Welcome back to “Feedback”, a series I started and kind of abandoned awhile back where I look at an artist’s lesser known album to see what that album was, and what’s been missed by ignoring it. Today’s album is ska band Reel Big Fish’s 1998 album Why Do They Rock So Hard?
There are few things I could tell you about myself more embarrassing than how into ska I used to be. I will gladly, gladly embarrass my self by extolling the virtues of Evanescence’s album Fallen, or reciting the words to RENT‘s “La Vie Boheme” before disclosing how many ska albums I bought the first summer I had a job. Let me put it this way: I willfully called it the Ska-plosion. And, because my poison wasn’t just ska but fucking 90s ska, I had muttonchops. Just thank the stars no porkpie hats or Hawaiian shirts were involved.
Okay, so because some of you had lives in high school, let’s take a quick look at what ska (specifically ska punk) actually is, and how it went from Caribbean origins to the preferred genre of mid-90s chuckleheads. Ska started in Jamaica around the 1950s as a cultural cross pollination between southern US R&B and local Caribbean rhythms; this was basically proto-reggae that emphasized the off-beat and guitar upstrokes. This sound emigrated with large numbers of Jamaicans to the UK in the 70s, and the somewhat punk-y 2 Tone ska was born in the shared space between poor Jamaican immigrants and working class members of nascent punk.
And then, 2 Tone bands influenced pockets of the American punk underground in the late 80s/early 90s that would peak later that decade; your No Doubts, your Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublimes, Reel Big Fish, and Less Than Jakes. Third wave ska fit in enough with the punk side of Alternative Nation to break through because it typically looked like a more limber and horn-based pop punk offshoot with the same relationship drama, but ratcheted up the cheekiness. Essentially, anyone who found something in Dookie or Smash wouldn’t have trouble listening to Hello Rockview or Tragic Kingdom (this also works going present to past: you dig deep into Paramore, Fall Out Boy, or The Front Bottoms; you find Fueled By Ramen or old Warped Tours; you find Less Than Jake or Reel Big Fish).
Even nowadays, there’s something permanently Teenage about ska that goes beyond the tongue in cheek cynicism in the lyrics and high-calorie music (I’m aware I am probably projecting here). Be it the lethal levels of kitsch in the aesthetic, the winking huckster presentation across the board, or the fact that it’s impossible to skank without looking unfortunate, ska seems, by design, like too much to be taken or appreciated entirely seriously. It’s one of those things you like or do partly because yeah, you find it palatable enough, but you’re also cultivating your own eccentricity; like always getting pineapple and banana pizza or wearing fingerless gloves. No one just happens into ska. Likewise, you have to be a particular kind of person to join a ska band in the first place.
Enter preeminent kitschy hucksters Reel Big Fish.
Reel Big Fish didn’t start as a ska band, but they became the ska band. You can argue whose flatout best all day (have fun!), or point out that other bands had bigger careers; no one else chained themselves to ska as an identity to the point that they wore “SKA BAND” jumpsuits in a big budget music video. Reel Big Fish kept their music firmly in ska without budging: every song on 1996’s Turn the Radio Off was a blast of power chords, bright guitar upstrokes, syncopation, air-guitar inducing solos, bouncing hornlines, and snarky slacker lyrics. You get chucklehead shit like “She Has a Girlfriend Now” and “Skatantic”, but also “I’ll Never Be” and “Snoop Dogg, Baby”, which are affecting enough in a bro-y way to convince you this band has a heart underneath the grinning cynicism.
Follow-up record Why Do They Rock So Hard? (released in 1998) pushes the ska-iest ska band into ska-ing their hardest. The horns put in overtime, showing up not just on choruses and hooks, but weaving in and out of verses like on “Brand New Song” and “The Kids Don’t Like It”, adding zany licks wherever possible. Ska aficionados tend to be in favor of more horn whenever possible; this is an album that’s eager to unleash its inner high school band kid on the world. True to the album title, lead singer/guitarist Aaron Barrett pushes his riffs all the way into the front; the first thing you hear upon firing up this album is a guitar solo pushed into the red. This was 1998: bands no longer felt like they were under contractual obligation to avoid any and all appreciation for 80s pop metal they might have had. WDTRSH? indulges in super overdriven and bottom heavy riffs and flashy solos; it’s the only ska album that could have credibly been produced by Mutt Lange. Actually, the album could have used Lange’s production instead of the loud, claustrophobic mix here where everything bleeds into one noisy mess, making this an album that’s sound is as garish as its album cover.
