In the past few years, the band have whittled down their lineup little by little — from 10 on debut Whenever, If Ever, to nine on Harmlessness and now to seven — yet despite those trims (or maybe because of them), the song arrangements are more meticulously crafted and sophisticated than ever. Always Foreign is full of all sorts of wonderful instrumentation, each part fitting in alongside the rest while also getting a fair chance to shine.
The honking horns on "Marine Tigers," the pulsing and gliding strings on "Infinite Steve" and the lightning-fast snare work by percussionist Steven K. Buttery on "The Future" and "Marine Tigers" are among the ornaments that decorate what is, at its core, strong and ambitious songwriting.
It can be difficult to pick out an obvious "you've got to hear this" song that would instantly grab a newcomer's attention; most of them are complicated and progressive, steadily shape-shifting and swirling with a plurality of emotional states. Always Foreign is an album best enjoyed by those who view the album as a singular artwork, rather than a collection of smaller ones. A notable exception is "The Future," a bona fide jam that's fast-paced and full of joy, even though singer David F. Bello's quirky style (like a more nasal Bob Dylan) doesn't exactly jibe with the unusually rocky, uptempo song.
The lyrical themes here are highly coded and metaphorical, as is usual for Bello's writing, but the feelings are palpable. Notably, Bello finds himself letting out a seething, pent-up anger that's omnipresent throughout the album. "Hilltopper" turns a vengeful eye toward someone for whom he has nothing but contempt, but there's an even fiercer rage burning on "Fuzz Minor," which rides a devilish riff as Bello charges against racial discrimination and the attitudes that allow it to proliferate: "Call me 'a-rab' / Call me a 'spic' / I can't wait until I see you die," he cries at the song's climax.
"Marine Tigers" preludes this by showing the long history behind it; Bello based the song on his father's memoir that recounts the hostility he felt after moving to New York from Puerto Rico in the '40s. "Faker" issues a call-out to those who deny the existence of systemic inequality: "You will be faking it when we're tied to the tracks, denying that the ropes even exist."
With Always Foreign, TWIABP's chaos is more calculated and controlled, even as their fiery resolve burns from the inside out. (Epitaph)