Of the litany of pop-punk bands doing the rounds in the mid to late ’90s, there were a whole slew of bands that failed to gain the mainstream momentum of the biggest hitters. Away from Blink-182 and The Offspring at the genre’s nucleus were bands like Mest and The Ataris, plowing away on the fringes. One such act was Unwritten Law, but while their peers have largely continued into the modern day sticking to their guns and rolling on, the San Diego quartet seem to be looking to pick up a new clutch of fans with Acoustic, a reworked collection of tracks from their back catalogue.
And while this would be an ample way to attract any potential new fans, Acoustic is one of the messiest, most slapdash and borderline sycophantic collections of songs to be released in some time. Looking past its misnomer of a title, the thirteen tracks on this album jump from genre to genre, with everything from electronica to calypso to almost country being explored. It makes for a truly disconcerting listen; there’s next to no cohesion whatsoever, and the songs feel cheapened by blatant effects and synthetic textures. The standard reworking fare of extra layers of strings would have worked fine, but this feels like a band throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
But if such baffling stylistic choices paid off, it would be fine. Except on Acoustic, Unwritten Law struggle to really make them work most of the time. Celebration and Nevermind find themselves weighed down by leaden, electronic drums that make them feel like sub-standard Awolnation B-sides, and Shoulda has a grating chain rattle running all the way through it that becomes harder and harder to ignore. Then there’s I Like The Way with its squelching keys in a song that feels largely unfinished, and a cover of MSTRKRFT and John Legend’s Heartbreaker tries to slot together glitchy vocal samples and a bizarre Indian middle eight that really doesn’t work. It really doesn’t feel like Unwritten Law know what they’re doing on Acoustic, and as harsh as that may sound, it’s unfortunately true.
Thankfully, there are moments where they eventually hit their stride. The calypso-leaning Starships feels like the most complete song on this album with its added horns and steel drums, while Seeing Red has a real depth to it with its marching band drums and piano interlude. It’s also hard to fault the actual songwriting on offer – Scott Russo has a real knack for catchy but thought-provoking lyrics as shown on the likes of Teenage and Cailin, but they’re let down overall by disappointingly lacklustre renditions.
But still, credit where it’s due – Acoustic sees Unwritten Law at least having a go at twisting and manipulating their sound into something new, and sometimes they do manage to hit a decent spot. It’s just a shame that far too often what they come up with feels overweight and overwrought, and Acoustic as an album ends up far messier and clumsier than it should be. It’s probably for completionists only, but even then it’s hard to see what overall appeal this album would really have.
For fans of: Awolnation, Sublime, Kris Roe
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Acoustic’ by Unwritten Law is released on 1st April on Cyber Tracks.