Monday, June 7, 2010

Album Review: Reel Big Fish - Monkeys for Nothin' and the Chimps for Free

Reel Big Fish: Monkeys for Nothin' and the Chimps for Free
[Rock Ridge 2007]


For more than 15 years, Reel Big Fish has endured the fall of ska punk’s mainstream popularity in the 90’s and now continues to sell out concert venues with a fun, exciting, and hilarious live act. All along the way, the band’s mainstay has been the use of adolescent satire, sarcasm and extensive humor in their lyrics and overall image. It is hard to keep such a reputation up, however, and through their string of quality hit ska albums and their pessimistic downturn We're Not Happy 'Til You're Not Happy, their 2007  effort does a decent job at keeping the band relevant. That said, Monkeys would probably rate in the bottom rung of RBF albums due to some particularly weak tracks and “party” songs that lack many true ska elements and come across as incredibly contrived and brainless by the band’s standards.

The first half of the album consists of new songs written over a three-week gap between tour dates. Unfortunately, despite the claim that the band described the process as relaxing and the fact that the band is now free from the conflicts of their old record company Jive Records, the short time period for composing the songs shows. While “My Imaginary Friend,” “Slow Down,” “Will the Revolution Come?”, and the clever cover of Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” sound great with catchy choruses and bouncy rhythms, other songs bring down the album by relying on bottom-barrel clich├ęs.

The opener “Party Down” is, as the title suggests, the ultimate partying song on the album which becomes quite tiresome and annoying very quickly. The song incorporates musical snippets lampooning various genres like disco, country, reggae, and heavy metal, but the gag is performed far more humorously when the band plays “S.R.” (from their 1996 Turn the Radio Off album) in concert in various musical genres and styles. Alongside “Party Down,” the absolutely filthy “Another F.U. Song” and the trashy drinking anthem “Everybody’s Drunk” take the band’s foul sense of humor to embarrassing extremes, even for long-time fans.

The rest of the album consists of re-recordings of older tunes that overall make the second half of the album more ska-oriented than the first, but there are few standouts. RBF’s most produced and polished album to date includes four re-recordings from the band’s least produced and polished album, their 1995 debut Everything Sucks. Among these, “Hate You,” one of the best songs on Monkeys, and “Why Do All Girls Think They’re Fat?” characterize the vitriolic and farcical punk attitude that was most present in the band’s early releases. I wish the rest of the album sounded more like this, as these two songs in particular seem to reflect unique satires and joking adolescent observations from actual adolescents. Instead, the band, including lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Aaron Barrett at age 33, seems to be progressing by repeating the mantras and jokes of past albums while steering the band away from evident ska-influences into more straight-forward, upbeat party rock.

Besides the quality of the music, the fact that Reel Big Fish is still together after all these years, even with a revolving door of band members and record company battles, is very impressive. Now that the band has more creative freedom under an independent record company, future releases should be expected to more reflect the band’s current musical ambitions than other recent albums. Judging from their accomplished track record, this can yield excellent records. In Monkeys for Nothin' and the Chimps for Free, however, even in being an album of one-half new and one-half re-recorded material, the band comes dangerously close to becoming a caricature of themselves.

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