Windwardtidesandwaywardsails is Down By Law's first collection of 100 percent new material since 1999's Fly the Flag and its first for Montreal's Union Label Group. It features the same lineup as that album, including longtime mouthpiece and guitarist Dave Smalley, bassist Keith Davies, drummer Milo Todesco, and lead guitarist Sam Williams. Written principally by Smalley and Williams, Windwardtides does include some of the band's strongest material since 1994's Punkrockacademyfightsong, even if Smalley's lyrics occasionally lurch into clichéd, preachy territory. While album opener "Next to Go" is a rather formulaic, double-time rant against society's unpredictability, things brighten considerably with "Put the Boots In," the first of the record's numerous Clash tributes. Accompanied by effective playing in the punk style (including some fiery lead guitar from Williams), Smalley leads the charge with the rallying cry "fight fight for what you want!" It's refreshing to hear a group so steeped in the punk and hardcore tradition, especially in an era when the music's ideals or supposed fashion sense are co-opted for gain opposite to what they were supposed to stand for in the first place.
But that same dedication to tradition can make Down By Law's music sound dated and even clichéd. "Capitol Riots" and "Johnny Law" are predictable gripes against the hasslin' ways of those boys in blue. Sure, complaining about the heat is as punk as touring the U.S. in a Ford Fiesta. But the songs don't further the argument effectively, and end up sounding half-hearted, like a protestor with no crowd to cheer him on. A few of Windwardtides' less earnest moments are more successful. Williams takes lead vocals for plaintive, rousing ballad "Everlasting Girl," while the furious "Convoluted" shifts from the overdriving riff of its main part into a ringing half-time chorus. Williams returns on vocals for the Ramones-style trip of "Going Wrong," which gives way to the album's most carefree song, "(I Wanna Be In) AC/DC." Full of clever lyrics and guided by a musical tribute to the booze-fueled Australian rockers, the song dates Smalley while it solidifies his existence as a veteran. Windwardtidesandwaywardsails continuously shifts on this dichotomy. While it's the band's ties to punk rock convention and its own embattled tradition that define it, these factors also act as limiters on Down By Law's sound, and suggest that Smalley and his mates might be running out of gas. Windwardtides will present longtime fans with a few moments worthy of Down By Law's best. But it's also hampered by its own earnestness.