Perhaps the most revealing aspect of a popular music trend dying is that listeners get a chance to see all the bands that did not get involved for the sake of popularity and/or involvement. Ska’s immense popularity in the late 90s spawned so many copycat, trend jumping bands it made it difficult to separate them away from the truly good acts of the genre- many of which plied their trade in the much maligned third wave of ska; a hybrid of punk’s pop veneer and ska’s more traditional roots. Some of the biggest names of the time are either currently on hiatus (Mighty Mighty Bosstones), long gone (Slapstick), or sucking (Less than Jake, Reel Big Fish). Some of the mid tier names, like Buck-O-Nine, and of course, Mustard Plug, didn’t quite achieve some of the bigger accolades their contemporaries did, but seemed to have an underlying quality of longevity and perseverance that the others didn’t have. While Buck-O-Nine briefly flirted with major label stardom, Mustard Plug seemed to remain low key in their marketing approach, but kept their sound and music big.
Mustard Plug remained unfazed as the major label deals disappeared, the music videos stopped playing on MTV, and ska became another passing buzzword in the history of hype and hoopla. Sticking close to Hopeless Records, Mustard Plug have remained true to their sound- keeping their ska roots firmly entrenched amongst their razor sharp punk influences. In an age where histrionics and melodrama rule, In Black And White is auspicious in its upbeat humor, style, and general attitude- and it’s actually really fun! From the opening salvo of the pop/punk infused “Who Benefits?” to the bouncy anthemic nature of “Hit Me! Hit Me!” it’s clear that In Black And White is exactly what it claims to be- a clear and present portrait of ska/punk in its purest, undiluted form.
The album gets a real kick during “Something New,” taking cue from punk brevity the song is In Black And White’s most up tempo effort and its energetic peak. The short burst of energy is coupled nicely with the similar toned “You Can’t Go Back,” a track packing a punch clocking in at under the minute mark. In “Real Rat Bastard,” Mustard Plug turn up the fun with catchy choral sing-a-longs, brassy trumpets, and some good ol’ fashioned “la la la la la la’s” reminding the listener that sometimes it’s all just a little better with a smile on your face. It’s a tone reflective of the album’s overall quality- a strong effort all around that isn’t buoyed by radio single pressure or hype. It is in the end, it sounds just like a good album by talented musicians still playing the kind of music they enjoy.
Trends come and go, just as the bands that populate them do. For fans of ska burdened by the media blitz that followed the genre’s popular revival, it must be infinitely rewarding the know that beneath the gloss, there are still plenty of truly great musicians keen on maintaining a sense of fun and excitement with the urgency and truth. In Black And White won’t bring ska back into the mainstream, but it’s a richly rewarding listen and deserving of praise.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.