Two iconic Boston bands, both with strong plaid associations, each having carved out its own spot on the calendar with multi-day holiday bashes, featuring guys blowing into tubes, fronted by endearing singers with gravel in their throats but not their hearts. With a combined 60 years as local institutions, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Dropkick Murphys are in many ways flip sides of the same coin, the good-natured goofery of the former and the confrontational broken-bottle warning of the latter both disguising heartfelt paeans to connection and community.
After a year of isolation, it’s no wonder that both bands are releasing new albums back to back, and not just because the dam of the pandemic seems to be cracking all at once. But the difference between the Murphys’ “Turn Up That Dial” (out Friday, Born & Bred Records) and the Bosstones’ “When God Was Great” (out May 7, Hellcat Records) may be in how each band rode out that isolation: Where the Bosstones’ multicoastal operation required them to regroup from afar with caution and hesitancy, the Murphys hunkered down right from the start, performing a virtual St. Patrick’s Day concert days after the Massachusetts lockdown began and weathering the past year as a tightly packed unit.
In short, they isolated together, something that’s honed “Turn Up That Dial.” The Murphys have such a clear, identifiable, and firmly established formula that it’s easy (and not necessarily wrong) to smirk at their schtick. But man, by midway through the album’s opening title track — its rolling banjo, accordion, and bagpipes atop raging punk chords as Al Barr and Ken Casey stake out an us-versus-them ethos — they’ve practically ionized every molecule in the listener’s body until all that’s left is the rush that the band intended. Although it may be schtick, it’s a really good schtick, and the Murphys are damn good at it.
And if there were any question as to whether the last year would sap their energy or even just their focus, that’s bowled over throughout the album. “L-EE-B-O-Y” offers a rousing salute-cum-spotlight to band piper Lee Forshner, and even the tongue-in-cheek, gloriously petty grudge-keeping of “Mick Jones Nicked My Pudding” is as fierce and fiery as pugnacious anthems like “Middle Finger” and “Smash [Expletive] Up.” There are times when “Turn Up That Dial” threatens to be more of the same, both across its own runtime and within the Murphys’ catalog, and the band works hard enough to make that irrelevant.
The Bosstones’ “When God Was Great” is a bit more varied, and also duller. At nearly an hour, it’s at least 20 minutes too long, with forays into Springsteenian grandeur (“I Don’t Want to Be You” and the title track), an incongruously upbeat commentary on George Floyd’s death (“The Killing Of Georgie [Part III]”), and a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hopeful beacon “Long as I Can See the Light” standing alongside the band’s usual ska-infused regular-schmoe pep talks. It’s as scattered as the geographically separated band itself, without the locked-in sense of purpose that the Murphys use to overcome the potential redundancy of the songs.
But the Bosstones come through periodically, whether it’s in the defiant unity of “Bruised” or in the terrific “You Had to Be There,” a fired-up party song that operates both as nostalgia and as an invitation to the next one. And in “The Final Parade,” they unleash a doozy of a final track, an epic salute to ska featuring members of Rancid, Stiff Little Fingers, Fishbone, the Aquabats, and so, so many others. It’ll make one hell of a closer to the next Hometown Throwdown. Maybe they’ll even find room for a Dropkick Murphy or two.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc