Sometimes bands do their best work when they're a little high.
That seems to be the case with Unwritten Law. These loud, brash punks prove they know their way around a song on their latest disc, "From Music in High Places." The record shows a kindler, gentler, perhaps even more sensitive side of the band. That's not to say that the band, and the CD, couldn't kick your a--, because they can and will.
Recorded live on location at Yellowstone National Park in conjunction with the MTV series Music in High Places, "From Music in High Places" is sort of an Unplugged in a beautiful locaiton, or as the creators of the show call it, "National Geographic Explorer for the MTV and VH1 generations."
"Yeah," says Unwritten Law frontman Scott Russo, "They sent Collective Soul to Morocco and LeeAnn Rimes to the Yucatan, and we got Cody, Wyoming. I'm a surf guy, not a backpacker, but I think it turned out to be our best album. The producers wanted us to pick the songs we were going to record in advance, but we wanted to do songs that fit the surroundings. We did 'Before I Go,' kind of a death song, in part of a forest that had been burned out in a fire."
In fact, the natural beauty of the park influenced the quintet's performance. Songs are culled from three of the group's previous four records, with an emphasis on 2002's breakthrough, "Elva," but each track was given a life of its own -- some were recorded at the edge of a geyser, others feature traditional Native American drummers and vocalists. It's definitely an unexpected turn in the band's career. Both of the hits from "Elva," "Seein' Red" and "Up All Night" are delivered more quietly and introspective than the versions you saw on TRL or heard on your Alt. Rock station. What comes through is the quality of the songwriting and the amazingly catch hooks. This ain't mosh-pit-ready Unwritten Law, but you can still rock out to it. With the pummeling guitars restrained on "Up All Night" Russo's vocals maintain the intensity of the song's part-all-the-time attitude, but it sounds like it's being sung around a punk rock summer campfire. "Rest of My Life," also originally found on "Elva," gets a generous helping of harmonies and heartache, with some countrified arpeggios and perhaps the strongest melody on the disc.
"We've always put a lot of effort into writing songs as songs," Russo says. "And in this environment, it really comes through. The vibe is fun, loose, and the melodies are laid bare."
Because it's a stripped-down, acoustic-based recording -- dare we say "naked" -- drummer Wade Youman's role was somewhat diminished while the tape rolled. So he made himself useful in the visual sense, though the Park Rangers didn't dig it. During one take, Youman walked in a stream in the background...naked. He danced around, did handstands, and basically had some fun. Until the directory yelled, "Cut" -- at which point the Rangers wrote the drummer a ticket, searched his bags, and checked to see if he had any outstanding warrants (he didn't).
That's not to say that the five-some is always on the wrong side of the, uh, Law. Guitarist Steve Morris was in the news last September over a bizarre incident as a result of a feud with a neighbor over noise. His downstairs neighbor threw two homemade bombs at his door. Morris put one in his freezer (the were made of dry ice in a bottle), and when a security guard and police officer arrived, it blew up in the guard's hands, injuring him, the police officer, Morris, and Morris' girlfriend. (The neighbor later pled guilty to assault with a deadly weapon.) Morris suffered injuries to his arm and eardrum, forcing the band to cancel some tour dates. He now wears special earplugs onstage to protect his hearing, so don't expect the band to stay unplugged.
Bombs and naked jaunts through national landmarks are a far cry from the band's beginnings in the mid-1990s as local heroes in SoCal's surf scene, where Unwritten Law became prominent thanks to prime placement in Taylor Steele's notorious surf flicks. Today, Russo is an irresitable-to-watch frontman, despite the fact that he's not a founding original member. Joining Russo are the band's sometimes-naked drummer Youman, guitarists Morris and Rob Brewer, and bassist Pat Kim.
"From Music in High Places" is certainly worthy of the location it was recorded, and you don't have to be high to appreciate that.
-- Courtesy of Lava Records
--- from the official Unwritten Law website