This is the third and final part of my Tomas Kalnoky/Streetllight Manifesto retrospective. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.
After the release of Somewhere in the Between, Streetlight Manifesto’s incessant touring continued, as did their lofty promises.
Within a year or two of the release of Somewhere in the Between, the Streetlight website announced a new project, one more ambitious than any previous project by Kalnoky: 99 Songs of Revolution.
The eight-album, four-band project would be 99 covers of defining, disruptive songs across the entire scope of music: The project promised a kaleidoscopic, mind-opening homage to the creators past and present.
Among the four bands who would be contributing covers, the Streetlight site promised us, was the now-legendary and long-defunct BotAR. This was perhaps the largest reason for fan excitement.
Streetlight promised the first volume of the project was on its way. Skeptics doubted we’d ever see it. It turns out both the band and the cynics were right.
In 2010, Streetlight released 99 Songs of Revolution, Volume 1, an 11-song covers album (all by Streetlight). It’s a magnificent covers album, nearly as diverse and creative as the project’s mission statement promised. From underground punk gems (“Punk Rock Girl” by The Dead Milkmen; “Hell” by Squirrel Nut Zippers) to pop classics (“Red Rubber Ball” by The Cyrkle; “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Paul Simon) to the completely unexpected (“Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service; “The Troubador” by Mason Jennings), the album is a delight for its entire duration.
To match the diverse origins of the songs, Streetlight explored new musical styles. But the sonic experiments often paired with unexpected songs: The sharp punk track “Linoleum” by NOFX received a gentle, acoustic sound from the band, “Skyscraper” by hardcore band Bad Religion received a reggae spin.
The most delightful songs are the least expected: the electronic intro of “Such Great Heights” is transformed into a dense tapestry of horns, and the romantic tone provides some nice relief to Streetlight’s usual stern lyrical tone. Meanwhile, “Linoleum” is illuminated as a heart-rending ballad.
The only disappointments in my mind are “Punk Rock Girl,” which loses the original’s sense of irony and affection without any new flavor, and “They Provide the Paint,” a cover of another Kalnoky band, BotAR. It just seems like an excuse to record that song with Streetlight.
Much like the band’s previous intermediate project, the Keasbey Nights re-recording, 99 Songs Vol. 1 received mixed feedback from fans — most of whom were frustrated that it wasn’t an album of Streetlight originals.
Adding to the sense that the band and Kalnoky were losing what little focus they already had, Kalnoky started releasing solo acoustic versions of his songs under the name Toh Kay, even doing a mini Toh Kay tour.
The promises for a new album of Streetlight material continued, though. And it seemed that no sooner would we be guaranteed the album by a certain time than the release date would be moved back again and again.
But Kalnoky and Streetlight had an excuse this time: they claimed their label, Victory Records, was being completely uncooperative and non-communicative. Accusations remained vague, but included “lying” and “deceiving” (which I assume are code for “declining to give into Kalnoky’s every whim”… but I digress).
Three long, slow years passed with more shows and gradual updates to the long-sought third Streetlight album. The band took to venting about their label more and more, blaming them for delays and miscommunications, but at last the band’s site began accepting pre-orders.
Given the tension between the band and label, a release kerfuffle was bound to go down. Sure enough, Victory took issue with Kalnoky releasing an acoustic, solo Toh Kay cover of the The Hands that Thieve (cleverly titled The Hand that Thieves) as his own, not the label’s. They argued it was effectively the same as the new album (since it was the same songs and released at the same time), and should be controlled by them, not him.
Despite the delays and drama, everything was worth it as soon as fans got their hands on the new album. The Hands That Thieve, finally released in 2013, not only lived up to the long-boiling, astronomical hype… it actually exceeded it.
Here, the band is in complete control of their craft, infusing every song with unexpected and glorious moments. Kalnoky’s songwriting has rarely been better than it is here: Several of these tracks are among the best he’s ever written.
The Hands That Thieve also makes it easier to appreciate 99 Songs of Revolution, as you can tell the latter is a bit of a warm-up for the former. The intro to “Such Great Heights” sounds like a precursor to the horn break in “If Only for Memories,” while the touches of reggae in “Skyscraper” reappear in the excellent “Toe to Toe.”
Kalnoky’s lyrics have softened without losing focus, too. His atheist screeds have turned into rousing anthems (most definitely inspired by his feud with Victory Records). Bits and pieces still land with bitterness, like the disappointing closer “Your Day Will Come.” But there’s more humanity in these lyrics than any Kalnoky album since Keasbey Nights. (Tomas sounds downright sentimental in “If Only For Memories.”)
The biggest highlights of the album come during a particularly torrid stretch in its center. Tracks 3 to 6 — which includes “The Littlest Things,” “The Hand That Thieve,” “With Any Sort of Certainty,” and “If Only For Memories” — are four of the band’s absolute best, with the album’s title track a strong contender for my favorite Streetlight song.
It was only Streetlight’s third album of originals, but their fifth album overall, which meant they were FINALLY free from their supposedly onerous contract with Victory Records they had so often complained about. After years of bad-mouthing the label and blaming them for a slow creative process, the band responded to their breakup with the album by…
Announcing they were going on a farewell tour? Wait, what?
Yep, while still the best band in the world, having just released possibly their best album yet, Streetlight Manifesto announced their tour supporting the album would be their last tour. They might do some later shows, might record some music… but might not. They called the farewell tour “The End of the Beginning.”
It climaxed in a three night concert-palooza in their hometown of Sayreville, NJ (called, of course, “The End of The End of The Beginning.”) I was not going to miss an event like that for perhaps my favorite musical act of the 21st century. It was easily the greatest concert of my life… one that deserves it’s own article at some point.
But alas, now Streetlight’s age seems passed, and with it, I feel like a personal era of mine ended. I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite so hyped about a band as I was for Streetlight, seeing them regularly in concert and feverishly speculating about their upcoming releases.
Here’s to you, Tomas, and the rest of Streetlight, too. I love you with all my heart. Few bands have meant more to me, and few continue to entertain me to this day. Thank you for a decade’s worth of transcendent music and the best damn concerts I’ve ever seen.
Thanks for your greatness and for your flaws and for everything that made you Streetlight. Thanks for reminding to bite the hands that thieve, thanks for making me a part of your wicked gang, and — above all — thanks for reminding me that tomorrow might hold a better place, a better time.