Revised! MUSIC: John Reviews “GNV FLA” by Less Than Jake

(REVISED ENTRY!  I somehow managed to leave off crucial pieces of this review in its earlier draft.  Every song on the album is now mentioned, and my usual breakdown is included at the bottom.  Hooray for careful readers leaving feedback!)

I’m willing to bet that everyone who listens to music has, at one time or another, imagined themselves as a record exec with the power and influence to make good bands mega-stars and bury bad ones forever. In my personal version of this fantasy, the band has 5 seconds to impress me before they get booted out the door. I had worried that 2006’s In with the Out Crowd was the last gasp for ska-punk mainstays Less Than Jake, but it only took 2 seconds of listening to their latest album, GNV FLA, to imagine myself signing them to the “standard rich-and-famous contract.” In other words, Less Than Jake is back at the top of their game and GNV FLA is more than a great ska/punk album, it’s a great album.

Before I get to the music itself, I should mention a bit of the changes since LTJ’s last release. In with the Out Crowd was apparently enough of a commercial failure for Warner Bros. Records to drop the band entirely, so Less Than Jake found themselves with no label to promote them, but no execs controlling their music either. Since this was the last in a line of label jumps for the band (other labels they’ve worked with include Asian Man Records, Capitol Records, Fat Wreck Chords and Fueled By Ramen) they decided to strike out on their own and form their own label, Sleep It Off Records (named after my favorite B-Side song of theirs!) What does this mean for the band? Well, they’re putting a lot more effort into their recordings than ever before, but they’re also completely free to put whatever they want on the album without having to bow to “notes” from the label. If you listened to In With The Out Crowd and thought “Hey, where’s the Less Than Jake I’ve been listening to for years?” you might be pleased to know that a lot of the album’s sound was dictated by Warner Bros. against the desires of the band. But no longer! I’m happy to report that GNV FLA is so true to what makes LTJ a great band that it completely makes up for In With The Out Crowd, and hopefully will win over new listeners as well.

So how does it sound, you ask? Well, a great question demands a great answer, so I’ll do my best to relate it to you.

The album opens with two great songs that sound great together, “City of Gainesville” and “The State of Florida.” These also spell out the significance of the album’s title, for those who didn’t know where the band calls home. “City of Gainesville” is the song that initially won me over, with its very simple and laid-back ska riff followed by accompanying horns. It’s a great lead-up to the rest of the album because it is relaxed enough to show the calmer ska side of the band, all the while hinting at the energetic payoff to be delivered with the following track. “The State of Florida” kicks ass from second one, almost as if the floodgates built up by “City of Gainesville” had been blown open with dynamite. The song laments the changes that rampant development and a struggling economy have brought to the Gainesville landscape, changing it from the home the band remembers to something thoroughly unrecognizeable. I honestly cannot imagining listening to either of these songs separately, as they really do work together like the musical equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Also, I wouldn’t listen to “State of Florida” at low or even medium volume if I were you; the song would feel neutered.

Does the Lion City Still Roar?” is being pushed as GNV FLA’s hit song. I don’t know why, but the song bands pick to be their hit single is almost always the song I like the least. That’s not to say it’s anything but great, however, just that I like the rest of the songs better. It’s a little faster and more dire-sounding than “State of Florida,” and a great sample of the sound the band is cultivating with this album, but it just doesn’t resonate with me the way the others do.

With a song title like “Summon Monsters,” they’ve already got my attention. Rather than being a reference to video games, however, this song is a punk rock Public Service Announcement. The message is one for parents, and it is that your children are getting high behind your back. What’s the solution? Talk to them, be there for them, let them know that they don’t have to “give money to monsters” to chase away their inner demons. Sure, it might be a touch hypocritical for LTJ to be warning against the evils of drug use, but they really do sound like they have the welfare of their fanbase at heart. After all, kids can’t buy tickets to shows if they O.D. and die.

