Album Review: Reel Big Fish – “Candy Coated Fury”

By Matt Albers

            Once upon a time, in the mid to late 1990s, there was a music movement that took off among fans and sustained a substantial fifteen minutes of fame through radio airplay. This movement was the peak of the third wave of ska. For those unfamiliar with the music, ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s when musicians combined calypso and Caribbean mento with rhythm and blues and jazz from America. Artists like Desmond Dekker allowed ska to flourish throughout its “first wave” during the 1960s, until it gave way to the “second wave” in the late 1970s known as English 2 Tone ska, thanks to bands like The (English) Beat and The Specials/The Special AKA. Eventually in the 1980s, ska reached its “third wave,” and bands like Operation Ivy, Rancid, and Sublime, added musical elements and styles of punk to bring ska to its most popular and successful history in the mid 1990s.

It was during this decade that bands sprung up and became household names (albeit briefly) among music fans and radio listeners, particularly those in the high school and college age range. Bands like Goldfinger, Save Ferris, and even No Doubt in their earliest stages, enticed crowds to don anything from fedoras and checkerboard Vans with their suits and ties, to plaid pants, spiked wristbands, Mohawks, and Doc Martins, and join together in the signature ska dance known as “the skank.” Sadly, just as most music movements and fads, especially those lucky enough to receive mainstream active rock radio airplay, the third wave of ska quickly began to fade into mundane obscurity at the end of the 1990s, leaving many bands struggling to maintain an audience and a career in music, and be remembered as something more than just a one-hit or one-album-wonder.

Luckily, some bands were able to hang on and keep audiences and listeners engaged and captivated not only from the decade where third wave ska was on every radio station, but even many years after and to new, younger music fans. Whether interested in recent music history, nostalgic for their younger days, or simply not satisfied by whatever corporate, Wal-Mart rock band was being passed off as the “it” band on the radio at the time, there were still legions of ska fans (also known as “rudies”) of all ages eager to continue skanking away their nights to whatever bands were continuing to form and play after the fall of the third wave, such as Big D and the Kids Table or The Voodoo Glow Skulls, but also any third wave ska bands that continued to stick around and make music. One such band that not only stuck around, but in some respects actually continues to thrive, is Huntington Beach, California’s Reel Big Fish.

Formed in 1991, Reel Big Fish quickly gained a strong fan base following rotation of their hit songs “Sell Out,” “Beer,” and “She Has A Girlfriend Now,” all from their 1996 album Turn The Radio Off. After the great success of this album, already late in the game of the third wave of ska, Reel Big Fish witnessed the social drop of interest in ska almost immediately after the  release of their follow-up album, 1998’s Why Do They Rock So Hard? which is often considered by fans to be the band’s finest. After a slump in popularity and many lineup changes, Reel Big Fish returned in 2002 with Cheer Up! and once again received some radio airplay with the catchy, but melancholy and horn instrument-lacking, “Where Have You Been?”

Although their 2005 album We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy had little positive feedback due to the songwriting and production quality being understandably rough around the edges, the release of this album still allowed Reel Big Fish to tour and perform for audiences of both old and new fans, rejuvenating their appeal and sparking new life into the band as writers and performers. Their 2007 album Monkeys For Nothin’ And The Chimps For Free saw much more positive reviews, partly stemming from the fact that of the album’s seventeen tracks, only ten were new songs (although one was a cover of Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise”) while the final seven on the album were re-recordings of much older Reel Big Fish songs. The recording of Monkeys For Nothin’ And The Chimps For Free marked the final recording of the band with founding bassist Matt Wong, who was replaced upon the album’s release by Derrik Gibbs. As if losing one key member wasn’t bad enough, long-time trumpet player, backing/dual vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist Scott Klopfenstein also quit in 2011, just shy of the band’s twenty year anniversary.

To most unfamiliar with Reel Big Fish, it would seem that with so many continuing lineup changes and founding members throwing in the towel (front man Aaron Barrett and trombonist Dan Regan are the only remaining long-lasting members) that the group as a whole would soon disband. However, fans know that, for whatever reason, Barrett and company are far too stubborn to give up now and let Reel Big Fish become nothing but a memory, especially with so many fans still interested in their music (St. Louis, MO is just one city where the band continues to sell major shows, playing The Pageant on average once per year). After the departure of Scott Klopfenstein, Reel Big Fish recruited former Goldfinger saxophonist Matt Appleton to fill in for backing vocals, as well as to add a new musical dynamic to the group along with Regan and trumpet player John Christianson, AKA “Little Johnny Christmas.” After an extensive year of touring during 2011 for the band’s 20th Anniversary, Reel Big Fish was charged to record their seventh studio album Candy Coated Fury, which debuted at number 80 on the Billboard 200 upon its release on July 31, 2012.

