Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fishbone: Still Stuck in Your Throat

I'm not in the habit of doing full-on reviews of albums, but I thought I'd give this a try. If anything, to give a reference and a glimmer of hope to Fishbone fans in the United States.

I'm guessing I'm not the only American to wander over the cyberpond and snag the new Fishbone album, Still Stuck in Your Throat from If you can't wait, go there to get it. If you're a cheapie, wait until April 24, and pre-order it here. In the end, the new CD's European incarnation, with a just-recently-specified release date in the U.S. of March 27, just-recently-pushed-back release date of April 24, is worth the extra pounds that it costs, considering we're getting it months ahead of an American market.

I will spare everyone the band history, which can be gleaned from their extensive wikipedia entry. I first remember hearing about Fishbone in the Spring of 1987, when they played the Greek Bowl at Occidental College. Or, should I say, the Remsen-Bird Hillside Theater.

I missed that show. I think I had a Shakespeare paper due that weekend. I still regret missing that performance.

I saw them again at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip in late 1990/early 1991.

The "official" Fishbone chronology site, doesn't list either show, but there are big gaps in the band's concert history there, in part due to their tireless touring and never quite hitting it "big". I know when the Roxy show was, approximately, because it was there that both the future Mrs. and I heard

"Everyday Sunshine" for the first time, touted as a song on their "soon-to-be-released" album, The Reality of My Surroundings.

It wasn't until July 8, 2000, when I saw them again, free in Central Park, at Summerstage. You can read the New York Times review here.

Jumping ahead, regular readers will know, I have since caught Fishbone twice, once at CBGB's and once at The Knitting Factory. It was at the CBGB show that Angelo Moore aka Dr. Madd Vibe announced that the band had a new album coming out, called Still Stuck in Your Throat. The disc dropped in Europe in the Fall, and I snagged it through So, I've had a chance to listen to it, and will hereby review it. Bear with me, I'm a tad rusty at record reviews...

Let's start with a disclaimer. I am a die hard Fishbone fan, and will be as objective as possible.

Still Stuck in Your Throat, at least the European version, has 12 tracks and from the get-go, it is apparent to the casual observer that this is not a commercial band. In fact, whereas most successful bands can claim top chart positions, Fishbone has only had 4 charting studio records (out of 8 full-length releases). And even these have just skimmed the charts, 1988's Truth and Soul peaked at #153, their follow-up and most commercially-successful, The Reality of My Surroundings, released in 1991, broke the top 50, but didn't get past #49. Their next albums, Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe (1993) and Chim Chim's Badass Revenge (1996) peaked at #99 and #158, respectively. Their last three records, two of which were live discs, didn't make the charts.

Fishbone returns to form in this new CD, for sure. It is an irreverent, politically incorrect, socially-conscious, funkfest. A fusion of hip-hop, hard rock, and ska, the first sound you hear on Still Stuck in Your Throat is lead singer Angelo braying like a donkey. The song, "Jackass Brigade," is their take on life on the road. Angelo sings about getting out at a truck stop at three in the morning to use the facilities (only he's a little more crude) and the bus leaving without him. It's all silly song making, but the driving beat launches the record into a frenzy.

The second track would be sure to garner controversy if Fishbone was a bigger band, commercially. Entitled "Let Dem Ho's Fight," I heard this first at CBGB's in the Fall, and it is politically incorrect to the nth degree. Read the lyrics here, but beware, it's not for the faint of heart, or soul. It's a nasty, thrashing, skedaddling funkfest, and it works. Talk about a guilty pleasure, the song shreds, and has a catchy hook and chorus. It's about some form of female wrestling, and Fishbone faithful will like it, but the more sensitive of us may feel guilty singing along. Best simile in the song: "Got me sweating like a convict in a telephone booth".

Listen: "Let Dem Ho's Fight" (sample) (mp3)

The third track, "Skank N' Go Nutts," actually appeared in live format on 2001's unauthorized video Critical Times - Fishbone's Hen House Sessions and 2002's Live at the Temple Bar and More. We're finally getting this concert staple in its studio form. That's not too exciting, but it's still nice to hear a crisp clean version of it. The opening line "Idiotic behavior to the beat" sums up Fishbone's concert philosophy in five words.