“Abandon Ship” is slightly more serious-sounding fare compared to the rest of the album.  As the title suggests, it’s about feeling like you have no choice but to give up.  I’m particularly fond of the opening line of the chorus, “treading water with weights around my neck.” We’ve all felt like that at one time or another, haven’t we?  It also echoes the tone (and water imagery) of “Negative Sides of Optmistic Eyes,” one of two B-sides from In with the Out Crowd that saw the light of day on their “Absolution for Idiots and Addicts” EP.

Handshake, Meet Poker Face” sounds instrumentally an awful lot like a previous song of theirs (“In-Dependence Day”, a stand-out track from the relatively disappointing In With the Out Crowd) but the lyrics are far more interesting. The song tells the tale of a mother who spends all of her time and energy working to support her children, worrying whether or not she’s made the right choice by working harder to be a provider than a mother. This is encapsulated by the lines “She said the overtime is worth these aches and pains, but is it worth the precious time that ticks away every second [of] every day?” A driving pace, strong guitar riffs (especially on the chorus) and passionate, intense vocals help the song’s musical elements to complement its lyrical ones. “Handshake, Meet Poker Face” is a great example of what makes Less Than Jake stand out from other ska/punk bands.

Acting as a perfect complement to the previous song, “Settling Son” is a loving kick out of the nest by parents who wish for a better life for their son.  The emotion carries extremely well throughout this song, and I really felt the sense of desperate hope and urgency.  If this poor kid doesn’t get the heck out of his one-horse town and do something with his life, the American Dream is truly dead.  Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it really is an effective motivator (and could almost serve as a prequel to “Al’s War” or a warning to avoid the life described in “History of a Boring Town,” two of my all-time favorite LTJ songs.)   “Settling Son” also includes one of my all-time favorite uses of … imagery, I guess … in a song, namely the phrase “mouthfuls of rotting dynamite.”  It seems odd written down, but you know exactly what he’s talking about when you hear it.  Boston from 21deadmonkeys.com described the song better than I can:

You skipped my favorite track on GNV FLA when you were reveiwing it.  Settling Son!  That one hits home for me because it talks about not settling in life.  It’s the father giving advice to his son to get out there and live.  Whenever I go on a crazy adventure and my coworkers at the factory think I’m insane to do so, I think of this song.

“Malachi Richter’s Liquor’s Quicker” has perhaps the best title on the album, and is the latest entry in the long-standing LTJ tradition of using titles that have little to do with the song itself. If you didn’t know, you’d think the title was “Breathing Room.” This acts as a spiritual sequel to “Short Fuse Burning,” a song from their 2003 album Anthem. Instead of threatening a violent explosion (literal or metaphorical, it’s your call) as a cry for attention, “Breathing Room” is a plea to be left alone. The songs sound similar enough to make the connection, but there is no question that “Malachi Richter’s Liquor’s Quicker” demonstrates how far the band has come in five years both musically and lyrically.

“Golden Age of My Negative Ways” is a great example of how much fun the band can be to listen to. Even with somewhat pessimistic lyrics, the song is so gosh-darn upbeat and energetic that you can’t help clapping your hands and/or jumping around like a crazy person. Then again, maybe that’s just me.

“The Space They Can’t Touch” shares its theme with the most powerful scene from V for Vendetta, where Evey (played by Natalie Portman in the film adaptation) is brutalized in a prison cell until she learns that no one can crush the “one inch” of her that holds her hopes, beliefs, convictions and resolve. Musically, it doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the typical Less Than Jake sound, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The lyrics are definitely what makes this one special, though.

I like to think that “Conviction Notice” is a song dedicated to giving the finger to everyone who has pushed you too damned far. It’s appropriately anthemic, unapologetic and impudent, the way God intended punk rock to be. If you need a song to listen to on the long commute home from your crappy job, “Conviction Notice” will provide the catharsis you need. You have to do your part, though, by standing up for yourself and not taking crap from people!

