Saturday, August 21, 2010

Album Review: Five Iron Frenzy - Our Newest Album Ever!

Five Iron Frenzy: Our Newest Album Ever!
[Five Minute Walk 1997]


Christian bands get a bad rap. Often categorized as preachy, musically predictable, and melodramatic, explicitly Christian musicians more often than not rub less- or non-religious listeners the wrong way. Simply put, most Christian music seems to preach to the choir, leaving little room for newcomers to the faith or those who want to listen to the music but bypass the messages expressed.

In the crowd of such bands, Five Iron Frenzy, a ska punk outfit from Denver, became one of the few Christian bands to achieve modest appeal outside of their core religious fanbase in the late 90’s. It turns out all that was needed were some catchy, upbeat ska tunes and a lighter, less dense approach to the word of God. The proof lies in songs like “Oh, Canada,” in which lead singer and songwriter Reese Roper remarks, “I want to be where yaks can run free / Where Royal Mounties can arrest me.”

It is an understandable criticism that their brand of music was just one of many copycats and look-alikes that combined to form the third-wave ska explosion of the 90’s. The jumpy melodies, upbeat horn instruments, and satirical themes are all qualities found in many ska punk bands of the era including Five Iron Frenzy, but where the band lacks in musical originality they make up for in their unique Christian themes, mastery of the catchy ska chorus, and the clear, powerful vocals of Roper.

Through the rise and fall of third-wave ska’s mainstream popularity, Five Iron Frenzy lasted from 1995 to 2003. At the time of 1997’s Our Newest Album Ever, the band consisted of Roper on lead vocals, Micah Ortega on lead guitar and vocals, Scott Kerr on guitar and vocals, Keith Hoerig on bass, Andrew Verdecchio on drums and vocals, Nathanael "Brad" Dunham on trumpet, Dennis Culp on trombone and vocals, and Leanor Ortega on saxophone and vocals.

Regarded as one of the band’s best releases, Our Newest Album Ever! begins on an interesting note with “Handbook for the Sellout,” which chastises the longtime fans of alternative bands that become popular to the point that those same fans turn their backs on the past idols because, as the song states sarcastically, “Being popular is lame.” In addition to being quite catchy, the song is a funny commentary on the cool factor that comes with loving obscure bands. The issue of bands selling out, however, is nothing new that FIF is bringing to the table, not even to the 90’s ska scene: powerhouse Reel Big Fish kicked of their 1996 album Turn the Radio Off with “Sell Out,” the band’s biggest mainstream hit and a song about payola scandals on FM radio.

What “Handbook for the Sellout” as well as the next couple songs demonstrate is that the band extensively shifts the focus of their music from religion to common, if often childish and silly, situations and occurances that the masses can relate to. “Where is Micah?” is an extended musical joke on how guitarist Micah Ortega frequently missed band rehearsals. Following this is “Superpowers,” an upbeat song describing life as a band. What is interesting here is that the song very subtly hints at the band’s religious message: “Don't want to rock the mic / Don't want to meet the pope / I just want to share with you / How we got this peace and hope.”

After these three catchy yet similar songs comes the interesting “Fistful of Sand,” which seems to bare a Middle Eastern influence and clear lyrics describing the emptiness of life on earth without God. To complement the serious nature of the song, Ortega breaks out a loud guitar riff implying impending doom while Roper sports an impassioned screaming of the lyrics just under 3 and a half minutes into the song that stands out against the other optimistic tracks here.

The album continues along at an excited pace, going back to high school days in “Suckerpunch” which reassures outcast youth that God still loves them, through the nonsensical joke/throwaway song “Kitty Doggy,” and “Blue Comb ’78,” Roper’s catchy but lame attempt at secular sentimentalism. The remainder of the album is marked by the infectious “Oh, Canada,” one of FIF’s best known songs, and “Every New Day,” a powerfully optimistic closer, that stick out amid a pool of solid yet repetitive songs.

The album is instrumentally polished and the band communicates well together to create good ska and pop punk melodies. But overall, in terms of instrumentation and songwriting, there are few big surprises as the band stays close to a bouncy ska rhythm formula. Roper’s songwriting skills yield satisfying rhyme schemes and, for Christians, some inspiring words of worship, but overall Roper is caught in the down-to-earth, often immature lyrics that are innocent but lacking much depth.

As far as 90’s ska bands go, Five Iron Frenzy fits into a common mold and formula with a large part of their individuality stemming from their Christian beliefs. Despite this, Roper’s clear, powerful vocals and tight instrumentation from the rest of the band make FIF a particularly interesting and fun ska band to listen to. Listeners can take what they like away from the band’s music in terms of religious teachings, but moreover, ska fans will enjoy a slew of infectious melodies with Our Newest Album Ever!.

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