Shaking and Straining – Of Circumstances and Art

My favorite band of all time is Five Iron Frenzy, a little known third wave ska band of the mid ’90s and early ’00s. I was introduced to the band when I was eleven or twelve and just starting to form my own tastes in music and it was also the first band I won a convert for, introducing a fellow Boy Scout named James to their music a few years later. When the band went into retirement in 2003 it was the end of an era of my life. I still have all their albums save their first, and listen to them on a semi regular basis. Thanks to poor messaging I missed the opportunity to back the Kickstarter for FIF’s first reunion album, Engine of a Million Plots. But I did catch the campaign for their latest album, Until This Shakes Apart.

The contrasts are quiet interesting. Where Million Plots is one of the strongest albums in FIF’s discography, Until This Shakes Apart is… not.

The music of Five Iron Frenzy evolved a lot during their roughly decade long absence from the scene. It became a bit more melancholy, a bit less recklessly optimistic. That’s understandable, given the changes in outlook age can bring, but even with the change in tone Million Plots featured the same irrepressible energy I’ve always associated with the band and added a kind of seasoned wisdom to them that was pleasing and wholesome. Lyrically outside of the disappointing “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” the band’s songs kept focused on the kind of big picture storytelling I’ve always associated the band with. The songs are about the human condition, how it leads us astray, and, to a lesser extent, how we escape our worse natures and strive for our better.

Engine of a Million Plots plays much like a story. Many of the tracks roll into one another and tell us about the dangers of hubris and blind escapism, while reminding us that holding out for the good things does eventually pay the biggest dividends, even if it isn’t always fun.

Shakes Apart is much more focused in the here and now. The music is almost lethargic, it feels like a slog to listen to sometimes. The lyrics are also very based in the present moment. Where Million Plots talks about the timeless parts of the human condition, Until This Shakes Apart is focused on the unique circumstances surrounding its creation. There’s a place for that in art, no doubt. But that place was rarely the music of Five Iron Frenzy.

It’s true, tracks like “Giants”, “Goodbye, Goodnight” and “The Untimely Death of Brad” had points that ring true even now, some twenty years after originally written, but even those, while based on immediate events, drew out timeless truths about the human experience. On the other hand, tracks from Shakes Apart like “In Through the Out Door”, “Lonesome for Her Heroes”, “Renegades”, “Tyrannis” and “While Supplies Last” share the dull, unpleasant, scolding tone of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, displaying a disdain and lack of empathy for their targets that is ugly and frankly laughable. Granted, third wave ska was heavily influence by punk, a truly dreary, scolding, self important genre of music, but for the most part FIF had avoided punk’s worst tendencies until now.

Shakes Apart does manage to hit some highs, with “So We Sing” bringing a little of FIFs old optimism back and “Auld Lanxiety” is a very potent reminder of the power of music to bring comfort. “Homelessly Devoted to You” is a wonderful, sweet love song and “One Heart Hypnosis” lampoons our addictions to social media brilliantly. “Like Something I Missed” and “Huerfano” are wonderful, fun tracks to listen to. But all told, that leaves about half the album below par and much of that steeped in a very offputting shroud of self-righteous lecturing.

Most notably, the silly, irreverent, purely humorous songs that were Five Iron’s strongest brand for decades are entirely absent from this disk. Even Million Plots had “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter.” Perhaps over the years something has been lost.

And perhaps it was merely circumstance. Million Plots was written and released during the Obama administration, when many of the social and political goals FIF advocated for were coming to fruition. Shakes Apart was primarily written during the Trump administration, a dark time for the self styled progressives that fill the bands ranks. It was disappointing and trying for those progressives I know in my personal life, even though I found little changed for me personally from the administrations of 44 and 45. It wasn’t uncommon for them to become bitter, preachy and caustic. Most art became that way as well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Five Iron was caught in the flow.

Perhaps they can turn things around with their next album, if one arrives. We’ll have to wait and see. Still, it was an interesting outcome, and I felt strongly enough about it to add this review to my scheduled essays. I hope you got something out of this. See you next week.

Original Art: I’ve Seen The Sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you haven’t listened to the new album by Five Iron FrenzyEngine of a Million Plots, then today’s post will not make a whole lot of sense, since it’s a drawing inspired by the song “I’ve Seen The Sun” from that album. Of course, you might be able to enjoy it anyways…

TsunamivsUmbrella

Who’s that holding the umbrella? Probably Jack’s smirking revenge.

Yeah, all this makes more sense if you’ve listened to the album. So what are you waiting for?

Cool Things: Five Iron Frenzy

Ah, the music of my youth. The very first album I owned was Quantity is Job One by Five Iron Frenzy – a fantastic and fantastically short collection of pure nonsense that represented the last of the great third wave ska bands at their finest.

Never heard of ska? If you don’t want to take the time to read the Wikipedia article I just linked, the short version is, ska is punk rock meets swing. Ska bands tend to be large, and Five Iron Frenzy was no exception, sporting eight members, and typically include drums, electric guitar, bass, trumpet and one other brass instrument at a minimum. More guitar, brass and possibly a lead vocalist can be added for flavor. I think the sheer number of people needed to make a ska band work is one of the things that’s kept them from ever catching on in a meaningful way…

So, other than representing a kind of sound that you don’t hear every day, what makes Five Iron cool? Now that I’m a seasoned man of almost thirty, do they still hold up to my initial love from middle school? Why should you even care about a band that retired in 2003?

To handle each question one at a time. Five Iron Frenzy didn’t just write ska – they wrote ska with a purpose. Now if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time you know I love things done with a purpose, and Five Iron was always 110% devoted to whatever purpose they were pursuing, even when that purpose was just silliness.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, here’s a few of their songs from that great resource of the modern age, YouTube! First, a ditty of pure silliness extolling the greatness of our near neighbors:

Now a song with a bit of a more serious bent to it:

The contrast between these two songs does an excellent job of encapsulating what made Five Iron Frenzy a band worth listening to. They didn’t just write music or do a great job turning a phrase. They did an excellent job of making you care about what you were hearing about.

Sure, when I first encountered Five Iron I was mostly enamored of their silliness. What other band offers you greatness like “These Are Not My Pants, The Rock Opera”? None! But their sense of fun was accompanied by a sense of place and purpose, even when you’re not sure exactly what those places and purposes are. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize just how meaningful their songs about those ideas are. Certainly they’ve aged well. I suspect I’ll continue to find their music meaningful as I get older.

So why should you care? Simple! While Five Iron may have retired in 2003 they reunited in 2011 and kickstarted a new album which is slated for release on November 26th! I can’t even begin to say how excited I am for Engine of a Million Plots. After a ten year absence, I can’t wait to hear what they sound like. And if you’ve never heard of them, it’s a great place to start. Check it out and let me know what you think!