Quarantining The Past: Ten of Tony Sly’s Best Songs

    Tony Sly died too young. It’s an unavoidably tragic fact, and the lineage of great music he and his band No Use for a Name has left behind isn’t enough to erase that. There is no bright side to it, no silver lining. For those of us who knew what we could about him through his music — which seemed like a lot, since his music was always giving, always deeply personal — it doesn’t lessen the shock to look back at Tony Sly’s work, but it’s one admittedly small way to pay tribute. So, in honor of a great singer and songwriter gone too soon, here are ten of Sly’s finest moments in music.

    “Old What’s His Name” – No Use for a Name (from The Daily Grind, 1993)

    Much of No Use’s early work got them (not unfairly) compared to Bad Religion, since they powered through songs with all the monolithic fury of Greg Graffin’s crew. And while 1995’s ¡Leche con Carne! was the band’s true coming out party, “Old What’s His Name” was the first sign of what Sly and the band would become. Sly lets his voice go here, ranging from the wailing chorus to the raspy verses and the band knocks out its most infectious hooks on The Daily Grind. It’s a riches-to-rags story (one that feels current yet again) and while the song’s character gets torn down — “Now his life is a bottle, a paper bag, a ripped up pair of shoes” — Sly sings with empathy rather than condemnation. It may be an outlier on its own record, but looking back now “Old What’s His Name” is No Use for a Name finally striking out on their own path, with great results.

    “Soulmate” – No Use for Name (from ¡Leche con Carne!, 1995)

    You could pick nearly any song fron ¡Leche con Carne! as a highlight for Sly, but after the one-two punch of “Justified Black Eye” and “Couch Boy,” both of which morph the speed-punk of earlier records into something more melodic, “Soulmate” is an out-and-out revelation. It’s bright slashing chords and bouncing pace give Sly space to tell his story without quickfire lines, and the results are excellent. “All those times you thought that you were wrong,” he pines, “you were right.” It’s another song about personal crisis, about feeling lost between past regrets and whatever the next step is supposed to be. Sly’s biggest talent was always making the plainspoken sound poetic, so when he says “you try to build so much it breaks on you” it’s a simple line, but the emotion behind it is earned. Sly doesn’t offer solutions here, he just lays the problem bare with a sweet, simple melody and the base power of guitar and drums. That’s why “Soulmate” is the band’s first stone-cold classic.

    “Exit” – No Use for a Name (from ¡Leche con Carne!, 1995)

    The closer to ¡Leche con Carne! is darker than a song like “Soulmate,” and much faster, but still driven by a perfect set of riffs. The way the lead circles back around on itself mirrors the endless cycle of Sly’s tune where “yesterday becomes tomorrow, leaves you wanting more.” But even as he sings of cycles, of breaking them and finding the next thing, you feel the band itself leaving its past behind for good. This is far more intricate, but no less immediate, than anything on The Daily Grind (or Incognito or Don’t Miss the Train), and under all its grind is another of Sly’s sweet singalongs. If you don’t think so, check his solo version from Acoustic, his first split album with Lagwagon’s Joey Cape.

    “On the Outside” – No Use for a Name (from Making Friends, 1997)

    Part of me wanted to leave this song off any list. Not because it’s not great, but because it is kind of the No Use for a Name song on the No Use for a Name album. But I guess it’s that for a reason. Sly’s duet with singer Karina Denike is, top to bottom, perfect, from the movie snippet from Mike Leigh’s bleak film Naked to the unrelenting back and forth between Sly and Denike, the song is the band’s trademark for a reason. It shows the way in which No Use for a Name actually got faster post-The Daily Grind when the band wanted to but still made the guitar work more distinct. The inclusion of Danike as foil here is what makes this song truly work, since she undercuts every line Sly says. “After all you’ve done for me I’m bound,” Sly’s character complains, to which she quietly insists “Don’t say another word.” There aren’t a whole lot of punk rock duets out there, but this one right here, between two charged-up voices, it might be the best one.

    “A Postcard Would Be Nice” – No Use for a Name (off Making Friends, 1997)

    The song after “On the Outside” often gets forgotten when talking about Making Friends. It gets buring under Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross quote that starts “The Answer is Still No” and “Growing Down” and the band’s great take on “Fields of Athenry,” but “A Postcard Would Be Nice” is Sly finally snarling. “Before we say goodbye to you, come down from off your throne,” he insists late in this dressing-down song. For all its bile though, which is effective because Sly so often aired on the side of sympathy, it’s also the band’s pure pop tune, a song that doesn’t really have a chorus but is catchier than anything else on this, perhaps the catchiest record in the Fat Wreck Chords catalog. It’s not easy to stand out on an album this consistently great, but “Postcard” does it not by being better, but by shifting the band’s pop-punk scales firmly towards the pop side with excellent results.