Before I talk about “This One’s Gonna Leave a Bruise,” I should mention that the last track of In With the Out Crowd, entitled “P.S., Shock the World” sounded like a bittersweet goodbye from the band to its legion of dedicated fans. It gave the impression that it was the band’s last album, and that they would break up soon after. Thankfully this was not the case, and “This One’s Gonna Leave A Bruise” seems much more in line with the kind of song LTJ would dedicate to its fans for their years of support and general awesomeness. Fast and hard, yet heartfelt and nostalgic, “This One” feels less emotionally forced and far more honest. Consider these lyrics: “This smoke-filled, crowded and cloudy room flashes me back to my misspent youth. So when I walk home drunk – and wake up bruised – I’d like to thank each of you.” Perhaps I’m odd, but this song feels like the goodbye two best buddies (the kind that have always stood by one another through thick and thin, but aren’t into sappy displays of crying and hugging) would give one another.

There’s a brief interlude called “The Life of the Party Has Left the Building” before the last track (LTJ fans will recognize the title as a lyric from an older song, “Plastic Cup Politics.”)  As an individual song it’s not particularly special, but it serves as an excellent bridge and lead-up to the big finish…

Finally, “Devil in My DNA” is a serious musical kick in the ass (the other cheek, though. Remember the beginning?) It features what are probably the most intense vocals on the album, which made me worry that Roger might have thrown his voice out a couple of times recording it. It should be noted that the great thing about Chris and Roger’s vocals compared to other ska/punk or pop/punk bands is that they can sing high notes without souding whiny. If anything, I would say that Chris (and, to a lesser extent, Roger) have a distinctly edgy rasp to their voices that adds a more punk rock feel to their singing. “Devil in My DNA” is about people’s tendency to blame everything but themselves for their problems, even genetics. If you know someone who can’t accept personal responsibility for anything, you’ll identify with this one right away and be screaming your head off along with Roger by the end. Hooray for catharses!

Well, now you know what you’re in for. If you’re new to Less Than Jake, expect a serious kick in the ass from a bunch of ska-pop-punks with a great mind for clever lyrics and anthemic melodies. If you’re a former LTJ fan who was burned by In With the Out Crowd, get ready to welcome them back into your heart. And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan, you didn’t need to read this review at all!

If you’re interested in how Less Than Jake manages to be so great (or at least convince me of their greatness) you could check out these youtube videos. In them, members of the band discuss the process of writing songs and making albums, and give you a glimpse at how they’ve managed to stay together and successful for 16 years. For instance, their drummer Vinnie writes lyrics constantly and throws them in a shoebox, while Chris and Roger hammer out melodies whenever they have a spare moment and spare guitars. When they’ve got a solid melody, they pick lyrics from the shoebox and find ones that fit together (both with each other and with the tune) then the whole band starts collaborating on the song, bringing in new elements and retooling ones that no longer work. It all seems to be a pretty organic process, and you can hear how it all comes together in their songs. Fascinating stuff.

THE BREAKDOWN

PROS: Fast, horn-infused ska-pop-punk with meaningful lyrics.  LTJ’s heart and soul are all over this album, and it really makes the effort feel personal and genuine.  Plus, it kicks serious ass.

CONS: A couple of the songs sound like sequels to entries from the LTJ catalog. This might upset you If you can’t stand bands that sing about the same thing twice,  but how many bands keep singing generic relationship songs over and over?

RATING: 9.9 / 10

SOUNDS LIKE: The definitive Less Than Jake!  As a ska/pop/punk rock band, they have some similarities to acts like The Suicide Machines, Goldfinger, Against All Authority, Mustard Plug, Lucky Boys Confusion, Five Iron Frenzy or even fellow Floridains A New Found Glory.  That sells them short, though, because they’ve really developed their own unique sound and become a definitive force in the genre.

SPECIAL THANKS to Boston from 21deadmonkeys.com (THE ska-themed webcomic), for pointing out that I had forgotten to review two of the songs and include my usual breakdown!

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