I don’t trust people. When one of my favorite bands goes (back) to a major label to put out (mostly) trash for several years, and then blames the (weak) output on the label, whose side am I supposed to take? It’s nice to stand by your band and accuse the label of steering and using scare tactics (“No ska on the next record, or we’ll pay Fat Mike to cut your saxophonist’s hair!”), but whose decision was it in the first place to sign with Sire/Warner?
But now Less Than Jake is back on an indie label and the fast ska-punk record the band promised to produce, oh, about five years ago, is finally on the market. And honestly, GNV FLA is the band's cleanest-sounding record, period; no instruments were buried in the studio, and the horns have returned from their sick days that led to a one-album sabbatical (“Horns Are Overrated”). From the vocally sparse intro, "City of Gainesville," it’s apparent that the band got the message fans had been leaving anonymously on message boards for years.
The inclusion of another horn, Reel Big Fish’s Scott Klopfenstein on trumpet, adds an element that feels more welcome than I wanted to admit. They could have brought back the baritone sax they lost in 2000 after Borders & Boundaries, but there’s really nothing to complain about. The trumpet sounds like it belongs there, at least in 2008, even if it did bring up Catch 22 comparisons with the pre-album release of "Does the Lion City Still Roar?."
Being the `80s-era metalheads that they are, the band also brought back the Cheddar-styled guitar riffing reminiscent of "Help Save the Youth of America from Exploding." There’s a borderline-epic (for a ska-pop-punk band) guitar solo and some well-placed harmonics on "The State of Florida," and "Setting Sun" is based around a metallic riff that never would have made it to record under Sire.
Lyrically, Less Than Jake makes no changes, but the lyrics feel more sincere than on their past few records. For me, Borders marked an increase in insincerity and an overreliance on clichés and sub-par wordplay. However, the “I wouldn’t have it any other way” that closes out "Golden Age of My Negative Ways" points back to "Gainesville Rock City," and it feels like more of a reference to past material than misplaced repetition.
Aside from a few quirky complaints -- the trombone doesn’t resonate like it did in their ska-core days, and the vocal polishing reduces some lyrics, especially Roger’s, into indistinguishable shininess -- there is only one unforgivable moment: The fadeout on the last track, "Devil in my DNA." Save that for radio rock singles so Clear Channel DJs have some background music over which to plug the next band; it doesn’t belong on a Less than Jake record.
Given the current music scene, and some great comeback releases that just hit the streets (H2O, I’m looking at you!), this is the best record Less Than Jake could have produced at this point in their career. There’s no spoon-feeding fans a Losing Streak II, but there’s enough of a nod to the band’s past efforts on here to help us forget about all but the best of their Sire output. But is it too much to ask for a full US tour with the Losing Streak lineup?
I hope not.