2007’s Somewhere In The Between, through 2006’s Keasbey Nights (itself a retread of Catch 22’s 1998 classic) and 2003’s Everything Goes Numb. Almost the entire first half of the 10-track album comes courtesy of Somewhere. The chronology’s only interrupted by “Dear Sergio” (off Keasbey Nights) before continuing to sixth track, “Would You Be Impressed?” a highlight of both Somewhere and this album.
“Would You Be Impressed?” is one of the more adventurous adaptations, employing a classical-guitar opening and what sounds like fine fingerpicking throughout, as well as a bit of whistling that brings added flavor. If there is a complaint, it’s just that—while the songs are smart and well written, they can be a little monochromatic in this format. Thankfully that only turns attention to the Czech-born artist’s lyrics, which shine with perspicacity and poignancy. Many of Kalnoky’s songs are preoccupied by death and the intervening struggle, something exemplified in the name of Somewhere In The Between’s title track, where the tempo subtly picks up near the climactic close, as he sings, “Someday soon my friends, this ride will come to an end/But we can't just get in line again.”
It’s a similar story with the next track, “Forty Days.” In it, Kalnoky surveys the idea of sin alongside the pregnant pain and wonder that gives us pause at life, counseling, “You’ll think about it much, but you need to know how the story ends, so you’ll sit around even though you should just go.” He saves the best for last, though, closing with the pretty, tender six-minute ballad, “A Better Place, A Better Time,” putting a fittingly upbeat cap on the disc. A heart-rending anti-suicide paean to a girl, he offers almost anything to dissuade her: “Fuck buying flowers for graves/I'd rather buy you a one way non-stop to anywhere, find anyone, do anything, forget and start again, love.”
While an oft-powerful document that draws attention to Kalnoky’s literary gift, its release begs a slightly unsettling question. It’s been four years since Somewhere’s release; in that time, Streetlight Manifesto have put out an album of covers, and Kalnoky put out a split with MU330’s Dan Potthast of all covers, and now this. While Streetlight Lullabies puts these wonderful compositions into a slightly different light, it’s hard to see this as artistic progress. One hopes with at least four years to pen a batch of new songs, Kalnoky’s sitting on a stunning batch of material—because by now, anything else would be a major disappointment.