I Know You Too Well to Like You Anymore – why Reel Big Fish’s Candy-Coated Fury doesn’t quite cut it anymore.Leave a comment
November 23, 2012 by Daniel
Ska, especially the third-wave “ska-punk” variety is a weird genre. If you happen to be a person who likes ska, you probably got into it in high school, and you probably got really REALLY into it. One day you hear an Aquabats song and say “this is weird and funny!”, then flash-forward a couple weeks and suddenly you’re so starved for fast upstrokes and catchy horn lines that you’re going to see any crappy local band that wears checkered wristbands and declaring that a group called Skankin’ Pickle is “actually pretty good”.
And the thing with ska is that once you leave high school, you pretty much stop listening to it. Oh, you’ll still look on those bands that you loved with fondness – while simultaneously dropping the ones that you only liked in the wake of your frenzy – and you’ll still go to the shows when they come to town, and you’ll have a great time. But you’ll realize that you haven’t actually gone and listened to any of it in a long time; and when you do put on those albums, it’ll feel more like nostalgia than genuine, in-the-moment love. Suddenly, the old guard are releasing new albums, and you don’t really care at all.
At least, that’s what happened to me. Earlier this year, Reel Big Fish, one of the ska bands that I still listen to on a fairly regular basis, announced that they were recording a new album, and I found it pretty hard to get excited about it. They’d put out in-studio pictures on Facebook and I’d shrug; the months went on and updates about the recording process, then the release date, then the release itself were met with similar unenthusiastic responses. I resolved to listen to it, eventually, but didn’t really feel like I had to. Well, I finally listened to it a few days ago, and boy, how right I was.
The thing one has to ask themselves when talking about a new ska release is what exactly one wants from a new ska release. Do you want growth? Do you want a deviation from the genre? Do you just want a nostalgia trip? For my money, the ska bands that have a modicum of lasting value are the ones who have grown from their roots into new directions – The Aquabats took some of their secondary New Wave influences and made them their focus; Big D and the Kids Table evolved into a really cool beach-y surf rock thing (though from what I’ve heard, they’ve since devolved back into ska, to negative results); Bomb the Music Industry! became one of the most musically diverse punk bands to ever exist; No Doubt indulged their pop influence until they became one of the biggest pop acts in the world. Even the bands that haven’t made as drastic a change still showed signs of growth – Mustard Plug are doing what they’ve always done, but their last album was almost a decade ago, and even that one was at least darker than their previous material. Less Than Jake became a pretty good pop-punk band, then released a “return to form” album that actually turned out really well by mixing in the horns with their newer sound.
Reel Big Fish used to be one of these bands too – a band that never strayed too far from their roots but always showed elements of growth from album to album: Why Do They Rock So Hard? is a bit more adventurous than their debut Turn the Radio Off, and features a thicker, more accomplished sound overall; Cheer Up! is their “pop” album, laying back on the horns and meddling with more modern production tricks; We’re Not Happy ‘til You’re Not Happy is the sound of a bunch of people who don’t want to be in a band anymore trying to be in a band that’s supposed to sound happy all the time, and for that it’s at least kind of dark and fascinating. Even their comeback album Monkeys for Nothing and the Chimps for Free is silly in a way that the band had never really been before and was, for all intents and purposes, a departure from their “happy-music/bitter-lyrics” style of old.
Candy-Coated Fury shows none of this. It’s a total regression in all of the worst ways – just a bunch of guitar upstrokes and forgettable horn lines that don’t add up to anything substantial. The melodic sense that Aaron Barrett used to be so gifted with, that ability to make songs that were catchy, fun, anthemic, and most importantly, distinct, has been totally lost. The fact that I could walk away from a 50-minute album by one of the best third-wave ska bands ever and not remember a single thing I heard is…really just kind of preposterous. I wonder how much external forces are the reason for this – the loss of “second-in-command” Scott Klopfenstein, who played trumpet, second guitar, and keyboards for the band as well as serving as Barrett’s comedic foil, may have been a greater one than originally thought.
It’s not like it’s all bad – when they actually decide to use their brand new sax player on, say, “She Not the End of the World”, there’s some pretty interesting, Streetlight Manifesto-esque counter-harmony stuff going on. And there’s this cool bit at the end of “Don’t Stop Skankin’” that sounds like a first-wave ska record, with a crackling vinyl effect on the whole thing and a girl repeatedly saying the word “rudie”, so that’s at least kinda funny. But the things that made the band unique – the better-than-average guitar work, the punk-y vibe, those few big regal moments of horn splendor – aren’t anywhere to be found, and the album is just plain boring throughout.
Where I feel the regressive nature of the album the most, though, is in the lyrics, which have receded into the bitter style of old in a way that feels completely ingenuine. I mean, I don’t know exactly what Barrett’s romantic situation right now is, but there’s no way a dude pushing forty can feel the immature teenage angst that Barrett expresses on virtually every song on here. And the biggest crime of all is that none of it is funny – some attempts at lame comedy are made once in a while, but the sarcastic wit and the underlying sweetness that pervaded their old material is completely gone, replaced with a nasty, troublingly women-hating husk that seems to be exuding anger for no particular reason other than “it’s what we used to do”.
Listen, it’s possible for ska bands to continue being basic ska bands effectively. It’s such a rare genre now that sometimes, the fact that anyone’s even doing it at all is kind of refreshing and neat, in a counter-intuitive, looking-backwards kind of way. There’s a huge possibility that the reason I don’t like this is simply that I’ve outgrown it, though I like to believe that if a really good ska album came out, I’d still be pretty into it. And the thing is, that for all the venom I’m spouting about this album, I actually don’t really care about it all that much. I’m still going to see Reel Big Fish whenever they roll around town, because their shows are still the most straight-up “fun” I have at live performances, and they have such a huge back catalogue of good material that I suspect they’ll be ignoring most of this album live anyways. I could have done perfectly fine without any new Reel Big Fish material, but the fact that there is some and that it’s bad doesn’t really matter to me, especially not as much as it would have four or five years back.
If this is what Reel Big Fish have to do to keep touring…well, I’m pretty much fine with that, so long as the new stuff stays relatively isolated. It’s just a bit of a bummer that a band who, even at their worst, could still make a few memorable, concert-worthy songs per album is now joining the growing list of ska acts who can’t really cut it creatively anymore. It feels like the final breath of an era, the true death knell of a past, somewhat less jaded period of my life that is now effectively buried. And, contrary to the mood that ska is supposed to evoke, it really just feels kind of sad.