Independent or alternative music has been pushed into a corner. I know that sounds stupid, but I believe it to be true. Do you know what happened to ska music? In the 1990s, Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones managed to hit the airwaves, and then Less than Jake accidentally got a hit with “She’s Gonna Break Soon,” but where has this brand of punk gone? The answer lies in the exploits of Streetlight Manifesto.
Ever since forming in 2003, Streetlight has brought a sense of greater musicality to the world of ska. Instead of the power-pop call-and-response of Reel Big Fish, Streetlight actively sought to build songs around the horns. Even more importantly, the songs weren’t just with little flourishes. Observe the song “We Will Fall Together.” The whole intro is layers of horns, letting the trumpet and saxes drive the entire melody. The song is technically and sonically impressive, showcasing horn players with a real sense of tone and dexterity. As a trumpet player, I respect what they’ve done.
Enter their newest release, the first of a set of covers in a project titled 99 Songs of Revolution. Volume 1 offers eleven songs that the band has viewed as important to their lives and careers. Somewhat unexpectedly, it is through covering songs that we get to see Streetlight at their most innovative.
In order to turn each of these songs into ska covers, the band has to add a bit of speed, a bit of swing, and then build a horn part from scratch (for most tracks). The results are very satisfying. Starting right from the proper horn into in “Birds Flying Away,” Streetlight is in excellent form. The instrumental harmonies are clear and well-executed.
Of course, the catchy nature of ska is not ignored. Songs like “Hell” and “Punk Rock Girl” don’t feature the same chances for musical innovation, but are skillfully morphed to fit the Streetlight style. By the end of each, you’ll be bopping along happily.
There are some extremes on the album that must be noted. “Skyscraper” simply doesn’t hold up as well as the other songs on the album, as it really drones on toward the end. “Linoleum” has essentially the same problem, separating two exciting songs with a definitive lull.
Meanwhile, there is some pure brilliance at work in three of the covers. First is “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” originally by Paul Simon. By cranking up the tempo and adding a wonderful compliment of trombone and trumpet, the song transforms to a lovely ska piece.
But the crown jewels are the covers of “Just” by Radiohead and “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service. As a Radiohead lover, I was appalled by the suggestion of a ska version of any Radiohead song. And then I heard this. The horns open up, managing to match the intensity and mayhem originally brought by the guitar layers. Particularly in the outro, this song becomes very powerful. It’s a real treat.
Finally, we reach “Such Great Heights,” perhaps the most surprising of the songs. Here, the band uses saxophone, trumpet and trombone to mimic the famous opening. The results are stunningly successful, offering an instrumental that is unmatched by any other ska group.
99 Songs is a worthwhile pickup for any cursory fan of Streetlight, or anyone who appreciates saxes and brass in music. While not all songs are equal, the horns are consistently fantastic. This high quality work alone makes up most of the score for this album. General catchiness accounts for the rest. Others listeners would be wise to sample some of the music online before purchasing. They may find that the infectious nature of ska makes this too worthwhile to pass up.