Review Summary: feeling more alive than dead.
First impressions of a band can make or break your future interest in the rest of its discography. You only have one chance to make a first impression--as the old saying goes, “fuck yourself and stop relying on clichés, George.”
This is how I am/was with Less Than Jake--my introduction was via those old school R&M (Rock & Metal forum back when musicianforums.com was a thing) weekly album sharing threads/emails. One of them contained Anthem
with a disclaimer that it was “totally different” from their earlier stuff. As expected with R&M at the time, it was sandwiched between some fucking Alcest EP and whatever shite Hans Zimmer score was relevant at the time.
I did not know much (if anything) about Less Than Jake, so it was not possible for me to listen to the album and be bummed because it was not like their older material. According to RateYourMusic and our own Sputnikmusic, Anthem
was generally thought to be their least impressive album to date. While certain albums might have met (see: Pezcore) or just barely missed out (see: Borders and Boundaries) on matching Anthem
’s ratings, the general complaints towards Anthem
seemed to stem from the change of sound from a ska punk style towards a more “punk with a slight dash of ska” style. It is no coincidence that the most consistent and generally well written songs on this album are the ones where the brass section adds a fair amount of additional depth to the songs. From my unofficial and totally unbiased survey of my...two friends, the best songs are apparently “Plastic Cup Politics”, “The Science of Selling Yourself Short”, and “Best Wishes to Your Black Lung.”
I find “The Science of Selling Yourself Short” to easily be the standout track (or maybe at least tied with “Plastic Cup Politics”) because of its perfect fusion of older Less Than Jake in terms of the brass section combined with the burgeoning pop sound that they have been developing slowly through the years. This track also just barely made it on the album--it seems as though they understood the importance of its mash of sounds that they had worked so hard to perfect; I maintain that “The Science of Selling Yourself Short” is one of the best pop songs of the naughties. TOTALLY subjective and easily refutable, but opinions are opinions, so I am technically not wrong :v). I love Taylor Swift, so preemptively hop off my dick regarding pop music.
While the previous albums Hello Rockview
and Losing Streak
were widely (and still generally) regarded as their best albums, I found that there was always a certain figurative punch
that they were missing. The songs themselves were very well written, but the production always seemed to just be...lacking. You can definitely tell that vocalists Roger Lima (bass, vocals) and Chris DeMakes (guitar, vocals) had not yet polished their sound. They sounded just like any other punk band just starting out, with the classic “forced whiny vocals that are necessary because they cannot actually sing yet” and the way too trebley production that seems to forget that mids are important and that the bass is allowed to be turned past 0. There is no physical pop
: it just sounds super muddy, and you can tell that they were not yet sure how to approach this style of production. Anthem
is where Less Than Jake’s production seemed to take a step up: they finally figured out how to emphasize the hooks, catchiness, and overall pop sound while still being able to create a newly formed punchy style that still managed to make the horns’ treble standout and the bass pop--in a good way this time!
Less Than Jake thrives because you can tell that they have a very solid synergy that has developed extensively over the past ten years (bar trombonist JR Wasilewski, who joined right after the 2000 release Borders and Boundaries
). As of 2015, Wasilewski is still with the group, so I am sure that the synergy was able to envelop JR too--2008’s GNV FLA
(an abbreviation of Gainesville, Florida, the band’s hometown) was widely regarded as the band’s best work since 1998’s Hello Rockview
. Upon listening, you can easily tell that the band’s synergy has worked out.
While this album thrives on the grand addition of more straightforward poppy elements to their already establish punk/ska sound, there are definitely some duds here. This poppiness sometimes overtakes the ska sound a little bit too
much, and this in turn makes some songs fall flat. Hard
“She’s Gonna Break Soon” was easily the band’s worst song at the time (and probably maintains that prestigious title to this day). It seems as though they unfortunately predated Green Day’s American Idiot
sound by a year or so in the absolutely worst way possible. They took the most boring chord progressions possible and bludgeoned them to death over incredibly unremarkable verses and choruses. While Less Than Jake has often thrived off of those three chord songs, they unfortunately failed to see how terrible this song was, at least instrumentally. Despite the solid lyricism, the beyond-generic musicianship just leaves a stale off-brand Cheerios taste in your mouth.
