[19 November 2013]
The last time Less Than Jake released an official album, 2008’s GNV FLA, the band was reeling from a decade of dealing with major labels. Their two-record run on Capitol Records in the ‘90s established them as a force in the burgeoning ska-punk genre without ever breaking them through to the mainstream. 2000’s Borders and Boundaries was released on Fat Wreck Chords, but originally recorded for Capitol. Then it was over to Warner Bros. for another pair of albums, where the heavily pushed, almost horn-free single “She’s Gonna Break Soon” came this close to being an actual hit. That near-miss seemed to lead directly to the band’s nadir, 2006’s In With the Out Crowd, an album that left the horns mostly on the sidelines and diluted their punchy punk roots in favor of more sensitive pop-rock. So with the band away from label interference and completely on their own, GNV FLA hit hard. Its 14 songs found the band playing with renewed energy and passion, featured some of the best songs of their career, and stood toe-to-toe with their best releases.
In the five years since that album, Less Than Jake have continued on as normal, touring relentlessly to smaller but still passionate audiences. They’ve also put out a trio of EPs, including a silly one containing a bunch of covers of television theme songs and advertising jingles. But Sleep It Off Records, the upstart independent label they created to release GNV FLA, never took off, so See the Light finds them back with the now-venerable punk label Fat Wreck Chords. Sonically this doesn’t make much of a difference. Twenty years into their career, the band has figured out exactly how to put a song together and make it effective. But psychologically the group is in a very different, more settled place this time around. This is a “business as usual” record, not a “something to prove” record. To put it in terms familiar to Less Than Jake fans, if GNV FLA was analogous to Losing Streak, then See the Light is the second coming of Hello Rockview. In both cases the latter album is a strong effort, but subtly missing the go-for-broke passion that characterized the former.
“Good Enough” kicks things off with a minor key horn line, syncopated upstroke ska guitar, and a typically active bassline from Roger Manganelli. The song blasts into power chords for the chorus, where guitarist Chris Demakes laments “We were born into / Believing that it’s true / What’s been good enough for them / Should be good enough for you.” Musically this is a decent opener for the band, but because it’s a bit vague lyrically it doesn’t stand with the band’s best material. Better is second track “My Money is on the Long Shot”, which offsets a jauntier ska chorus with extended hard rock chords in the pre-chorus and lyrics about taking a risk instead of waiting for something to happen. Third song “Jump” starts off unremarkably in its verses but surprises with what might be the album’s catchiest refrain. Taking full advantage of the vocal differences between their two lead singers, the band swaps out Chris for Roger in the chorus and hits on a huge earworm: “Skeptics never make it through the static / Automatic.”
After the first chunk of the album goes more or less at full speed, the band gets around to some change-of-pace songs. As much as they’ve used ska elements in their material over the decades, the basic sound is more rooted in melodic punk. Often, this results in an effective one-two punch where the band transitions from laid-back to roaring. But sometimes, as with “Do the Math” here, a calmer, horn-driven track is a natural counterpoint to all the high-speed punk surrounding it. “John the Baptist Bones” contrasts light-touch verses that come complete with bright, Caribbean-style horns with a harder-edged chorus. It even features an honest-to-God trombone solo. The third of the album’s trio of not-punk tracks, “Give Me Something to Believe In, Inc.” isn’t nearly as strong as the previous two, but it provides a nice lead-in to the record’s climactic “Sunstoke”.
“Sunstroke” features a strong Roger vocal paired with lyrics about losing the character of the band’s hometown of Gainesville, Florida, to encroaching development. This was a major theme of the band’s previous album, and it’s obviously a topic that brings out the best in drummer/lyricist Vinnie Fiorello’s writing. The album wraps up with the brief “A Short History Lesson”, which is a middling throwback to the band’s early ‘90s style, and “Weekends All Year Long”, which begins with a complicated minor key horn intro reminiscent of Less Than Jake’s more musically advanced peers Streetlight Manifesto. The band carries this into an intriguingly dark groove for a full two minutes before throwing it away in the song’s (and album’s) final 45 seconds with a more typical bouncy Less Than Jake ending.
See the Light isn’t at the top of Less Than Jake’s catalog, but it shows that the band hasn’t gotten lazy. It would be easy for them to tour on the nostalgia of their fanbase while occasionally turning out subpar product and call it a career. Lord knows their fellow ‘90s ska survivors Reel Big Fish have been doing precisely that since approximately 2006. But LTJ, while having a goofy streak, have always had a strong work ethic that’s been reflected in their high energy live shows. This album doesn’t quite have the “oomph” of their best work, but it won’t be a disappointment to their fans.