It’s a Friday afternoon, snow is falling outside, and I’m sitting in my den listening to the new record from Skinny Lister. The band is currently on tour in Europe with Trapper Schoepp and I’m not sure I’ve ever wished I was rich enough to follow a band around more.
I discovered Skinny Lister via Trapper Schoepp back in 2016. Schoepp was opening for them on tour and they were playing in Philly two days after the election. I hadn’t heard of them before, but as I was going to be at the show I gave them a listen on YouTube. The first song that came up was ‘Trouble on Oxford Street’. I was at my desk at work, listening with my headset pressed to one ear. After about 20 seconds of the song I put the headset on correctly, listening with both ears. About a minute after that, I stopped listening and ordered a copy of their second album ‘Down on Deptford Broadway’. That was all it took – about a minute and a half of one song to know that this was gonna be a musical love affair for me.
Later that same evening I listened to the whole album, and then ordered the rest of their catalogue. Sometimes it’s just that quick.
Despite having fallen in love with their music, I was still in no way prepared for their live show. It was only a few days before the concert that I got into them so I didn’t know the songs that well going in, and it didn’t matter in the slightest. It would not feel like hyperbole to say that they are among the best live bands I have ever seen.
The show in Philly right after the election was timed well. I still felt in a horrified daze of fear and despair, like most folks I would guess. To top it off, it was announced earlier that day that Leonard Cohen had passed away. In some ways it wasn’t the best atmosphere to go and try and have fun.
That’s the thing about great bands and music, the worst times can bring out the best in them and us. I’ve written before about Schoepp’s performance that night. He was almost exactly what I needed at that moment.
Then Skinny Lister played and my goodness.
They are a six member band, but when they get going they feel like a thousand. The energy that they give off is intense and magnificent. They call their style of music ‘Shanty Punk’ and it’s just about the most apt description I’ve ever heard. Den Hepintinstal and Lorna Thomas are the lead singers, and given the songs range from sea shanties to furious punk numbers, the delicacy and power they both manage is special. ‘Melodeon’ Max Thomas plays the melodeon with a manic fury that I’ve never seen anyone play anything other than drums or guitar. Thom Mills plays the big terrace chant beats that drive so many of their songs with a passion, while Sam ‘Mule’ Brace pilots his guitar with the skill of a WWI flying ace. At the time the bassist was Michael Camino, who has since left and been replaced with Scott Milsom. I’ve seen them each once and I think both men were born to play the upright bass.
Their shows are a whirlwind of music, dancing, joy, and passion. It’s cliche to say that someone ‘gave their all’ but it was absolutely accurate that night. The best shows takes you from where you are and elevate you to a higher plane where there’s just the crowd, the music, and you. They accomplished that in spades. They took a room full of people frightened for the future and gave them the gift of love and passion and if just for one night, reminded us of all that is good and just in this world. I realize that sounds like a bunch of flowery nonsense, but the best of concerts require some level of poetry to describe them.
Skinny Lister’s music is a combination of traditional folk songs, punk, rock, and balladry. Some of it requires you to join in and sing from the bottom of your heart along with them, and some ask you to listen. When Brace leads the crowd in the old time sea shanty ‘John Kanaka’, you sing with gusto, when Lorna sings ‘Colours’ you close your eyes and let her voice carry you. Their albums are terrific, but they’re magical live.
I had wondered the second time I saw them if that first performance was a fluke. It was an emotional time for everyone. Camino the bassist found out during the show about Cohen, and played through tears for the next song. That kind of thing can be lightning in a bottle.
When the lights went down in ‘Underground Arts’ in Philly and they came out, it took all of one song to know that it wasn’t a fluke. They are a band that gets it. They make a connection and take everyone on a journey every show. The second performance may have been better than the first.
They have no dates scheduled currently that I can make and as I sit here listening to their brand new album it depresses me terribly.
‘The Story Is…’ came out a week or so ago and it is mighty. It was put out by Xtra Mile Recordings and is another big feather in their every growing cap.
It opens with ‘Second Amendment’, a rocker about the ridiculous state of guns and America. It’s the kind of song that Paul Weller would be jealous of. It would have fit right in on ‘The Gift’ from the Jam. It’s a powerful song with a driving beat that has some northern soul underpinnings and a political voice. The first song on an album can sometimes serve as a mission statement and this one does exactly that.
The second track, ‘My Life, My Architecture’ is the first of the songs on the album sung by Lorna. It’s got an 80s beat and vibe to it that makes it feel like a sibling track to ‘My Distraction’ later on the album. It’s a clap along dancy rocker complete with fist pumping chorus. It’s the kind of song that’s good on the album and you just know is fun as hell live.
‘Diesel Vehicle’ is the first slower number on the album. It’s an almost-ballad that uses putting unleaded in a diesel car as a metaphor for boozing. It’s a pretty self-aware song that even has a line about thin analogies. I’ve never thought of the Skinnies as channeling the Smiths before, but this song almost does just that.