To be fair, the bridge at 1:46 is certainly a nice change of pace. However, it seems as though its catchiness stems more so from the very necessary shift from “incredibly generic song” to “only somewhat
generic bridge” rather than an actually solid part of the song. If you are gonna skip a track on this album, I would definitely
recommend this one.
I feel as though an often overlooked aspect of this album (and band in general I suppose) is the lyrics. While their prior lyrics were not necessarily bad
, Lima and DeMakes certainly seemed to have taken influence from their personal struggles with the so-called “bum-life”. This can be seen from the very beginning of the album in opener “Welcome to the New South”:
So you sit and wait for a sign
That the coming days will be alright
And you drink
So you can forget another night
Bruised from the blackouts
And your blood red eyes
Try to start looking
For the brighter side
Wait for a sign
Everything will be alright
While it certainly seems rather basic, it perfectly starts off the theme of the album: the title Anthem
refers to something that the band feels they can get behind; something powerful with a strong message that almost anyone can truly relate to. The theme worked perfectly for me, and it only becomes better as the album progresses. I feel as though “The Science of Selling Yourself Short” is my favorite song because I have experienced that same type of incredibly dependent and disgustingly unmotivated lifestyle:
I've been spending my time at the local liquor store
I've been sleeping nightly on my best friends kitchen floor
I have hit some brick walls in my life, and this entire song becomes quite relatable because of that. Unfortunately, the lyrics are sometimes masked behind the overtly pop-punk sound. It is easy to hear
the lyrics, but it often becomes difficult to truly listen
to the lyrics. I can hear
the lyrics in “Look What Happened,” but I had to sit down and truly absorb the lyrics before I could judge my true feelings about the track/album. It is one of my least favorite songs musically on the album, but the lyrics bring it back up. This is why “She’s Gonna Break Soon” fails so hard comparatively: the music is terrible, and unfortunately the lyrics are not good enough to bring the overall quality back up.
These relatable and solid lyrics are the one true constant on the album, and unlike like bands like similar bands such as Blink-182, they do not rely primarily on being 35 and ***ing dogs in their asses or having sex with 15 year olds. While Less Than Jake’s lyrics might sometimes seem rather contrived, it is easy to tell that there is a definite passion in their vocals. While they might have been in their late 20s/early 30s at the time of this record, you can still see how the lyrics came from a place in their past, whether it be distant or (hopefully not) recent. The lyrics are just too good to be made up.
...besides “She’s Gonna Break Soon.”
The consistency of the album is fortunately wrapped up perfectly in the final track “The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out/Screws Fall Out,” with the first part being a nice and quiet acoustic track which then explodes into a fast-paced second half. It remains the longest track on the album at 4:54, with the two parts meant to be perceived as one (see: Jack’s Mannequin’s MFEO which consisted of Made For Each Other and You Can Breathe--two different tracks, but they are clearly meant to go together).
(I am going to ignore their cover of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” It should have been a Japanese bonus track or some shit. So I will pretend that it was. I generally do not enjoy Cheap Trick, so it is hard for me to enjoy this track when I feel as though the original framework that they are working off of is such garbage. While the cover itself is well done, it is very difficult to turn a bad (in. my. opinion.) song into a good one, regardless of your stance on the band).
This was my first Less Than Jake album. There was no hype built up around this for me. I had no expectations. I had literally never heard a Less Than Jake song before this, let alone an entire album. If I had grown up with their prior albums such as Losing Streak
or Hello Rockview
, then I can certainly see myself having a somewhat “iffy” response to this album.
However, this album hit me at the perfect time in my life in terms of my musical developmental stage. I was 10 when this album came out. I was 13 when I actually first heard this album. I was angsty at 13. It worked perfectly. I worried for a while that this would be more of a “nostalgia” album for me (see: all Porcupine Tree, Tool, and Mushroomhead, heh), but it somehow stood the test of time and fucked time right up the ass (consensually, of course). Think what you like about this album, but I see it as the perfect “coming of age” album. It is the Stand By Me
of the ever-so popular formerly-ska-punk-band-turned-more-towards-strictly-punk-with-a-hint-of-pop-sprinkled-in-there genre--it is definitely not perfect, but it is easy to relate to all of the players involved, and Kiefer Sutherland is found in both projects.
What, you don’t remember the sixth track featuring Jack Bauer? Ya boy shreds the sousaphone.