In a roundabout way, I owe a great deal to Reel Big Fish. When I first became interested in cultural criticism, I decided to go to school to study the subject academically. One of my first assignments was to provide an explanation and example of a cultural philosophy. At that time, I’d become both fascinated by the philosophy of postmodernism and deeply enamored of Reel Big Fish’s Why Do They Rock So Hard?, and in a very clear, clean way, they worked to explain one another. Without delving into the details, I got an “A”, the paper was eventually republished by the school, and it played a small part in bringing me to the PopMatters role I play today.
Of course, at the time I just thought it was really cool that I could quote swear-ridden song lyrics and write about bands for a grad degree, but even today I can look back on that paper and recognize that there was more than a kernel of truth to my thesis. Reel Big Fish is a ska-punk band that’s onto something distinctly unique from what its peers have done. And if all you can remember about the band is their one certifiable hit, “Sell Out”, or if you’re tempted to simply lump them into the ska summer of 1997 and write them off as a flash in the pan, you’re missing out.
With the release of We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy, Reel Big Fish has completed a loose trilogy of wry, self-reflexive “concept” albums that are both autobiographical and meta-fictional, exploring the life of a band with songs about being in a band. It’s not David Foster Wallace—it’s not half as pretentiously clever, and it’s hard to say whether RBF even take the concept very seriously—but it is funny and well-executed if you appreciate meta-humor (or postmodernism). Essentially, if you derided “Sell Out” for actually being a sell-out, you missed the joke entirely, and the real irony is that it actually worked.
This “trilogy” began on the band’s major label debut, Turn the Radio Off, which mixed the usual ska-punk fare of songs about girls and getting wasted with some arch, self-aware songs about being in a struggling band, trying to become famous, and eventually selling out to the Man. (Though, of course, that song actually leads off the album—on the major label debut, ha ha—leaving the band’s lamented fate in doubt—though they couldn’t have foreseen their success when they tracked the album… You see how this goes.) Slap another mortar-layer of irony on the fact that many of these “band” songs were written and previously recorded before signing to the majors. But those songs wouldn’t have stood out in the long run were it not for the follow-up, Why Do They Rock So Hard?. On that disc, Reel Big Fish continued its semi-autobiographical trend by writing songs about the band having now made it to the big time, only to face the slings and arrows of critics and a fickle public. Once more, the lyrics matched where Reel Big Fish was in its own collective career, while this time snottily pre-empting the critics by beating them to the punch. Tracks on Why… like “Somebody Hates Me”, “You Don’t Know”, and “The Kids Don’t Like It” anticipate an indifferent public and the pratfalls of the “one-hit wonder” by taking an aggressive, confrontational, and defiant stance. It’s parody and it’s not. And what’s more, it’s still the fun Reel Big Fish that initial fans came to love. Brilliant.
Now, with We’re Not Happy…, Aaron Barrett and company have finally decided to close the doors on their barely-fictional counterparts. As with the first two parts of this trilogy, the album is not singularly devoted to playing out this concept, but the majority of We’re Not Happy… details the same band from the first two acts now falling apart, sick of themselves and the music industry, and finally deciding to call it quits.
The disc opens with the power chords and horns that the faithful know and love in “The Fire”, but the first lines we hear are “I’m gonna say it like I mean it / We’ve let this go on too long”, and thus the die is cast. Things become even more blunt on “Don’t Start a Band”, a frank exploration of the disillusionment of rock and roll. Taking a stab at their own album, they soon follow up with “Turn the Radio Off”, in which Barrett spits angry lines against the music industry, pleading with listeners to turn the radio off and start thinking for themselves (even while mocking themselves for singing yet another song about hating the radio). Finally, as the album moves into its final tracks, there’s a slew of “band members hate each other and break up” songs, including “Last Show” and “Say Goodbye”. The most brilliant moment in all of this, though, has got to be “One Hit Wonderful”, which begins with radio static and a quick splice of different radio stations mentioning Reel Big Fish and playing “Sell Out”, then opens up to become a glasses raised tribute to one-hit wonders, and finally fades out into an elevator muzak version of “Sell Out” once more. It’s clear that Reel Big Fish is simultaneously releasing its own bitterness, taking the piss out of itself, and finally putting the whole meta-fictional band story to rest once and for all.