My favorite song on the album might be the next song, ‘Rattle and Roar’. It’s a big dramatic song that combines just about everything I love about the band. There are powerful sing-along lyrics, uplifting lyrics, traditional sounds mixed with rock sensibilities. It’s got a fist-pump clap along middle eight. It’s got everything really. If I was going into battle anytime soon, this might be the song I listen to to get myself going.
‘Artist Arsonist’ is impossible to get an Amazon Echo to play on its own, but despite that it’s a phenomenal song. It’s got a bass intro and then it’s off to the races. It’s a fun call-and-response song with nifty backup vocals and a really bouncy chorus. It’s another tune that is good on the album but I imagine will be absolutely stellar live. They have a lot of songs in that category, and the interactive nature of the songs is part of what makes them so amazing to see live.
‘The Shining’ is a dance number with almost sultry vocals from Lorna. It’s a bit of a departure from most of the bands catalogue. It has a nightclub vibe. It makes me think of expensive drinks, intense dancing, sweaty romance and lust. There’s an 80s vibe to it, which seems to be a theme with the Lorna tracks on this album. It makes me want a martini.
The album’s namesake is the next song up and it may very well be the best song on the album. The song starts with Dan’s vocals and chimes, then slowly the music comes in and begins to build. It gives me chills up and down my spine as it goes. I’m a sucker for big dramatic things and this song is absolutely that. The line ‘the beginning, the middle, and the end is this’ sums up everything about it. Everytime I hear it I’m nearly in tears by the end. Outside of the Lord of the Rings movies, and the movie ‘Pride’, not much gets me choked up, but this hits me in the same way. I would count Skinny Lister among my favorite bands of all time if this was the only tune they ever released. Thank God it isn’t.
‘38 Minutes’ is an out-and-out rocker that jumps right in and gets down to business. It starts out fast and just keeps going. Just a purely fun and good rock song. It would make a terrific set-opener. The chorus of ‘This is not a drill’ has that “mission statement” vibe that ‘Second Amendment’ has.
‘My Distraction’ is the sister song to ‘My Life, My Architecture’. Lorna sings the hell out of it. The drums really stand out too – it’s got a rat-tat-tat Clash-esque drum track that feels like it’s dancing with the vocals in a way that gives the song a real kinetic energy. It’s infectious and it’s impossible to sit still while listening to it.
‘Stop + Breathe’ has shared vocals and finds that soft delicate place where the band does so well. It starts slow then picks up but keeps the harmony throughout as it builds in intensity. It’s not a long song, but it still feels like a journey as it goes. The message about stopping and breathing and letting things go once in a while is pretty poignant too.
One of the things the band does so well is starting simply and then building the sound instrument by instrument over the course of a song. ‘Cause for Chorus’ starts with just an acoustic guitar and Dan singing. Slowly everything else comes in and by the end it’s a loud, brash rock song. There aren’t many bands that do this as well as Skinny Lister and they really show off their chops here.
‘Allister McAllister’ actually references the Jam, but the song feels more like an Elvis Costello descendant. The staccato vocal and protagonist gave me ‘This Year’s Model’ flashbacks. It’s a dynamite song and another example that Skinny Lister can do whatever the hell they want and make it sound great.
‘Sometimes So It Goes’ is a traditional sounding ballad sung in a thoughtful and wistful voice by Lorna. There’s something comforting about it. The lyrics about foggy nights and fires burning give it a sense of home. It may be that I’m listening to it as dusk settles in and the is snow falling, but it seems like a perfect winter song. There’s a nostalgia for simpler things in the sound, but really it just feels like a warm blanket on a lovely cold night.
The final song on the album, ‘Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Living or Dead, is Purely Coincidental’, mentions the ‘Trouble on Oxford Street’, and is about telling stories. Skinny Lister’s music is its own story. There’s nothing like it out there. This song gets at the heart of that while also showing off their humor, musicianship, and talent. It’s a great way to end an album. It leaves you wanting more, but absolutely satisfied with what came before.
I have a standing offer with my friends to pay for tickets to see Skinny Lister next time they’re in town. I have a lot of opinions about music, bands, shows, and the like, but I think my most strongly held one at this point might be that it’s impossible to see this band play and not immediately fall in love. ‘The Story Is…’ is another testament to that belief. It’s a wonderful album start to finish, filled with the energy and unique style that only Skinny Lister could manage to pull off.
One last thing before I wrap this up. The first time I saw them I noticed the boots Sam Brace was wearing and fell in love with them immediately. I like the band’s style in general but I had never seen brogue boots before, or at least was never aware of them. Since that show I’ve bought a few pairs and I adore them. I’m pretty far from a fashion kind of person, but I can absolutely say this is the first time I’ve loved a bands footwear as much as their music.
The lightning bolt guitar strap wasn’t bad either.