Like a surfer at sunrise, or a lieutenant general girded on for a melee attack, ska fans always scan the horizon for the next wave. The Jamaican First Wave reshaped music; the second British wave offered interracial and working-class solidarity. In the second half of the 1990s, a slew of vicious ska-punk like Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, and Dance Hall Crashers introduced the real idea of a wave: ska as a natural, recurring phenomenon. Since then, the big question has been… has this fourth wave struck again? Should we celebrate or dread his arrival? Is the graph the harbinger? Perhaps this happens when the ska is spliced in new settings. At one point, indefatigable underground punk icon Jeff Rosenstock took his place at the forefront of ska. Following the disbandment of his Long Island ska-punk number, Arrogant Sons of Bitches, Rosenstock recorded an album – which he attributed to “Bomb the Music Industry!” – at home. 2005 Minus Band Album took full advantage of the bedroom format. The expected frenetic climbs of the guitar were complemented by the taps of superhuman cymbals and anti-theft whistles of plugins; Rosenstock went from folk-punk to ska-core to synthpunk as if he was cutting a promotional reel.
It wasn’t exactly the shape of the upcoming ska, but it was an invigorating, omnivorous statement, one that Rosenstock developed upon by adding members to BtMI and styles to its repertoire. But at the time of the 2011 Vacation, the horns suggested Neutral Milk Hotel more than Mustard Plug. There were as many ska runs as there were wordless interludes indebted by Brian Wilson (one). It was Rosenstock’s favorite Bomb release and the band’s last album. Since then, he has focused more on pop-punk, power pop, even heartland rock. In an interview in 2018, Rosenstock recalled his approach Vacation. “I felt that with the songs I was writing, I was going to add some ska parts to them and make them into ska songs,” he said. “I was thinking, why the hell would i do that?“
Why the hell indeed! On 04/20 Rosenstock announced the release of SKA DREAM, a skanktified rework of last year’s anthemic, out of print NO DREAM. Anyone least interested in Rosenstock’s career knew it wouldn’t be a Covid-induced stopgap. Left out of the club circuit, free to follow whatever he wanted, he chose to turn a focus group blunder into a celebration of ska. To take it even further, he did so with an expanded cast of players, all of whom had to send him their roles from across the country. Some of the guests (Angelo Moore of Fishbone, Skankin ‘Pickle frontman / Asian Man Records founder Mike Park) are members of ska royalty; some – like Jer Hunter, the high-end owner of the popular Skatune Network, which contributes to the trumpet and trombone – are newcomers in the genre. Other guests are simply ska-adjacent, like Oceanator mastermind Elise Okusami and pop-punk group PUP. And some of the guests, incredibly, are Deafheaven’s George Clarke.
There is very little here that looks bald. Much of this is due to the regular casting of Death Rosenstock, who completely revamped everything about NO DREAM. The insistent horn guitar intro of “State Dream” turns into an air raid siren on the double “Horn Dream”, as drummer Kevin Higuchi plays a reggae-inflected lope by Specials. (At one point on SKA DREAM, Rosenstock cribs a bit of “Nite Klub.”) “Monday at the Beach” was a perfectly frantic pop-punk number, and could have been easily translated to, like, skacore. But “Monday at Back to the Beach” slows things down to a Sublime crawl, with Rosenstock’s hazy vocals suggesting Brian Wilson try Chillwave.
That’s not to say Rosenstock and the company overestimated this: The absurdly forceful first punch “No Time to Skank” matches its punch for punch counterpart. “SKrAm,” another third wave remake, swings heavily on Rosenstock’s strong vocal line. At times, “SKrAm” sounds like a mythical 1997 Asian Man crossover hit. The illusion is shattered once Bay Area rapper Boboso pops up with a few nerdcore bars (“The Brain Feels Scrambled / Homer Simpson in the bramble ”), but awkwardness was an integral part of the third wave project. Spiritually, it works. Lyrically, this is the only real addition to the original album.
That’s the other reason this ensemble holds together: Rosenstock is a damn good songwriter. It turns out that the poignant character of “Honeymoon Ashtray,” with its portrayal of mutual stasis, translates into even if you throw a stepper groove at it or chase it down with a toast. At NO DREAM “The Beauty of the Breath,” Rosenstock uses the prickly pop power to suggest his frustration with unnecessary sanity advice. “The Rudie of Breathing” sees him retreat instead of pushing back, quietly enthused on a midtempo 2 Tone groove and sympathetic horns.
For anyone who doesn’t have the ska constitution – someone who, for example, can’t see the magic when Aquabats put on spandex, deep in middle age –SKA DREAM may look like a midlife-induced crack, in the sense of Old Dominion Meow Mix. (The 4/20 release date sure won’t help.) For longtime fans of the genre, however, everyone hup and to pick up is really affecting. At best, the third wave was a paradoxical state of being: deeply awkward. Pushing Jah Jerry’s beats to absurd tempos alongside 10 of your closest friends, half of whom have known each other from a seventh grade orchestra? And soldering it all – the brass section of the show band, the chipper off beat, the dang porkpie hats – to the alienation of American punk rock? What a dream.
Regardless of its great artistic value, SKA DREAM represents something rare: an act to remake an LP because they wanted to. Album covers are almost always undertaken under duress. In the mid-2000s, Victory Records began preparing a reissue of the ska-punk classic Catch 22. Keasbey Nights. It was bad news for KeasbeyLead songwriter Tomas Kalnoky, who left Catch to form Streetlight Manifesto (also signed to Victory). As a compromise, Streetlight released Keasbey Nights 2, an awareness that only postpones the inevitable. A more modern example would be – of course – Taylor Swift, who has a Rosenstockian propensity for surprise album releases during pandemics. Without fear (Taylor version) practically invites the listener to discern how Swift’s psychographic landscape has changed since her country-pop days. SKA DREAM it’s the other way around: like a blunder, Rosenstock invites the past to inhabit the present. Can you believe it Airwalks adapt.
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