Music trends come and go; for the most part, the major ska acts of the 1996 boom have vanished. Goldfinger’s latest release Disconnection Notice proves that they’re dead to me. Save Ferris, who? Lastly, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are encompassed by a large question mark. That leaves Orange County’s mighty pop-punk-ska act Reel Big Fish as the last standing mecca from the era. Despite several lineup changes spanning their decade in existence, the band has prepared yet another quality upbeat record just in time for the summer season.
Carrying the torch from 2002’s Cheer Up!, Reel Big Fish are clearly a rock‘n'roll band who often get confused for a ska act, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. Without ever taking themselves too seriously, We’re Not Happy 'Til You’re Not Happy manages to pad the sugary choruses with much more substance than songs about tube tops. Many will find gratitude in this release as the servicing of the brass instruments is much more apparent for the first time in years. RBF have made a career of shelling out potshots to the music industry ("Sellout," "Trendy") and several new cuts continue to tread on familiar ground.
The album’s opener “The Fire” is a bold starter to the record, as the wind section comes out of the gates full blast, proudly sporting their ska tendencies coupled with a solid mix of pop-rock. Punchy horns and a danceable beat make leeway for “Drinkin’” to climb into the ranks of crowd favorites. “Don’t Start A Band” is the sincere and angry sequel to the song that launched RBF into stardom, “Sellout.” The recording industry resentment continues on “We Hate It…,” “Turn The Radio Off,” and “One Hit Wonderful.” Even with the lyrics dabbing into recycled content bins from the past three albums, the songs still deliver a salubrious listen.
Although We’re Not Happy 'Til You’re Not Happy is a staple release from Reel Big Fish, there is a significant defect holding it back from the significance of Turn The Radio Off and Why Do They Rock So Hard? Throughout the entire fifteen tracks Aaron’s voice sounds as if his mic is a Campbell's Soup can, and it’s not mmm mmm good. The vocals are also really low in the mix; perhaps the zany front man Aaron Barrett is starting to feel the strain of splitting time between RBF and the Forces of Evil.
“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution,” made famous by Tracy Chapman, is the record’s touted first single, gliding on reggae guitars and a hand-clapping drumbeat. It's not their best work on a cover song; muffled vocals similar to their rendition of “Gigantic” by the Pixies really hamper the experience. Quite a bit of speculation and bickering was stirred up about the Fish re-recording their classic “Beer;” well, thankfully that was cut (trust me, you’re not missing anything) and replaced with a bubbly and mellow yet brassy rendition of Social Distortion’s “Story Of My Life.”
What originally made Reel Big Fish so appealing was their unique and energetic twist on both rock and ska; circa 2005 they still possess those traits, but on We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy the fun is apparently decelerating. The record finds a niche nicely within the band's discography, even if it is near the bottom of the heap with fading themes, wit, and originality. The first few listens are worthy, but replay-ability, which dogged Cheer Up!, is once again instilled on this disc.