By Alex Johnson
Real disclaimer: All links contained in this article contain explicit lyrics.
Disclaimer: I never grew out of my ska phase. As someone who intends to write music reviews I realize this destroys any credibility I may have. But, as the name of the album I’m reviewing suggests, life sucks, why would you not want something you can dance to?
Reel Big Fish definitely brings the dance with “Life Sucks… Let’s Dance!”. Although released in December 2018 it sounds like a follow up to 1996’s “Turn the Radio Off” but feels relevant to what’s going on in the world today. Maybe I’m biased (who am I kidding, I’m biased) but I haven’t had an album make me smile this much in a long time. For an album with this title you would expect a lot more negativity, but four of the 14 tracks are love songs. Three songs blatantly encourage positivity. Of course, tracks like “Pissed Off” and “Another Beer Song” show Reel Big Fish have not completely grown up.
“Life Sucks” is split instrumentally as well as lyrically. Part of the album is punchy and ska/punk influenced while the other is reminiscent of second-wave ska bands like The Toasters, with a couple of reggae-like songs thrown in for good measure. Reel Big Fish (RBF for short) creates a battle between tempo and lyrics, mixing pessimistic lines with upbeat tracks and love songs with punk songs.
The album opens with the title track, “Life Sucks… Let’s Dance”. This song is like a summary of the whole album. Lots of bright horn work, short, snappy, guitar riffs, punch you in the gut bass lines; and pessimism with a hint of positivity (or is it apathy?). It feels so much like a classic Reel Big Fish song but with a bit more. RBF has sax appeal again with Saxel Rose (Matt Appleton) adding more brass. That and a healthy heaping of rotary organs make the Fish sound “Reel” big on this one.
The third track, “You Can’t Have All of Me”, is a shout-it-loud anthem song. Over the years Barrett has grown a fondness for the wah-pedal and he makes liberal use of it here. This song moves and makes you want to move with it. The bass line has a pep in its step, or, if you’ll indulge the pun, “walk”, the brass is cheery and uplifting, and the lyrics are essentially telling everyone to shove-off. If the opening track summarizes the album, this one summarizes the band.
At this point I want to jump around a bit more. Kicking off the last half of the album, at track number nine, is a simple song called “Ska Show”.
“Ska Show” is all positivity and has actually become one of my favorite tracks on the album, now more than ever. It’s hard to tell when we’ll be able to go to shows again, but this song is a little reminder that there’s an invitation for me, you, and anyone else waiting to connect through music.
I really don’t have anything negative to say about this album. The song “Bob Marley’s Toe” has some strange lyrics. I know it’s a tribute to Marley but it comes off as Reel Big Fish just being weird, which is not entirely unheard of. Even though the lyrics are out there (do we really have to specify “fuzzy” toe), it’s a catchy reggae song that I often get stuck in my head.
“I’d Rather Get It Wrong” and “Walter’s Highlife”, an instrumental song, are the last two tracks of the album with “Wrong” fading into “Highlife”. In an interview with AltPress, prior to the release of the album, Aaron Barrett was quoted as saying “… I just got married, so there might be a few sappy love songs on the album, too. Yuck!”. “I’d Rather Get It Wrong” is one of those sappy love songs and it’s fantastic. It’s a great song to go on a drive with your partner to, very relaxed tempo and endearing lyrics. “Walter’s Highlife” gets a special mention for ending with a short conversation with, what sounds like, a beagle.
I know I started this review off by saying I’m biased. And that’s still true. But over the past few days, I’ve been relistening to this album. On repeat. To the point that I should be tired of it, but it’s only made me want to praise and share it even more. Seriously, you can listen to the whole thing on YouTube right now. This invitation is for all.