By John Ray
Punk rock has been fortunate for the tumultuous careers that collectively comprise Hot Water Music. Part of the late-90s class that made Gainesville, Florida the capital of gritty folk punk, HWM’s influence is matched only by its ethereal quality: It disappears, sliding over and under the current, reappearing in new and fleeting forms, a breeze ruffling the plicate face of punk. Its first full release in four years is an act of reformation, a return to its most recognizable form that puts the band back where it once was, gaining no new ground, but making up for a lot of lost time.
Indeed, much of the album’s imagery is concerned with redemption and salvation, with tracks like “Pledge Wore Thin” and “Boy, You’re Gonna Hurt Someone” hymns to the band’s relentless perspicacity which, while only occasional manifesting as HWM, has spawned enough side movements to make one wonder how this album could lack the visions of its individual members. Chuck Ragan is indisputably more talented than this album leads one to believe. Chris Wollard’s (who has worked with Bad Religion, The Gaslight Anthem, and with part of the lesser-known hardcore act Gunmoll) powerfully catchy chords never quite come into their own, and George Rebelo (a sometime member of Against Me! among others) merely blends amicably with the album’s semi-funk, semi-pop feel.
Other works between this album, the 2008 Till the Wheels Fall Off b-sides and The New What Next show a more ambitious band, one that has spread its roots across the genre. The swift rise and disappearance of California Burritos was a The ‘Tone-sized tragedy of short-lived punk groups, and the energy captured in that little moment is here lacking.
The album’s eponymous “Exister” is one of its strongest, Ragan roaring about the common threads that unite the stories of “another time, another place” that fill the album. Though it has the quiet, understated desperation as good as any Gaslight Anthem piece, Hot Water Music’s legendary lead singer presents unfulfilling poetry unmatched with vocal verve sufficient to carry its tunes.
The band’s sound is rendered with richness and depth by Rise Records, and the upcoming release of a live album on No Idea may signify a permanent change to that label. Live albums are useful as technical outs on recording contracts, and while No Idea has done them good (and will, doubtless, continue to support their side projects) a new set of producers may give HWM space to spread out its repertoire. Given this album’s similarities to its previous work – there are few higher compliments for a folk punk album than “kind of like old Hot Water Music” – such a change may be a blessing to the band.
With an announced live album Hot Water Music may finally be signaling intent to stay in one place for awhile. It can no longer be the place it has held until now, but if Ragan can carve out a more ambitious work with Rise, a group this strong and dynamic cannot fail.