Rats In The BurlapSTOMP Records (CAN) / Fat Wreck Chords (US)
By Cole Faulkner
It’s been many a pint and countless wardrobes of traditional tartan garb, but Vancouver bagpipe punks The Real McKenzies have hit their twenty third year and ninth studio album milestone with Rats In The Burlap. From modern takes on traditional celtic folk tunes to raucous punk-show boot stompers, the Canadian quintet’s pioneering attitude has kept these bonny lads feeling fresh in what many would consider a very restrictive niche. While the album doesn’t veer far from the tried and true tricks fans have come to love, the boys aren’t without a few surprises up their kilts.
In classic McKenzie fashion, Rats In The Burlap sets the tone with the band’s take on a traditional Scottish piper tune. This time around, the lads clap in time as they march to the brisk pace of “Wha Saw The 42nd,” made all the more authentic by Paul McKenzie’s unmistakably weathered, gritty vocals. The rustic track holds all the marks of an aged celtic punk band and will no doubt serve as a nostalgic and familiar homecoming for longtime fans. In suitable contrast, followup “Upon a Motorbike” roars aggressively down the highway from Montreal to prairie fields on quick spinning punk-rock riffs and twang-threaded acoustic strums. Bassist Troy Zak thumps along mimicking an upright 50’s style, a style that lends itself well to the punk n’ roll roadster vibe. Like minded track “Lilacs In The Alleyway” and “Catch Me” capitalize on the light, band driven acoustic mood in inspiring and insightful ways.
As it unfolds, Rats In The Burlap explores all sorts of nostalgic and contemporary subject matter. As always, Scottish themes from simpler times define vibrant celtic imagery. For instance, “The Fields Of Inverness” takes the perspective of a highland soldier forced abroad, longing to return to a life of ploughing the fields in a Scottish paradise. “I was to be a ploughman, a farmer in the glen, back at home in the fields with my friends,” sings Paul amidst the unraveling imagery and beauty of a long since lost way of life. The typical references to The Pogues, The Dreadnoughts and The Dropkick Murphys still very much apply.
But the bulk of Rats In The Burlap actually explores contemporary themes. Most notably, a few social and political fist pumpers add fuel to the flames of ongoing current events. For instance, “Yes” militantly aligns The Real McKenzies with Scottish separatists in the recent and narrowly unsuccessful referendum for national succession. Meanwhile, “Who’d A Thought” was likely inspired by their hometown’s status as the least affordable city in in the world. With a scathing tongue, The Real McKenzies point a finger at enterprising fat cats and proclaim, “you should be ashamed of yourselves you greedy jerks,” as they critique swelling condo prices, human displacement and the demolishing of formerly affordable housing. Match the condemnation with a heated tempo, rabid punk rock riffs and outraged backing barks, and you have a tune that most working class Vancouverites that can readily get behind. The tin whistle focused “You Wanna Know What” treads similar but lighter territory in celebration of a life rich in integrity at the risk of being poor in the pocket.
The band never veers far from the headstrong raucous roots and tall tales of life on the road either though. “Spinning Wheels” roars ahead with a fast banjo meets bagpipe jaunt, akin to American labelmates Old Man Markley. “Rise up a glass to our friends, so get on the floor” shouts the band in a rowdy celebration of what they are. “Midnight Train To Moscow” weaves a pulse pounding tale of riding “the iron horse” and encountering the Russian authorities enroute to a venue. On the flipside, slow burner “Dead Or Alive” finishes with a more serious, reflective tone, concluding the record with humbling gratitude as the boys reminisce on fond memories, good friends, old endings and postulate new beginnings.
But Rats In The Burlap isn’t without a couple minor missteps. For instance, a little Scottish humour goes awry with the oddly tempod “Bootsy The Haggis Eating Cat.” Despite a few smirk worthy lines, the hoarse, jazz-like whisper and artistic lounge-house style feels more like something off of Iggy Pop’s indulgent Louis Armstrong-wannabe experiment, Préliminaires. The jazzy beat is unique amongst the The Real McKenzies’ discography, coming up just shy of successful and instead feeling really, really forced. Conversely, “What Have You Done” ventures too close to the realm of lyrical repetition with a vague and uninspired concept about “shoulda done” hypotheticals.
All in all though, Rats In The Burlap makes clear why fans continue to clamour to dingy dives to embrace the aged celtic-punk phenomenon known as The Real Mckenzies. With a diverse tracklisting, The Real McKenzies uphold their reputation as one of punk’s most consistent bands, ensuring that bagpipe punk remains more than a mere novelty for years to come.