But, despite how violently this album pushes into rawk, it also doubles as RBF at their most chill. After an opening salvo of ska punk, “I’m Cool” is straight up reggae, and after gimmicky, shrill anger on “Everything Is Cool”, “Song #3” is a mellow jam with Coolie Ranx that’s more interlude than anything. Elsewhere, “Thank You For Not Moshing” alternates between brisk (oh, this hurts to type) “pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!” ska tempo and half time horn-led verses, and “Big Star” and the extra sardonic “We Care” are probably some of RBF’s straightest ballads.
Along with up-sizing everything else, WDTRSH? doubles down on the sarcastic cynicism of its predecessor. This schtick felt at least halfway forgivable on Turn the Radio Off because even “She Has a Girlfriend Now” or “Trendy” were delivered with a light chuckle. When Barrett sings “I’ve got a brand new song/It is so lovely, lovely/I’ve got a brand new attitude/It is so hateful, hateful” on “Brand New Song”, it’s the album’s thesis statement delivered with a smirk.
No longer in a band that’s just trying to make it, Barrett’s use of jokey sarcasm and irony no longer covered his insecurities, and wound up just being an end in themselves. This is how you get one-note shit like “I Want Your Girlfriend To Be My Girlfriend”, “You Don’t Know”, “Thank You For Not Moshing”, or “We Care” where the ironic delivery isn’t for a joke or deeper point, but someone grandstanding while reveling in their misery. Ex-girlfriends get their share of grief, but Barrett’s target for most of the album consists of nebulous RBF haters who called them sell outs after, well, y’know. About half the album is defensive posturing against critics or the band talking about how much they hate their own success and how the whole thing is going “Down in Flames”. That bitterness becomes harder and harder to tolerate as the album marches closer to an inflated hour runtime.
It is, perhaps, appropriate then that WDTRSH? landed with a thud upon release. The burst of the ska bubble hurt Reel Big Fish the most since, of the bigger ska bands, they were the least diverse. No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom (released before even Turn the Radio Off) had it’s ska credentials, but ultimately transcended the scene and became a 90’s staple. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones leveraged their goodwill in the punk scene from their early days to exist in smaller scenes. Less Than Jake had it both ways in the late 90s through the 00s by zig-zagging between “kind of a ska band” and “kind of pop punk with occasional horns” (sidenote: LTJ’s Hello Rockview holds up best in the late-90’s ska field, and GNV FLA from 2008 is still a personal favorite). Meanwhile, Why Do They Rock So Hard? is ska’s Be Here Now: a record that thought the water was fine before diving in head first and experiencing the cold shock of a disinterested public.
After a slight rebound with the more power pop Cheer Up!, Reel Big Fish fell out of the mainstream with We’re Not Happy ’til You’re Not Happy, an album too tiring and joyless for even my sneering teenage self. Since then, they’ve subsisted with a few same-y albums, a grueling touring schedule (I saw them in 2011 splitting a bill with Streetlight Manifesto, the thinking teen’s ska band), and enough lineup changes to make The Smashing Pumpkins look stable. As long as Barrett can keep cracking out casual misanthropy over hair metal solos and reggae horns while finding dudes to play them, he should be able to keep playing midsize theaters and state fairs as his pompadour and muttonchops turn grey.
For my part, I aged out of ska. A lot of it came down to ska, like that pineapple and banana pizza, being the kind of novelty you can only have so much of. But part of it was definitely that late teens pose of looking as mature and adult as possible, and in my mind, nothing screamed adolescence like checkered patterns and guitar upstrokes. And beside, I had a through line for more interesting punk: one of my last discoveries (or “discskavories”, you could say) was Arrogant Sons of Bitches, an underground DIY group lead by a manic Long Islander name Jeff Rosenstock, seen here in the tie & t-shirt combo. ASOB called it quits by the time I heard of them, but Rosenstock’s new collective Bomb the Music Industry! became one of my forays off the beaten path of alternative rock, and I only went down the rabbit hole from there.
Why Do They Rock So Hard? shows ska at its cultural peak, but peaking just means the ride’s about to end. It wasn’t the only high profile ska album from that year–Less Than Jake’s Hello Rockview and Catch 22’s acclaimed Keasbey Nights also had 1998–but the RBF were as ska as it got. I wanted to see if WDTRSH? was unfairly judged commercially, and maybe even see if I could reconnect with the music I used to listen to. But honestly, the album’s flop was earned, and the self-aware mugging and cynicism only reminded me of why I fell out of ska in the first place. Ska wasn’t meant for prolonged mainstream exposure; some fish are better in a smaller pond.