Ska music had its moment in North America in the 1990s. That moment lasted roughly from 1995-1997 and was fizzling out of the mainstream by 1998, as attention shifted briefly to the swing music revival and then onward to boy bands, Britney and Christina, and the rise of nü-metal. Less Than Jake were among the bands caught up in the movement. They were snapped up by major label Capitol Records just after the 1995 release of the first full-length album, Pezcore. Their second record and Capitol debut, Losing Streak, was released on 12 November 1996.
The mid-’90s are filled with ska-punk hits, both major (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”) and minor (Reel Big Fish, “Sell Out”), but Less Than Jake were not among them. Despite the backing of two separate major labels in two different decades, the band has only managed to squeeze on the bottom end of the Billboard Modern Rock charts twice. Once was in the Capitol days with 1998’s “History of a Boring Town” and once with Warner Bros. for 2003’s “The Science of Selling Yourself Short.”
Less Than Jake managed to garner a significant audience despite the lack of mainstream visibility. At this point, they have been together for nearly 30 years and are still actively recording and touring. Their lineup has remained largely intact over the decades, with original members vocalist/guitarist Chris DeMakes, bassist/vocalist Roger Lima, and trombonist Buddy Schaub. Saxophonist Pete “JR” Wasilewski has been with the group for over 20 years. When founding drummer/lyricist Vinnie Fiorello retired in 2018, the group’s longtime roadie Matt Yonker took over the position.
Even without a hit single, Losing Streak managed to cause a stir in the ska and punk communities. Capitol’s major-label push made the band much more visible in music stores. I remember buying the CD after sampling it at a listening station at my local Tower Records. The album’s cartoony cover art, of a grinning, sharp-toothed green creature in a purple t-shirt holding up a glowing gold horseshoe, was striking. As a college kid who liked punk music and anime, the record might as well have been marketed directly to me.
Revisiting the album in 2021 reveals that it was a turning point for the band. Their earliest material, collected on the Losers, Kings, and Things We Don’t Understand compilation, bristles with energy, but the recordings are generally subpar. The horns tend to be a little out of tune, and DeMakes is far from a great singer at that point. Pezcore was an improvement, but it’s still a noticeably thin album sonically. Losing Streak manages to hold onto the band’s raw exuberance while upping the recording quality. The horns sound great, the rhythm section of Fiorello and Lima are on point, and DeMakes’ vocals have clearly improved.
The songs on Losing Streak are largely fast and short, which contributes greatly to the high-energy feel of the record. DeMakes’ vocal melodies are catchy, with nearly every track having some moment that’s an infectious singalong. The horn section is also omnipresent, providing a strong second layer of melody on most tracks. At times, however, the breakneck tempos and uniform sound make the songs blur together.
A good example of this phenomenon is the transition from “Happyman” to “9th and Pine”. The former barrels forward for two minutes, with fast verses pushing right into fast choruses and essentially finishing after the bridge. The horn countermelody remains almost constant right up until the end of the song. Then “9th and Pine” begins with a trombone solo from Schaub with just guitar backing him up. Once the full band kicks back at the 12-second mark, they’re zipping along at essentially the same speed as before. It’s not immediately apparent that this is a separate song until it gets to the chorus. The first few times through the record, it may take a little bit of sleuthing to decipher where the switch happened.
Because of the band’s commitment to speed and power, the handful of times when they slow down stand out on the record. The subdued opening of “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts” has a tension to it. That’s partially due to its minor key, but Less Than Jake also sound like they’re building up to something. They let the intro go on for 20 seconds before taking off at high speed, but the minor key remains in the verses and helps set the song apart.
Immediately following “Johnny”, the mid-tempo “Krazy Glue” emphasizes more of the band’s ska side, and largely feels relaxed. This makes the fast, punky bridge, sung by Lima, all the more effective. Similarly, the loping “Dopeman” allows listeners to focus on the track’s lyrics, which offer empathy to people who’d rather take their chances dealing drugs than scrape by at a minimum wage job.
Fiorello’s lyrics eschew romance for the experiences of bored teens and occasional social commentary. His lyrical Losing Streak highlights include both its longest and shortest songs. “Never Going Back to New Jersey”, the only track that crests the three-minute mark, has one of the record’s best choruses. The song complains about feeling out of place without getting too specific. It nicely captures teenage unease while declaring, “I’m never going back again!” The driving refrain, harmonized by Lima, is a very effective singalong. It also has an excellent horn feature. “How’s My Driving, Doug Hastings?”, on the other hand, only lasts 84 seconds. It repeats its only verse twice, runs through the chorus twice, and that’s the song. Yet, “Fuck Doug! I’m not going out like this” is a striking and memorable shout along.
Even without a hit song, this album significantly raised Less Than Jake’s profile. The spring of 1997 found them opening for legendary punk band the Descendents. Their headlining tour that fall had them bringing along a just-breaking Blink-182 with them. This pattern would continue over the next decade, as the band played with groups as diverse as Bad Religion and Bon Jovi. They would also take other not-yet-famous acts such as Fall Out Boy and New Found Glory on their tours as openers.
Once their touring cycle for Losing Streak wrapped up, Less Than Jake moved right along to 1998’s Hello Rockview album. That record, while no less energetic, found the band flexing their songwriting chops a bit. The tracks are a little longer, and a bit more conventional, and the band rely less on the ska-punk sound. Their approach is more focused on punk rock with horns and dips into ska less often. It’s a style the band settled into as their career continued, which may have helped them sound a little less dated than their contemporaries once the 21st century rolled around.
Retroactively, this has the effect of making Losing Streak the best recording of Less Than Jake’s full-on ska-punk days. DeMakes was just as likely to be playing super-fast syncopated upstrokes as chugging power chords on his guitar, and the horns permeated nearly every song. Twenty-five years later, it has the feel of a time capsule from that brief mid-’90s period. For those of us who never particularly cared about how popular ska was in mainstream music, this record is a significant landmark in the 1990s version of the form.