ARTIST: REEL BIG FISH
TITLE: LIFE SUCKS…LET’S DANCE
LABEL: ROCK RIDGE MUSIC
WORDS: HARRY HIGGINSON
Reel Big Fish are one of those bands that seem to have been around forever. One of the original crop of ska-punk bands that hit it big in the mid-to-late 90s along with groups like Less Than Jake and Goldfinger, the group were catapulted to semi-stardom with their 1997 hit single, ‘Sell Out’, becoming a niche favourite on MTV and radio stations across the US. It’s over 20 years since the band released their only major commercial hit, but even though the world seems a very different place, not much seems to have changed for the group. Despite the only founding member remaining in the group being their original lead singer, Aaron Barrett, Reel Big Fish have continued to carry the banner of ska-punk long past it’s heyday, Life Sucks… Let’s Dance being their first release in 6 years, and being more of the same from the genre’s veterans.
You might worry that a 6-year break from writing new music might leave Reel Big Fish a little rusty, and to some extent those worries are misplaced. The band’s optimistic sense of fun, is both a breath of fresh air and a call back to a simpler time, especially given the darker direction pop-punk has taken in recent years, and right from the off this record throws you straight back to that carefree late-90s, ska-punk feel.
“The band’s optimistic sense of fun, is both a breath of fresh air and a call back to a simpler time”
The title track’s blend of pessimistic lyricism and obliviously joyous instrumentals makes it feel like it could be a lost track from one of the band’s earlier records and is arguably the strongest track on the entire record. Likewise, ‘You Can’t Have All of Me’ excels in the lyrical department, and the slightly more laid-back tone only makes for an even more infectious chorus. A slightly more straightforward ska approach is present on this track, typified by the swaggering trombone solo in the latter half of the song, and this more stripped back side of Reel Big Fish is an element of their sound that really does click.
When the group are firing on all cylinders, this album really does have some high points – ‘Tongue Tied and Tipsy Too’, ‘Bleached Thang, Baby’ and ‘Ska Show’, for all their lack of subtlety and slightly formulaic writing are undeniably a good bit of fun, and the latter track’s statement of “If we don’t have fun, then what are we living for?” is no bad blueprint to write an album by. But for all of the energy, enthusiasm and brainless joy that Reel Big Fish bring on Life Sucks… Let’s Dance there’s only so far that their classic sound can take them.
“straightforward, simple and really enjoyable ska-punk”
Vocalist Barrett’s comments about the lead single, ‘You Can’t Have All of Me’, stating that “We didn’t reinvent the wheel… We just painted more checkers on it!” underpins both the strengths and the weaknesses of this album. As fun as the nostalgia trip Reel Big Fish provide is, after 14 tracks it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the band could’ve shaken it up a little bit more. Whilst the song writing is broadly pretty strong for what the record is, few of the songs hit the high bar set by their earlier work, and the latter end of the record does drag on just a little. The tropical inflections of ‘Walter’s Highlife’, the instrumental closing track are a welcome addition, but it feels like the track would’ve been better placed at the midpoint so to break up some of the more similar tracks with a breath of fresh air.
Far from a poor record, Reel Big Fish’s newest LP is almost precisely what you’d expect from them; straightforward, simple and really enjoyable ska-punk. Sure, it’s not very clever, and it’s hardly a progression on their previous work, but sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity, and for all the flaws that come from it, Reel Big Fish have produced yet another album that is undeniably and abundantly fun.