    “Lies Can’t Pretend” – No Use for a Name (from More Betterness!, 1999)

    More Betterness! is the darkest No Use record, a moodier turn from the blast of power chords on Making Friends into something more heavily layered. It has it’s share of fan favorites, though, from “Not Your Savior” to “Coming Too Close,” but “Lies Can’t Pretend” is Sly’s critical eye and generous spirit on display at the same time in a way that is thrilling and, now, all too heartbreaking. “I promise that the hurt will heal in time,” he swears at one point, “and you don’t deserve this.” Even as the heavy guitars and downhill riffs try and pull the people in the song down — to the point that it stalls at one point — Sly’s honeyed rasp is continually lifting them up. This can be an isolated record — see “Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me?” or “Let It Slide” — but “Lies Can’t Pretend” shows the heart underneath it all. More Betterness! may be hard, but it’s not resigned to that hardness. It’s on it’s way to something better.

    “International You Day”  – No Use for a Name (from Hard Rock Bottom, 2002)

    Hard Rock Bottom recaptures the energy of Making Friends without rehashing past sounds, and “International You Day” ranks among Sly’s finest songs. It’s unabashedly romantic in a way that feels both confident and exposed. “Without you,” Sly openly admits, “my life is incomplete, my days are absolutely grey.” The directness of his affection may make his words simple, but therein lies their power because he sells them with conviction. The band is at full-tilt behind him, taking the infectious hooks of songs like “A Postcard Would Be Nice” and speeding them up to sharpen their edge. There are other songs that pull of this same trick on Hard Rock Bottom (“Angela” is particularly great), but “International You Day” presents what seems like simple elements — a few power chords, fast drums, plain sentiments — and combines them into something far more intricate and compelling than the sum of its parts.

    “Part Two” – No Use for a Name (from Keep Them Confused, 2005)

    People may not talk about Keep Them Confused as much as albums like Making Friends, but it’s an impressive accomplishment that finds Sly and the band branching out more than on any other record. “Part Two” starts the record on its wide-open path. It’s a tough song to hear now when Sly sings about how he’ll “think of you when I’m gone, don’t worry now it won’t be long” but it’s not a dark song. It cleverly uses minor chords and off-notes to establish mood, but once again Sly is the hopeful eye of a storm. This is a song that sounds like an expanded version of everything that came before it. It’s got More Betterness!‘s heft, Making Friends‘ hooks, Hard Rock Bottom‘s charge, and it’s very own, newfound use of texture. It also predicts some highlights, like “Biggest Lie” and “Under the Garden”, from the band’s final full length, 2007’s The Feel Good Record of the Year. But no matter where it falls in the history of No Use, make no mistake, “Part Two” is no sequel. It stands just fine on its own.

    “The Shortest Pier” – Tony Sly (from 12 Song Program, 2010)

    Tony Sly was built for the kind of solo career he began to carve out for himself in the past few years. He’s a barroom bard, the kind of guy who will knock back a few pints and swing his arm not to throw a punch but to wrap it around your neck to singalong to the Pogues on the jukebox. His two solo records, 12 Song Program and Sad Bear, find Sly isolated but hardly alone, introspective but never overly maudlin. “The Shortest Pier” is one of the best examples of what his solo work could do, with a simple acoustic arrangement to back-up Sly’s layered vocals. There’s little flashy about this song, or any of Sly’s material, but that’s the point. What you get instead is a spare intimacy between Sly and the listener. Where before his voice cut through those guitars and drums, here it commands all your attention, and he’s not confessing secrets so much as he’s inviting you in to hear his stories. “The Shortest Pier” is one of the best of them.

    “Liver Let Die” – Tony Sly (from Acoustic Vol. 2, 2012)

    The final song on Sly’s latest split record with Joey Cape is his newest song, and one of his best as a solo artist. It’s the culmination of all this solo work, with that barfly chorus of singers behind him, happily belting out as “we raise our glasses to the songs we know so well.” It’s a celebration of all the things Sly championed in his songs: camraderie, solidarity, friendship, and the power of music itself. It’s all to tragic this may be the last new song Sly got to record, but we can take small (all too small) consolation in the fact that it was a bright final reminder to sing along, to push past hearing the song and feel it. “This could be tonights one more song,” Sly sings, and he couldn’t sound happier in that moment.

    Do you have a favorite NUFAN or Tony Sly song? Share it with us in the comments. Thanks for the music, Sly. You’ll be missed.