Candy Coated Fury opens with rousing anthem of quality ska punk full of upbeat melodies, catchy vocals, and a soaring horn section in a track full of Reel Big Fish’s signature cynical, snarky humor titled “Everyone Else Is An Asshole”…and if the title of this song alone doesn’t give you any shred of a hint that this album is going to be nothing short of awesome, you have absolutely no idea what it is you are in for. Every last song on Candy Coated Fury stands on its own, showcasing either the best of what fans expect of Reel Big Fish and have been waiting for from any new material from them for years, or simply quality ska full of various influences from the worlds of rock, alternative, punk, jazz, and reggae. Some songs are full of energy and excitement like “Punisher,” “Your Girlfriend Sucks,” or “P.S. I Hate You,” while others are not afraid to slow down and mellow out, such as “Famous Last Words,” “Lost Cause,” or the mostly instrumental and very jazz-influenced, classic ska-sounding interlude titled simply “Don’t Stop Skankin’” These different varying structures give the listener time to take in the strong musicianship and writing that clearly went into every individual song.

Something that Reel Big Fish fans will notice has once again appeared on Candy Coated Fury is the band’s familiar humor. Aaron Barrett has always had a unique way to somehow translate feelings and stories of failure in relationships, social settings, and in the professional world of music in general, into smart, quirky, tongue-in-cheek narrative accounts that leave captivated audiences smirking and laughing to the language and dialogue when they’re not singing and dancing along to the music. However, the tone on most if not all of the songs on Candy Coated Fury that exhibit such traditional cynicism and harshly-toned-yet-good-spirited-humor seems to have shifted. With almost all of their releases, Reel Big Fish’s lyrics have portrayed or suggested a constant self-pity from the deliverer in whatever situation he finds himself in. But on Candy Coated Fury, the feeling of, “Well, I’m such a loser that I might as well laugh at myself,” has appeared to have grown more to, “You know what? I may be a loser, but you’re a dick; so I’m going to laugh both at myself for being in this situation, AND YOU for wasting my time, as I walk away. Goodbye.” Perhaps compared to more deeply philosophical rock lyricists, Barrett’s own traditional rhetoric on a new outlook may not seem all that profound, but it does show that after twenty years, a band or artist can indeed both keep their own signature style while still progressing into a (slightly) more mature direction.

Other than the familiar humorous lyrical content, Candy Coated Fury also includes another fan-pleasing feature: not one, but TWO cover songs! The album contains newly recorded Reel Big Fish covers of the songs “Don’t Let Me Down Gently” by The Wonder Stuff and “The Promise” by When In Rome; because as Aaron Barrett himself so perfectly stated, nothing is more original than a ska punk version of an ‘80s song. But not only does Candy Coated Fury feature signature Reel Big Fish staples that have been present on every album, but also elements that have not been as prevalent in the band’s releases since their heyday in the late 1990s. Guest vocalists make appearances throughout the album, particularly the song “Hiding In My Headphones,” which features Laila Kahn and Paul Barnes, AKA Barney Boom, both of the English ska punk/hip-hop group Sonic Boom Six, as well as the return of musician and actor Coolie Ranx, marking his first collaboration with Reel Big Fish since Why Do They Rock So Hard? The song “I Know You Too Well To Like You Anymore” offers a female duet with Barrett from the appearance of Julie Stoyer of the band Dick & Jane, a group which has ties to St. Louis.

Reel Big Fish’s Candy Coated Fury is nothing short of a masterpiece of textbook ska, not only from masters of the third wave of the genre, but from musicians who take the fun and style of such an eclectic type of music and all of its various influences throughout its history very seriously. The only foreseeable problem with this record, other than the fact that it may go relatively if not completely unnoticed during the year of its release from other competing releases, is that the very familiar sounds from the top-notch ska songs that Reel Big Fish produce on this album are so good, that they actually may work TOO well. In other words, other than their current fans, when people who remember Reel Big Fish from the ‘90s hear this new material and are reminded of their success through the song “Sell Out” among a few others, that they may see Candy Coated Fury as nothing more than a nostalgic throwback, completely unaware of the band’s much more extensive back catalogue in between this new album and their breakthrough release Turn The Radio Off. Regardless, those who pick up this album for whatever reason will be instantly satisfied after the first listen, and quickly come back for more. Candy Coated Fury is without a doubt the best Reel Big Fish album since Why Do They Rock So Hard? And who knows? Maybe with enough interest and support following such strong releases such as this, that much anticipated “fourth wave” of ska might be closer than we think…

Final score: 4.75 out of 5 (A)

Recommended If You Like: Streetlight Manifesto, Less Than Jake, Suburban Legends, Mustard Plug, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

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