If there was such a thing as the “Best Artist Of The ‘00s” the nomination box would be hefty. Contemporary artists like Casting Crowns and Third Day have filled the decade with wildly popular albums as well loads of overplayed radio hits. Cases could be made for tobyMac and KJ-52 for their fine work over the past ten years as well as hard rock bands like Thousand Foot Krutch and Underoath. The list eventually ends but not before names like Switchfoot, Natalie Grant, Chris Tomlin, Pillar, The Newsboys, MercyMe all get thrown into the melting pot. However my vote, without question, would go to Relient K.
Since their self-titled debut in 2000, the boys from Canton, Ohio have been one of the most consistent and impressive voices in music; both Christian and mainstream. With six records under their belt, a bazillion EPs (well, it seems like it at least), and even some vinyl, Gotee Records is apparently celebrating the anniversary the group’s first project with The First Three Gears. Now, anthologies always seem like a cheap way to acquire revenue, but it is cheaper for new fans to gain Relient K’s older albums without settling for a greatest hits project for the same price. Thankfully, Gotee threw in some b-sides from the early years for hardcore fans that weren’t around to pick-up the now extinct projects.
Every artist has to start somewhere, and some bands release truly unforgettable debuts which set the tone for the rest of a group’s career. However, while Relient K’s first project is unforgettable, it thankfully won’t ever go down as the album that defined the band. The raw pop rock/punk album offered some good tunes, but, more often than not, was on the edge of cheesiness rather than cutting-edge. Although the Matthew Thiessen’s wit was more refined down the road, the band’s humor was on full display on virtually every track while also dropping positive, meaningful messages. The most serious track on the album was probably its best musically, as the singer in the rock song “Softer To Me” laments of the wearisome state of the world in spite of full knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice. Upbeat songs like “Hello Mcfly” and “Charles In Charge” (which reference the film Back To The Future and the TV series Charles In Charge, respectively) have always been a guilty pleasure for me despite the juvenility and lameness of both. Both “My Girlfriend” and “Balloon Ride” are a bit over the top, but they are still enjoyable musically. The rest of the album is not worth mentioning except for the hidden track at the end of the lengthy “K Car” which is the worst of the three secret songs.
Although future albums have replaced Relient K’s second album from the “best album of the band’s career” category, I would argue that The Anatomy Of The Tongue In Cheek is not only the group's finest work but also one the best albums of all time. Everything the band did wrong on their debut was made right the second time around especially in the lyrical area where Relient K vastly improved their humor and added depth to their still relevant lyrics. While “I’m Lion-O” and “May The Horse Be With You” weren’t meant to be theologically deep, “Down In Flames” takes brotherly division seriously, and the band’s songwriting concerning salvation is brilliant (“My Way Or The Highway”). Even when the infectious “Maybe Its Maybeline” is dripping with wit, its theme of blame has Biblical references. When the album slows down there is even a worship aspect which is uniquely placed in this album. From the acoustic, guitar-driven single “For The Moments I Feel Faint” to the piano-fueled finale, Relient K’s heart for God was never more evident. The best moments of the project are still the catchy punk songs “Pressing On” and “Sadie Hawking Dance” along with the intense rock track “Failure To Excommunicate.”
Also considered to be their best album by many, Two Lefts Don’t Make A Right… But Three Do takes itself less seriously than Relient K’s previous endeavors. The album is all over the place from the hilarious “Mood Rings” (which prompted the band to write a book about the complex infrastructure of the female mind), to the ridiculous “Gibberish,” to the even more ridiculous secret track which features the “worst free style rapper ever.” Usually there is some edifying theme underlining every track. On “College Kids,” the band informs listeners that higher education may not be everyone’s cup of tea, while “Hoopes I Did It Again” draws from the group’s days in Canton to illustrate the good of breaking free of shallow expectations. Relient K showcases their faith on the ballads “Falling Out,” and “Getting Into You” along with the rock worship song, “I Am Understood.” Although all of Relient K albums have a remarkable degree of diversity and ingenuity, Two Lefts... has a unique style that reveals itself on the punk/rock tune “Chap Stick, Chapped Lips, And Things Like Chemistry,” the catchy “Forward Motion,” and the innovative “Jefferson Aero Plane.”
With the exception of the “Jefferson Aero Plane (Demo)” (which was re-released on the Bird And Bee Sides EP), The First Three Gears offers four additional songs from the 2000 A.D.D. EP and The Spooky EP. The live version of “Breakdown” comes first after Relient K’s self-titled, and doesn’t really add anything of much interest to the album. While “Softer To Me (Acoustic)” likewise isn’t that compelling, it has far more appeal than “Breakdown (Live),” if nothing else than a fan’s treat. The upbeat and corny “Operation” is pretty fun and pretty cheesy as the sound is like a musical blend between the self-titled and Anatomy Of The Tongue In Cheek. “Pressing On (Back Porch Acoustic)” is solid especially with the band chiming in after the second verse. (However, the lawnmower sounds following the song’s conclusion could have been shortened by three minutes).
It’s obvious that Thiessen and Matthew Hoopes (the only two remaining band mates from the original four) have matured immensely since the release of their self-titled debut. Label issues will most likely prevent another Relient K’s anthology of their latest three albums from occurring, but The First Three Gears is still a valuable project for those who still have not gotten around to checking out the past of one of the groups who had their hand in recently trailblazing the pop rock/punk genre. Only a hardcore Relient K fan is going to truly appreciate the bonus tracks making The First Three Gears only a bit better than other three-album collections. But to reiterate: both The Anatomy... and Two Lefts... (both now certified Gold) are terrific albums that would be fine additions to any music library that currently lacks them.
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Relient K: The Anatomy of Tongue In Cheek (Gold Edition): Track Listing
Relient K: Relient K: Track Listing
"Hello McFly" – 2:49
"My Girlfriend" – 2:47
"Wake Up Call" – 3:19
"Benediction" – 1:39
"When You're Around" – 2:02
"Softer to Me" – 3:22
"Charles in Charge" – 2:39
"Staples" – 2:59
"Anchorage" – 0:22
"17 Magazine" – 3:06
"Balloon Ride" – 2:58
"Everything Will Be" – 3:31
"Nancy Drew" – 2:48
"K Car" – 12:12
Softer To Me (Acoustic)
Jefferson Airplane (Demo)
Pressing On (Back Porch Acoustic)
Sadie Hawkins Dance
Relient K: Two Lefts Don't Make A Right...But Three Do (Gold Edition): Track Listing
Chap Stick, Chapped Lips & Things Like Chemistry