The problem here is that it may work too well. While the press kit for We’re Not Happy… is filled with reassurances that the real Reel Big Fish is definitely not breaking up, to the casual listener this sounds like the last great kiss off of a band who’s gone down in flames. If you’ve been following the story all along, you’ll probably get the joke (or at least log on to the Internet to have your fears allayed), but if you jumped in now, you’d be lost, possibly even disturbed. However, as a final chapter in an ongoing story, it’s great. If you expect Star Wars: Episode III to have a happy ending, you’re nuts, and if you were expecting a fictionalized Grammy and a star on the Walk of Fame for the metaphorical Reel Big Fish created over the last ten years, you’re equally crazy.
We’re Not Happy… also introduces the other Reel Big Fish that fans have come to adore… Reel Big Fish: The Cover Band. If you’re into tribute albums or ska and punk compilations, odds are you’ve heard at least one cover by RBF. In fact, before the band embraced the early stages of the third wave ska scene, it was a straight rock cover band, and as the band matured and honed its skills, it never lost its ability to turn out great covers. In fact, it may be the best cover-band-who-is-also-a-real-band in today’s music scene. Their fantastic takes on A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” are fun and funny, and I’m still mad that 311 beat them to the Cure’s “Lovesong” (which has been dying for a punchy, horn-filled ska cover for years). Still, most of RBF’s best covers have been one-offs released on the side. But here on We’re Not Happy…, the band includes not one, not two, but three covers. Unfortunately, they’re not up to the level of the Fish’s finest.
Oh, the cover of Morrissey’s “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” is excellent, there’s no doubt about that. A deadpan ska version of the Moz is just as funny as it sounds like it would be, and true to form, Barrett throws in a little lyrical hook, changing the “northern” in the original’s “And if they’re northern, that makes it even worse” to “No Doubt”. It’s a subtle dig, but pointed, as is the transformation of Morrissey’s fey laughter into something far more sinister. But the chill reggae groove of “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”, the Tracey Chapman song, is clunky. It’s cool and breezy, but it’s an odd shift for both the band and this album. It seems to serve no place within the concept of the disc, and it basically causes a lull in the middle. Then there’s the skanking cover of “Story of My Life”, the Social Distortion classic. I don’t know ... this sounds like it should be good—classic punk anthem covered by classic ska-punk cover wizards—but something gets lost in translation. Maybe it’s the raw urgency that Social D brought to the song, or the rough and authentic edge of Mike Ness’s vocals, but this version just seems flat and almost listless in comparison. You want Social D? Stick to the original.
So you get a strangely bitter and barbed close to a series of concept albums, mixed with a grab bag of cover songs. Is We’re Not Happy… good? It is if you’re a Reel Big Fish fan. It’s good because it allows the band to move beyond rehashing its concept for too long, and it’s good because it’s a fitting ending to that “story”. It’s also good because it promises to return the band to the direction it took on 2002’s Cheer Up!, the interlude between Why Do They Rock So Hard? and this album. That disc was full of rock, power pop, punk, and anthems, and the variety it displayed showed Reel Big Fish stepping outside the “third-wave ska” shadow. In its way, We’re Not Happy… feels like a step backwards, but perhaps you have to properly bury the old before you can fully live the new. Or something. This ain’t grad school.
Reel Big Fish are still the best band to emerge from that late ‘90s ska scene, but we’re going to have to look ahead to the future for the band to fully reemerge as the power pop powerhouse it’s quietly become. Until then, don’t start a band.