Review Summary: Twenty years into their career, Reel Big Fish still aren't out of ideas or great material
A band as influential in its musical scene as Reel Big Fish hardly needs an introduction. Over the past 20 years, RBF has been combining the best parts of ska and pop-punk to form its unique sound, and are cited as the band that really kick-started the Third-Wave Ska movement, which produced bands like Streetlight Manifesto and No Doubt. This success was brought about by the band’s surprise hit single “Sell Out” as well as the subsequent music video that highlighted the band’s sense of humor. But ultimately, Reel Big Fish didn’t survive this long without a steady stream of really good songs to keep fans satisfied. Although their more recent work hasn’t quite equaled their early success- arguably both in terms of commercial success and quality- there’s always a gem on the album that you can go back to and realize that they’ve still got it, that the ‘Sell outs’ are still keeping true to their roots. This album functions twofold: it wrangles every ‘gem’ together into one place; and it provides a new take on them through the “Skacoustic” bonus disc, which is rather unheard of for a greatest hits collection.
The best part of this album, and probably the only reason to have it if you’re a devoted Reel Big Fish fan, is that the older tracks have been remastered and updated. Amazingly, their best songs sound even better, with songs like “Beer,” “She’s Got a Girlfriend Now,” and “Sell Out” all getting tuned up. Even the most diehard fan will be pleased with the freshening up as the quality of the horns and bass have been vastly improved. The horn section is arguably the best in ska music history, and the updates to the music help to bring it out of the background, which works well. Overall, the remastering has made Reel Big Fish’s best songs even better- which is a bonus for everyone.
As far as song selection- probably the most important part of creating a great compilation album- goes, it’s pretty good. Some songs, like “Trendy,” seem to be on the album more for the purpose of satisfying the band’s nostalgia than to please the fans; but all of the songs are at least worthy of ‘greatest hit’ status. There are no obvious omissions from the band’s catalog (except arguably “One Hit Wonderful” and “She’s Famous Now” depending on your preferences), nor are you left scratching your head at the inclusion of any tracks. The organization of the songs is a rather straightforward old-to-new material construction with occasional deviations to improve the album’s flow. This move ultimately pays off, as the album moves rather seamlessly- especially considering the songs were recorded over a period of fifteen years. The first disc is an extremely pleasant listening experience because of the flow and the mix of pop-punk themed songs (In the Pit etc.) with ska based ones (Take on Me, many others), and should serve as an example for other bands looking to make a greatest hits collection. There isn’t a single bad song and the band effectively mixes eras and sounds flawlessly.
Unfortunately, the skacoustic half of the record is both less refined and lacking the energy of the first disc. It’s rather impossible to match the energy of a ska album in the first place and frankly, ska isn’t really suited for acoustic interpretation. This doesn’t matter to Barrett though; his voice is so elastic that it’s capable of doing some great things with just an acoustic background. Not only does Barrett sound good and comfortable with the backdrop, there are also songs on the second CD that aren’t featured on the ‘greatest hits’ portion. The band obviously put in an effort to select the songs that they saw best fit an acoustic interpretation and, somewhat, owned their own songs. None of the songs is necessarily improved by the adaptation, but it’s cool to see a band trying something different and willing to potentially butcher their self-proclaimed best songs. This experiment is a good idea on paper but in practice, it falls just short of the mark.
Reel Big Fish certainly deliver a best of them on this album, and give it their all on the experimental second disc. Alas, the second half doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, but the album doesn’t suffer because of it. This album is the perfect example of an experienced band refining their craft- through both remastering and re-recording- and trying their hand at something new with their foray into acoustic music. Overall, it’s a thoroughly entertaining romp from one of the most entertaining band still making music today, if only because Reel Big Fish wouldn’t be content with anything less but their best.