Medium Rare, released in 2007, was the first album by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in five years. Its release coincided with their reunion after going on hiatus in 2003, following the 2002 release of A Jacknife to a Swan. Instead of the "comeback" album that many fans (including myself) were hoping for, it was a collection of B-sides and three new songs.
Those who have all of their albums know that since Let's Face It, the band's music has been mostly straightforward ska, reggae and rock (and one blues tune), unlike the eclectic fusions of those genres with punk, hardcore and metal on their first few albums. The other significant change in their music over the years has been in perspective. On the earlier Bosstones albums, the songs would often pulsate with aggressive conviction. It was fast, loud and really captured what it was like to be young, growing up and discovering all the joys and disappointments of life. Since Pay Attention, however, the perspective of their music seems to have shifted from one of youthful exhuberence to world-weary wisdom and nostalgia. I guess that was inevitable as they got older.
The songs on Medium Rare continue in this tradition, with the exception of "This List." As a spirited criticism of drafting sung over a hard and loud melody, it's a bit of a throwback to the passionate anthems of their younger days. It's a respectable attempt to recapture some of the energy and power of their earlier songs, but I don't think it quite works. What sinks it for me is how it sounds like this weird hybrid of the cleaner late `90s / early 2000s Bosstones production and the pre-`97 more scattered/chaotic instrumental arrangement. The vocals are a problem, too. I won't be as mean as the allmusic reviewer who, in reviewing this album, said it proves that Dicky Barrett's voice "is pretty close to shot," but I can't deny that he had a point. I think this song proves that after years of doing it better than just about anybody else in the music business, he can't quite "growl" like he used to.
The other new tracks feel much more natural and enjoyable to me. They are the kinder, gentler post-2000 Bosstones at their best, especially the awkwardly titled (only because it's about not worrying about him, rather than telling him not to worry) "Don't Worry Desmond Dekker." Looking back on a friendship that deteriorated over time but remains fondly remembered and cherished through a record collection and happy memories, it reminds me of "The Impression That I Get." Like their most successful single, it reflects on a sad experience, but with a positive attitude and catchy horn lines. "The One with the Woes All Over It" is a similarly delightful song, again reflecting on what they've learned from past experience and how the good and bad of it left them both worse for the wear and better for it.
The B-sides aren't quite as consistent. I find a lot of them, like "The Meaning," "So Many Ways" and "Is It?" rather bland and forgettable, despite their thoughtful lyrics. Apparently a fair amount of Bosstones fans have affection for "Chocolate Pudding," but with its unusual structure and goofy vocals, it's too silly for me. I find "Katie" to be the most likable of the B-sides that I'm not too thrilled about, but at times both it and "To California" get a little too "cutesy" for my tastes. The B-sides that I like in spite of their cuteness are "Who's Foolin' Who?", "A Reason to Toast," "This Time of Year" and "Favorite Records." I prefer the less-polished, old version of "Who's Foolin' Who?" from the Mashin' Up the Nation compilation because it had a cool bit of keyboard in it, but this simpler, clearer version is good too. It maintains the earlier's charm and keeps its wonderfully earnest advice lyrics. "A Reason to Toast" is also altered a bit from its origins on a split with Madcap, but not enough to hurt its appeal as a low-key drinking song. "This Time of Year" is probably the corniest song on the album with its message of "Christmas time is great!" and its "Jingle Bells" horn solo, but I can't help but smile at the innocent cheerfulness of the song, even if it does show the Bosstones at their tamest.
"Favorite Records" is my favourite B-side on the album. It's also my favourite tribute to the love of music since "Thank You" by Descendents, with its almost too precious, yet touching lyrics:
Sweet sweet sounds that you cut will last / [...] / I dropped a needle on a track and I was able to tough it through a very checkered past / [...] / Thank you for the records, put them on, they go round and round and round and round again / I just love the sound the sound the sound the sound of them."
If, like me, you got into a lot of your favourite bands largely because you were moved by how much their lyrics empathized with you, you can relate to this song. It's a beautifully warmhearted tribute to all the bands who made music that had a positive effect on peoples' lives. Coincidentally, this song is written by the band who did that the most for me. Although the vocals, instrumentation and lyrics of their music have been watered down in the twilight years of their career, the band still has a uniquely clever way with words and an admirably well-intentioned spirit in the message of their music.
For a while, it looked like this would be "the last hurrah" for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, but they've recently announced that "nuh-uh [we'll] do it again!", and that's cause for celebration. Like this album, their upcoming full-length probably won't pack the punch of their earlier releases, but I'm still glad it's on the way. Don't lose your wallets.