Is it just me, or has ska been getting better in the last five years? How did we get from Reel Big Fish’s cover of “Take on Me” to this new breed of ska? Is it too early to throw around the phrase Fourth wave? These are the thoughts billowing through my mind. The truth is, ska punk isn’t the kitsch hot spot it used to be. The genre’s been garnering consistent respect with both critics and fans thanks to a number of bands with real musicianship and songwriting ability. Eli Whitney & The Sound Machine is one of those bands, or at the very least will be someday.
“Mickey” is Eli Whitney & The Sound Machine’s debut full length and a first listen reveals a young band with a whole lot of talent. Calling them a ska band also isn’t quite accurate. Sure, ska is a huge part of their sound. But like most fourth wavers they pull equally from folk and punk. The first track, “My Response To A Stephen Jerzak Concert,” is one of the strongest on the album. For those of you not in the know, Stephen Jerzak is a singer songwriter permutation of Justin Bieber. The song is a bouncy ska number complemented by an extremely catchy melody with the horn section playing a simplistic yet effective counter melody. The best part is easily the venomously gang vocal-ed shout-a-long couplets that sum up the songs theme, “If you fill your head with garbage it’ll come out your mouth/ Yeah, this is fun but is it all you’re about?/ Playing it safe you’ve got me falling asleep / It doesn’t matter how loud it matters what you mean.” Lyrics like that keep me listening to punk.
Other highlights include “Ghost Song,” which slows things down a bit with what starts as an acoustic number but eventually morphs into a fist pumping anthem complete with horns. One of the strengths of this album is its lyrical nuggets of wisdom. Good songs make you remember them, and the songs on “Mickey” are a little more forceful than usual. The song “22 Hours” is exemplative of this. But before I talk more about the words, I should single this track out first for its fantastic horn work. The opening horn line plays like a 70s throwback and might be my favorite part of the song. Later in the song, we’re treated to a ridiculously awesome saxophone solo that hearkens back to the jazz era. As I hinted earlier “22 Hours” also has some of my favorite lyrics. “How long before the notes all run together and the songs become anthems that parody themselves? I scream about the people who I want to be. I live much differently in my ideals than in my actions.” These lyrics are made all the more poignant when viewed within the climate of today’s punk scene where credibility is questioned more than intentions. The honesty displayed here is perhaps the most telling thing about this band and also perhaps the most endearing. Frankly, the lack of punk posturing is refreshing.
“Mickey” is a solid album with minor flaws. The production is the most glaring, with the vocals being a little too high in the mix on a couple of songs. It’s not a deal breaker and for the most part it goes unnoticed, but a couple of times it was apparent enough to bring me out of the song. My only other complaint is a vague one that can for the most part be disregarded. I felt like some of the songs could have benefited from more creative instrumentation and arrangement. None of the songs are bad the way they are recorded, I was just left with the desire to hear these songs again with a more developed sound down the road.
Music is made by people. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that someone has to work hard at playing songs, and then work harder at writing them. Someone has to be inspired. Someone has to be passionate. And that someone can be anyone. There isn’t a registered list of preordained rock stars waiting for their Fender® to show up in the mail. Anyone who’s passionate enough can do this. It’s humbling to see an unknown band release such a great record out of nowhere. And its a happy reminder that our scene continues to live on.
Stream and/or download the album for free here.