Listen: "Skank N' Go Nutts" (sample) (mp3)

The fourth track, "Party with Saddam" actually enjoyed some airplay last month on L.A.'s KROQ, and it may help propel this record to some moderate success. When they played it at the Knitting Factory at the end of December, two days before Hussein's execution, the news had broken earlier that evening that the former dictator's days, nay, hours were numbered. The title of the song sounds morbid standing alone, but the song hearkens back to one of their best early songs "Party at Ground Zero."

"Party with Saddam" is essential Fishbone. It's all about letting music remind us that we are all on this planet together and should enjoy life:
Listen: "Party with Saddam" (sample) (mp3)

Ok, I realize, after a bit of a compositional break (I started this post in early January), that I've only addressed the first third of the album. There are still eight songs left. But fear not, as I realize that most reviews of CDs do not speak to every song. I'll try and take this down the home stretch here.

The fact is, the first quartet of songs sets the bar pretty high. After "Saddam," the tone shifts into a very mellow, melodic phase, with "We Just Lose Our Minds." Angelo's lyrics pour out of him like syrup dripping from a tree, as the rest of the band groove along, with a chunky bass line and a drowsy accompaniment from the horns. It's a nice "recovery" song after the party with Saddam.

Listen: "We Just Lose Our Minds" (sample) (mp3)

Then we're back to the hardcore skanking energy burst from "Frey'd Fuckin' Nerve Endingz". I appreciate what they're trying to do here, but this song doesn't really succeed. It bursts with energy, but it falls flat. It's just an unmemorable track that blasts about in the same range that makes it a generally uninteresting song. Next up is "The Devil Made Me Do It." Again, the song has all the Fishbone elements, but doesn't deliver the knockout punch that makes other songs on the record as catchy, or musically interesting. The next track, "Forever Moore," is another slow-paced (relatively speaking) song that showcases Angelo's vocals. Here, it succeeds a little bit Moore (sorry, couldn't help it) as a song. The melody is very nice, and features Angelo on the theremin, a fantastically cool music instrument that he relies on heavily in concert on certain tracks.

The theremin is an electronic musical instrument that operates using frequencies manipulated by the musician's hands in proximity to the antenna(e) on the device. Read more about it here.

The last third of the album launches with a terrific tune called "Behind Closed Doors," which I heard played in both gigs at the end of '06. It's abundantly clear when a band believes in a song, because they just tear it up in concert. This is a Fishbone track in the purest sense of the band's oeuvre-- it has a deep social message (homelessness), a blistering horns' intro that propels the song throughout the track, a driving ska/reggae beat, and a great vocal combo of Angelo Moore melodic background singing, and a reggae rap by keyboardist/vocalist John McKnight.

Listen: "Behind Closed Doors" (sample) (mp3)

Next is a song called "Premadawnutt," which is an interesting rock/reggae mix with the theremin. It's a bit of a mess, a chaotic track after the tightness of "Behind Closed Doors." The record ends with a potent one-two punch. It starts with "Faceplant Scorpion Backpinch," with a driving rock beat that is all about, believe it or not, snowboarding:
Backfoot flip, snowboard spine tweak
No pain without the powder, stuck four feet deep
More than a mighty wind carried on my head
Vertebraes cracking like dry french bread
Kind of an unusual subject for Fishbone, but according to a recent interview (read here for discussion of the album, the songs, why it's coming out almost six months later in the U.S. than in Europe, and snowboarding). A version of this appeared on one of Dr. Madd Vibe's solo projects, Medicine Cabinet.

The album ends with Fishbone's cover of the Sublime classic "Date Rape". Granted, it's not an original, but Fishbone has always had great success with covers (i.e. "Freddie's Dead" from Truth and Soul), and they do a phenomenal job here. The song has actually been around a while. It appeared on the 2005 Sublime tribute album Look at All the Love We Found.

It was also made into a video by Fishbone, their first in over ten years.

Before anyone thinks this is a pro-date rape song, check the original lyrics here.

Here's the original Sublime video, featuring Ron Jeremy, followed by the Fishbone interpretation.

Over all, this is a good, strong album. Fishbone faithful will not be disappointed. Whether or not this will win new fans remains to be seen. Based on the interview linked above, it is clear that Fishbone, despite being an American band, are most at home in Europe. This is a comeback album, of sorts, that succeeds, for the most part. Its strengths far outweigh its lulls, and I recommend it.

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