Reel Big Fish caught my ear in 1996 with Turn the Radio Off. I wasn't alone: Sell Out was all over MTV and the third wave of ska (ska punk) was building in popularity. Compared to peers like Sublime, No Doubt, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish always brought a sardonic sense of humor to their songs. Whether clever or sophomoric, their smart ass attitude paired perfectly with their catchy tunes. Loosely categorized as ska punk, the band leaned towards a hard rocking power pop sound filtered through the uptempo ska beat. I've mentioned my love of "snotty boys with guitars"; Reel Big Fish were snotty boys with guitars and a smoking ska horn section.
After a five year dry spell, Candy Coated Fury offers some new original material. As a bonus, the band has reached back to the earlier sound of Turn the Radio Off and How Do They Rock So Hard?. They've succeeded, riffing off familiar themes of snarky misanthropy, screwed up relationships, and frustration with an unfair world. The titles alone set the mood: Everyone Else is an Asshole, I Know You Too Well to Like You Anymore, P.S. I Hate You. Frontman Aaron Barrett still delivers his sarcastic lines like a self-absorbed kid. It's cathartic to hear him launch an attack like:
Dear wicked witch I wasted my time with (P.S. I Hate You)It works because the anger is tempered by the hyperbole, the über-cheery horns, and Barrett's juvenile, joyous singing.
I'm finally leaving you today (P.S. I Hate You)
The first single out is I Know You Too Well to Like You Anymore, which sets up a duet between Barrett and Julie Stoyer as a couple well past the point of You Don't Bring Me Flowers. Reel Big Fish has brought in a female guest singer before (Monique Powell on She Has a Girlfriend Now). Once again, the (flawed) chemistry with Barrett's character is part of the song's setup. As the song runs through the couple's disfunction, the shared memories are amusing:
JS: When we first started, even if you fartedThat sets up the real sniping. Meanwhile, the frantic pace allows for a speedy double chank ska guitar and tight horn fills. The chorus switches over into a hard rocking power pop drive.
I'd laugh and ask for more
AB: And in the beginning, we always were grinning
We didn't even know what we were smiling for
JS: We'd hold hands and then break-dance
Or rap like Dr. Dre
AB: And side by side, we'd drink all night
Disgusting all our friends with our PDA
JS: You felt so good deep in my heart and that's for sure
AB: But now I feel sick when I'm around you
It hurts me head to think of how
I know you too well to like you anymore
The most grown up tune on Candy Coated Fury is the sarcastically titled Famous Last Words. It's a defeatist tune about giving up on music: "I'm gonna quit while I'm ahead". The punchline is that he missed his chance to go out on top: "It's too late, I'm a home body now." But Barrett could be singing about slitting his wrists and the ska beat would rob it of any pathos. It's clear that Reel Big Fish is happy to tackle any doubt that the band has something left to say.
One of my favorite tracks from the album does drop the juvenile humor to raise the ska flag. Don't Stop Skankin' sets up a Madness-tribute jam that riffs off One Step Beyond. Mostly instrumental, Reel Big Fish uses Madness' trademark of a repeated heavily echoed tagline. The sassy horn solo in the middle is moody and expressive. When the song ends, though, the track runs on to toss out another tribute, this time to A Message to You Rudy (Dandy Livingstone, remade by the Specials). Produced like an old record playback, the Julie Stoyers' vocals on the new lyrics are sweet and the horns hit the classic tune's call and response.
Reel Big Fish may not be breaking new ground on Candy Coated Fury, but I don't really want them to. They've done a great job of resurrecting their classic sound and delivering the party-happy, high energy attitude that their fans always loved. Raise a black and tan (it's two-tone after all) and enjoy the skank.