Sublime is a band clearly hard to define. This much is obvious after a quick glance at the comments sections of the previously reviewed Sublime albums. We all know they played ska, reggae, and punk, but my goal with this review is to tell you a little bit about their often neglected dynamic: folk music. The Sublime sound you know from 40 Oz. to Freedom and Sublime is nowhere to be found on this album (save "Rivers of Babylon" from 40 Oz.). Rather, this an almost exclusively acoustic album compiled from six different recording sessions from various locations, half of them studio and half not. Though they are interspersed on the album, I will group them by sessions.
The studio sessions give us "Saw Red," "Little District," "Marley Medley" and the previously released "Rivers of Babylon" -- arguably four of the best on the disc. Here we are exposed to Brad Nowell's affinity for Jamaican ska music, as all four songs are either based on or covers of Jamaican ska classics. Lyrically, these songs approach everyday topics such as love ("Saw Red," "Marley Medley"), spirituality ("Rivers of Babylon") and neighborhood politics ("Little District").
Next are the home demos. From these sessions we get the selections "Pool Shark," "Don't Push," and "Boss DJ" among others. While the sound quality drops slightly at this point, the artistic expression does not. We get to hear Bradley's all-too-rare blues styling in "Don't Push" and "Freeway Time in L.A. County Jail," along with rather obscure covers from R&B and punk influences Dee Dee Warwick and Camper Van Beethoven, respectively. More and more, Bradley's perspectives on life surface as we hear him sing about the simple joys of music ("Don't Push"), the misery of being in jail ("Freeway Time") and a chillingly prophetic discussion of his all-too-infamous heroin addiction in "Pool Shark" that, while previously available on Robbin' the Hood, still manages to be one of the highlights here.
Finally, there are several cuts live from a bar in the sole acoustic set Bradley Nowell ever publically performed -- a year and a few months before his death. The sound quality is at its worst here with audience chatter abound. If it wasn't for "Mary / Big Salty Tears," the inclusion of these sessions would be questionable in my opinion. "Wrong Way," the 40-second opening track on the disc, seems to be here only to use its name to draw attention to the album, while "Garden Grove" and "KRS-One" are given never-before-heard twists that ultimately do not match their studio counterparts. The aforementioned "Mary / Big Salty Tears," on the other hand, demonstrates one of Bradley's supreme skills as a musician: improvisation. He strums his way through the minute-long, raunchy "Mary" before dabbling in one of their lesser known tracks "Get Out" for a few bars, finally settling on a Ziggens song called "Big Salty Tears" -- a ballad about having difficulty coming to terms with a broken relationship. His passion for music is at a high here as he belts out the tune as if he is alone in his room. Classic.
So is this relatively lo-fi compilation album worth your time? If you enjoy the sounds of laid back acoustic strumming accompanied with down-to-earth lyrics and/or are a fan of the progressively expanding folk-punk music out there (Tim Barry comes to mind immediately) then I recommend picking up Bradley Nowell & Friends. Bradley Nowell never set out to be the greatest; he was just an average guy singing songs about everyday life, and to me that explains the great appeal in the music he played.