It’s been 18 years since we’ve heard anything from Save Ferris. The band was in the second tier of ska success in the mid-to-late ’90s, putting out an EP and two albums between 1996 and 1999. They never had a big hit on the level of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get”, but they had enough momentum to get their cover of “Come on Eileen” on alternative radio. When the ska boom faded away, so did Save Ferris. I remember seeing them live at a one-off gig in the summer of 2001, and during the show singer Monique Powell promised they’d have a new album out by the winter of 2002. That never happened. Instead, guitarist-songwriter Brian Mashburn left the band in 2003 and was soon followed by the rest of the group except for Powell.
Powell revived the Save Ferris name in 2013 with an entirely new lineup, and the new crowdfunded five song EP Checkered Past is this incarnation’s first release. Although litigation involving Powell and the rest of the original lineup ended with Powell receiving some co-writing credits on Save Ferris’ earlier material, Brian Mashburn was always the band’s primary songwriter. Their second album, 1999’s Modified, found them moving away from a pretty strict third-wave ska sound and into a more sustainable ska-punk hybrid with some other successful boundary-pushing songs thrown in. With Powell fully in charge, Checkered Past finds Save Ferris retreating to the ska equivalent of musical comfort food. It sounds much more like the band’s early days.
Opener “Anything” begins with a super fast bassline and is quickly joined by the rest of the band in high-speed skank mode. This only lasts for about 12 seconds before everything calms down to a fast but more conventional ska-punk tempo for the rest of the song. “Anything” is the most positive song on the album, with Powell singing about how in love she is and how her significant other is well liked by everyone she knows. Powell is particularly impressed by her line “My cats think that you are the shit”, which, granted, is pretty good, but probably doesn’t need to be sung twice in a row. Despite backing off from its impressive opening high speed, “Anything” is an enjoyable track in the ‘90s ska tradition.
The EP’s other standout track is its fourth, “Do I Even Like You?” This one also moves at a fast clip, but its minor key approach feels appropriate to Powell’s ruminations on how much she likes her current significant other. Her conclusion, “Maybe I like you a little less than I should”, feels more grounded than outright hatred. The song also features some great work from the horn section, particularly the soaring trumpet lick in the chorus. There’s also a great, traditional-sounding trombone solo in the song, which departs from the song’s main style just enough to be distinct.
More problematic is third song “Golden Silence”, which sounds almost exactly the same as “Do I Even Like You?” It’s got the same tempo, same minor key, and a similar groove. Except this song is pure aggression about wanting someone to shut up, which is lyrically less nuanced than the track that follows it. The song does have a solid saxophone solo and organ break going for it, but the two songs feel too similar right next to each other, especially on a five song EP.
Then there’s “New Sound” and “Goodbye Brother”, the record’s two slow songs. Both are competently played and stylistically appropriate. But the former isn’t particularly good, and the latter suffers from some serious ripoff vibes. “New Sound” features toasting from Neville Staple of legendary ska act The Specials. That’s a nice tip of the hat, but the song itself is a bore.
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Despite the toasting and strategically placed crunchy guitar chords, there’s very little energy, and Powell’s half-hearted lyrics about rude girls and rude boys dancing to a new sound are not engaging. “Goodbye Brother” is better lyrically, with Powell singing about the melancholy after a broken relationship. And its mellow, low-key music fits well with the mood of the lyrics. Too bad the vibe and in particular the main horn riff feel stolen from The Specials’ biggest hit, “A Message to You, Rudy.” It’s not an exact match, but as a ska fan, I found the resemblance to be unmistakable and uncomfortably close.
Checkered Past is a quick, enjoyable listen but it isn’t exactly a triumphant return for Save Ferris. Powell’s singing voice and sassy attitude are fully intact after the 18-year hiatus. But as a songwriter, Powell is clearly not on her former bandmate Mashburn’s level. Mashburn himself was not the world’s most accomplished writer, but each of Save Ferris’ ‘90s releases had a handful of songs that were true standouts and still hold up in 2017. This EP doesn’t have anything that memorable, but at least these tracks will fit in comfortably with the songs from the band’s heyday on their upcoming comeback tour.