The break between “Borders & Boundaries” and “Anthem” is likely the longest (by a few months) in Less Than Jake’s career. Their fifth album (sixth or seventh if you count collections of early vinyl and b-sides) does indeed boast a new sound, a new label and a single gaining unprecedented airplay even for a band with such a huge fanbase.
So this is the part of the review where I get into my “old school LTJ fan mode” and start complaining about how poppy “Shes Gonna Break Soon” is and the overall lack of horns. Right?
Not so fast. “Anthem” is really more of a hard rock record than a pop punk record. The louder moments are far louder than on “Borders & Boundaries.” There is also comparatively more ska and reggae on here than on their previous release. For the record, the radio edit of the single mixes out the horns that the album cut includes.
So that changes things, although now I’m expected to complain about how the band doesn’t sound like they did in 1995. Correct?
Again I’m going to disappoint. Compared to many other bands that have been around for the same duration, LTJ has logged far more hours on the road and in the studio. So forgive me if I’m don’t get so righteous as to demand they cookie-cutter songs they wrote ten years ago. Less Than Jake doesn’t sound like they’re compromising anything on this record, so spare me the “sell out” chatter as well.
”Anthem” features the most mature lyrics Vinnie has put to paper and once again his observations on urban life firmly ground the band. Around this the group has turned up the volume from “Borders & Boundaries” and followed the harder rock path hinted at in songs like “Last Hour of the Last Day of Work” and “Al’s War.” Both Chris and Roger vocally sound more aggressive then when we last heard from them. On top of this Chris has developed as a guitarist and thrown a lot more interesting moments into his playing. Vinnie and Roger, already a more than competent rhythm section, follow suit and keep “Anthem” charging forwards.
Ska, in particular the brass section, is a constant point of contention between old fans and the “new” Jake. While there is definitely less obvious horn play than on their Capitol releases, JR and Buddy do contribute to the majority of the album's tracks. As opposed to filling lulls in the band’s songs, the horns instead serve almost as a second guitar and provide a great deal of “background hum” that beefs up many of the rock songs. The lack of “in your face” horns seems to have less to do with label politics than it does with careful songwriting. The brass is used, effectively I may add, when they are needed and are understandably not as active when the songs don’t require them. (Shit, I’m still not complaining, am I?)
“Welcome To The New South” carries on a long tradition of powerful LTJ album openers and firmly establishes the band’s current sound. “The Science Of Selling Yourself Short” is a mid-paced ska track with an insanely catchy chorus. It may be the most “roots” song the band has ever written. Upstroke guitar returns to the band’s bag of tricks in tracks like “Motown Never Sounded So Good” and “Plastic Cup Politics.” I was wary of the need to rerecord “Look What Happened?” but the song has been made far more urgent and bombastic than it’s previous incarnation. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Escape From The A-Bomb House” was written after the band’s tour with Bad Religion and Hot Water Music, because that influence is definitely present. The sparsely arranged opening to “The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out” leads one of the loudest rock songs the band has ever released.
Less Than Jake is not the same band they were in the mid 90s. If that’s the sound you’re looking for then I’m not going to lie to you: you won’t find it here. If you can get over that “Anthem” is one of the strongest albums Less Than Jake has ever written. While they have a poorly chosen and mixed single working against them, this record deserves all the attention it will garner.