I was still bleary-eyed from another night of poor sleep courtesy of the last eleven or so hellish months. A cigar was tucked in the corner of my mouth, and I sullenly looked for my left house shoe so I could venture outside for the first nicotine fix of the day.
But Five Iron Frenzy’s latest album, Until This Shakes Apart, conscripted me into a half-dressed army of one whose only mission was to dance. And dance I did. The preeminent Denver ska outfit’s self-released latest album demands body movement, and there I was, coffee mug in right hand, left fist up, shoulders swaying, cat confused and cocking his head before going back to sleep.
As the coffee soaked into my brain cells, it dawned on me that I don’t deserve such a fine platter of ska tunes. I spent a significant portion of my formative years as a card-carrying ska hater. When I was nineteen years old, I went so far as to scream at a ska band — all twelve of them — as they loaded up their equipment in the parking lot after a show.
There are three possible explanations for this behavior:
- A. Ska music does suck, and verbal abuse should be directed at ska people whenever possible.
- B. The ever more cruel grip of alcoholism on my young brain.
- C. Jealousy that all the marching-band kids from my high school got to be in rock bands before me.
The answer is obviously a combination of B and C, as no genre can be dismissed out of hand. I’d like to apologize to anyone who was offended by my youthful peccadilloes.
And my ska hating was all performative bullshit, anyway. After accosting the ska band, my friends and I left to play several albums by NOFX, who at the time would have had no less than two ska or ska-adjacent songs on their albums. We would usually give the entire Operation Ivy catalogue at least two spins before dawn arrived and skank-dance until our legs were tired. Oh, such blatant hypocrisy cannot go unaddressed.
Anyway, some of my former animus toward the genre undoubtedly springs from the copious amounts of airplay that a handful of bad ska songs received on mid-1990s MTV. It imparted me with a gravely misdirected opinion of a rich musical tradition.
My journalism career has thankfully segued from writing about hideous murders and more hideous murders to yacking with shoegazing bands about effects pedalboards and debating the difference between country music and Americana. At this newish gig, I have had to accept, for the sake of professional due diligence, that no genre of music is inherently bad, and the quality of any band must be taken on a case-by-case basis. So I’ve revisited ska, and I have Five Iron Frenzy to thank for opening the door in recent months.
My tastes have also grown more refined from the mere passage of time. After all, I used to consider Carlito’s Way an excellent film and not a symphony of racist stereotypes conducted by Al Pacino’s bad Puerto Rican accent. Somewhere, a high school yearbook photo exists of me in a purple beret, and don’t get me started on the pants I wore in the ’90s. I’d like to reiterate that I’m sorry for all the needless ska-bashing. A lot of it is quite good, and even if it’s not, it makes me dance. That alone is worthy of praise.
Which brings me to Until This Shakes Apart. The band has already been fairly well removed from what one might consider a more stereotypical ska sound for years. Many of the songs could be carted off to another genre if a reviewer felt so inclined. That’s not to say they are generic rock songs, by any stretch of the imagination. The album opener, “In Through the Out Door” is a mid-tempo rocker that easily passes for an alternative rock song. The overt ska sounds return in “Lonesome for Her Heroes,” and the album contains enough guitar up-stroking to keep angry purists happy, and the lush horns come across as a slightly less menacing but impish reimagining of the melody from the Peter Gunn theme. “Bullfight for an Empty Ring” is likewise a fun, laid-back ska tune that invites body moving. The arrangements are deep throughout the record, and subtle touches here and there reveal themselves upon repeat listenings.
While I’m in the midst of a mea culpa: Christian bands. Whether it’s fair or not, I’m suspicious of bands bearing that designation. For every true follower of Christ, there is an opportunistic miscreant like Ted Cruz or Joel Osteen in it to gain power over others and sell books. Maybe I've been a bit unfair to the faithful among us.
Most of my experience with so-called Christian music dates to 2003, when I spent eight months obsessively watching a religious music channel on the off chance that it would replay the wildly suggestive video for Eisley’s “Marvelous Things.” There is, of course, also Johnny Cash, who alternates between songs about Jesus and songs about domestic violence-related homicide. As I gave Until This Shakes Apart a few spins, I never felt proselytized to. I’m a heathen, unclipped and undipped. It’s Valhalla when I die. Individual members of the band seem to possess a complex relationship with Christianity anyway, so I, too, can be open-minded.
The lyric sheet on the album offers a deep dive. “In Through the Out Door” lambasts hypocritical anti-immigrant sentiment. “Tyrannis” tackles, in part, racists who worship the Confederacy. “Lonesome for Her Heroes” addresses gentrification. I’m pretty sure “Bullfight for an Empty Ring” has a shoutout to the free press in the lyrics. (Thank you from the Fourth Estate.) And there was this absolute jewel in “While Supplies Last”: "Did you waste your prayers protecting snipers/ While you hoarded all the Lysol and diapers?"
Timely stuff and such socially conscious lyrics seem a far cry from that DC Talk mixtape a classmate pressed on me in ninth grade. All I remembered hearing was a line about abortion being murder, and I tossed it and put on Nirvana. Sure, Five Iron Frenzy was already well known for its informed lyrics, and I'm not unleashing any new information about the group onto an uncaring world. But what can I say? It’s refreshing to hear a Christian band sing about immigration and gentrification instead of the evils of abortion. Maybe too much of my interaction with people of faith has come from angry emails or church-goers pestering me at my front door about how I was destined for the Lake of Fire.
I don't need to hear about why I'm going to hell. I already know why.
In all fairness, it's not like I'm paying rapt attention to the lyrics about environmental degradation brought on by corporate greed and right-wing hegemony in every Bad Religion song, either. Mostly, I just want to dance. And I think I will.
Hear the album at the Five Iron Frenzy website.
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