My sentiments toward Reel Big Fish are pretty much on par with most people: old stuff, yay; new stuff, ugh. Provided, my own "ugh" may be slightly more exaggerated than need be...for a band whose name I was once proud to brandish on my scrawny teenage torso via an assortment of colorful T-shirts, I've since seemed to develop a sort of animosity towards my hometown band, something I chalked up to what I believed to be a sharply consistent decline in the quality of their studio material. But, cover albums or not, it’s nevertheless impossible to overlook the monumental influence Reel Big Fish had on both contemporary ska (for better or worse) and on myself. I can’t deny that I still love Turn the Radio Off--perhaps the greatest ska-punk album ever recorded--or that I still listen to Cheer Up! and even We’re Not Happy 'til You’re Not Happy every now and then. So where exactly did this recent antipathy stem from? Where did the Fish go wrong? Rather, where did *I* go wrong? I was determined to find an answer.
I’ll admit, I was annoyed beyond rational thought and logic when I learned that Reel Big Fish were releasing yet another album of repackaged songs, only this time being a full LP worth of all-out re-recordings of their hit singles and fan favorites. This concept baffled me. I saw no reason why such a thing should be done outside of the obvious financial motives, but would Reel Big Fish really exploit such classic (and sacred, to those who wear checkered Vans) material in such a manner? Part of the reason those songs work so well is because of the specific context of their time period. Turn the Radio Off and its successors were quintessential slices of the SoCal zeitgeist of the late 1990s, a definitive product of a generational era portrayed so strongly in their music and lyrics: music that exhibited a bright, confident exuberance that only an ambitious young band on their way to the top could deliver and sarcastic lyrics dripping with a comic irreverence that only a snotty Gen X twentysomething could convincingly spew with an equally convincing sense of wreckless abandon. What could possibly be the message behind songs such as "Sell Out" or "Everything Sucks" as sung by a jaded thirtysomething professional musician, as opposed to a wide-eyed high school graduate working part-time at the TwisteeBurger? When does the smirking juvenile mentality of "In the Pit" or "I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend" go from hilarious to creepy and pathetic at the hands of men old enough to have children and mortgages? Surely, forcibly removing those songs from their original context and attempting to re-record them would sacrifice all of their charm and soul, yes? I was enraged, yet...intrigued. The thought of newly re-recorded tracks of songs I had previously known so well just slowly gnawed away at my psyche until I had no choice but to give into my curiosity and take a gander at a stray copy.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting/hoping for the worst...I was ready to tear this album to shreds. EEEeehEE hEE!!!
But...goddammit, I really enjoyed it.
The moment the music started, I knew I wouldn't be able to review this album with a negative bias. Come on, I grew up with these songs! I still remember all the lyrics. I still know how to play "She Has a Girlfriend Now" on trombone, solo and all. From those first five notes of "Sell Out," the whole thing became an inevitable thrust down Memory Lane: there I was, buying Why Do They Rock So Hard...? at Circuit City in 8th grade, sketching the RBF logo on my notebook (next to logos for Bauhaus and my own fantasy ska-punk band, Liquid Sheep) and wearing Hawaiian shirts on an almost daily basis. Yes, there are a lot of fondly nostalgic moments to be had on A Best of Us for the Rest of Us and, I’ll admit, not many moments when I didn't have a wide, drooly smile on my face.
I don't quite want to say that listening to A Best of Us for the Rest of Us was like experiencing these songs for the first time all over again, but truthfully, it came pretty close. While the manic energy of the original recordings is sadly lacking here, replaced by an almost laid-back tone (a ska-punk oxymoron?), a lot of the older songs have greatly benefited from a decade's worth of tightened instrumentation: "Everything Sucks" sounds absolutely fantastic, and tracks like "Trendy," "She Has a Girlfriend Now" and "In the Pit" have somehow managed to still stay just as fresh, lively and vibrant as they were before.
The most interesting entry, perhaps, is the seemingly self-aware re-do of "Sell Out." Almost as if in response to the concerns over context stated above, Reel Big Fish is all too aware of the song’s meaning several years down the line. The music seems almost intentionally lethargic, with Aaron Barrett's voice carrying a tinge of weariness and conscious cynicism. When he faithlessly sings "And I don't think it will be so bad / And I know it won't be so bad" in a drab yelp, there's not an ounce of believability in his words, lending an interesting spin to this version--nay, sequel--to the original: This is most definitely the bright young man we heard 14 years ago, his excitable, naïve optimism having since been crushed long after obtaining exactly the fame he was looking for, something he’s been paying for ever since. Maybe I'm reading a bit too much into it, but if this was Reel Big Fish's intention, it was brilliant. Hilarious, subtle and scathing in ways heavy-handed diatribes like "Don't Start a Band" failed to achieve.
While a few of these re-recordings fail to live up even to live album standards (namely the listless retreads of "Take on Me" and "Beer," plus that god-awful ska-ified cover of "Brown Eyed Girl" [Magadog still did it best]), A Best of Us for the Rest of Us’s biggest flaw is, understandably, redundancy. This collection is still exactly what it said it was: re-recordings. Nary a note is altered from the original compositions, and while the Fish may certainly sound tighter this time around, the novelty of hearing new takes on old tricks is over immediately after the album finishes (save for a few singular replays from the first half), leaving the non-completist stuck realizing that none of these versions will be replacing the originals on their iPod any time soon and this CD will instead be collecting dust on a shelf between Ratt and the Righteous Brothers until a friend asks to borrow it. C’est la vie.
Now, for the "newbie" buying their first RBF record, I really can't say that A Best of Us for the Rest of Us takes serious precedence over ANY other entry in their discography, when Turn the Radio Off is the sole starting point a beginner really needs (seriously, is there any reason NOT to buy that album?). The average Fish-head, of course, will purchase this album without any second thought, but this time I can't fault them for it. This is a pleasantly surprising nostalgic treat for anyone who has called themselves an RBF fan at some point in their lives. True, it's an ephemeral pleasure, existing at the point on a fun scale between hearing these songs performed live and hearing them on a live album (or the original studio albums), but, if anything, it's a fine reminder of exactly what made me fall in love with Reel Big Fish all those years ago...
And...I think I do still love them. Maybe I’ve always loved them, but I-...I was just too scared to admit it. In all my years of bitter ska elitism and haughty musical pretentiousness, I forgot how to have fun. I forgot how to appreciate the carefree, joyous nature of being a young ska fan, the experience that Reel Big Fish embodied so well in their sunny music. AaAhHHhhH, just listen to those trumpets! Listen to those major chords! Listen to those lyrics that AREN'T about class struggle or allusions to Greek literature! I CAN SEE IT NOW! Really, I feel that I can finally put aside my misguided pretentions about what ska is or isn't and re-embrace one of the best bands of my adolescence!
...then I listened to the 'Skacoustic' disc.
The acoustic tracks border on atrocity. While the prospect of Reel Big Fish songs re-arranged for an acoustic toss-about is an amusing concept, the actual execution is far from coherent. Each song is still packed with the same insufferably enthusiastic brass, bass and drums as the originals, the only difference being acoustic guitars used in the place of electric. The effect is more annoying than unique, and the lack of creative liberties being taken with the arrangements (much more than with the previous disc, granted) just begs the question as to why an acoustic album was even considered in the first place. “Beer” is the only one of these straightforward covers that makes a successful transition, and the few tracks that were converted into acoustic arrangements, including “Where Have You Been?” and “Don’t Start a Band,” sound decent enough but fail to make any sort of memorable impression. Acoustic ska (I refuse to acknowledge the “word” “skacoustic”) has been done before, and it’s been more or less perfected. I can’t imagine this effort being anything more than a jokey novelty on Reel Big Fish’s part rather than an actual contribution to the genre (i.e. I'm not holding my breath for a future "Unplugged" tour).
Having caught a vigorous wave comprised of wistful nostalgia and wine coolers, I was all set to contentedly award this album with 4 stars, but, alas, that acoustic album ended up harshing my mellow down into a 3.5. Although these new recordings probably won’t win the band any new followers, RBF diehards are bound to have a temporary hoot and a half.