SANTA ANA — Good things have been happening lately when rock bands use ska music as a flavoring, but there's no need for anybody to get carried away and start serving this '60s-vintage Jamaican rhythmic creation as a main dish.
Among the tasty recent morsels in which ska is the foremost spice are "Time Bomb" by Rancid and the Offspring's "What Happened to You?" Both use carefree, light-skipping ska rhythms to lend contrast and indirection to songs about characters in the throes of self-destruction.
Ska served Sublime well: A ska novelty song, "Date Rape," became a modern-rock radio hit and recruited an audience for the slower, more trenchant reggae rhythms and soulful songs that were the Long Beach trio's true signatures (reggae is the form that eclipsed ska on the Jamaican scene by the early '70s).
Also, ska's large and loyal Southern California audience nurtured and sustained No Doubt until the Anaheim band could hone its songwriting. The outcome was No Doubt's current, million-selling "Tragic Kingdom" album, which uses ska only as a spice.
A gathering of four young, local ska-influenced bands Tuesday night at the sold out, steamy Galaxy Concert Theatre showed that the lessons of these creative and commercial success stories have sunk in to an extent: Reel Big Fish, the Aquabats, Save Ferris and Pocket Lent all made significant variations on a pure ska style, adding punk, swing or jazz to the mix.
But none of the bands showed the distinctive, personal songwriting touch that's vital for excellence in any pop style. Overall, despite the stylistic variations, the evening hewed too closely to a ska ethic that says peppy fun is enough, that substance and memorable songs are optional.
The younglings' immaturity left the door open for Dave Wakeling, a veteran master of ska-spiced rock, to steal the show with by far the most intense and expertly played music of the night.
Fronting his new, O.C.-based band, Bang, the boyish-looking English expatriate mixed new songs with chestnuts from the English Beat, one of the leaders of the ska revival that took place in Britain in the late '70s and early '80s and served as a model for the current crop of American ska bands.
Playing as a straightforward, four-piece rock band, as opposed to the large, horn-driven lineups that dominated the night, Bang was stripped-down yet full-sounding--muscular (thanks in large part to the meaty lead guitar of Chris Karn) yet melodic, with an emphasis on good backup singing. It should say something to the younger bands that Wakeling is going for tension and edge, not just for one-dimensional gaiety.
The evening was Reel Big Fish's party, celebrating the release of the band's new CD, "Turn the Radio Off." The seven-piece outfit offered routine horn arrangements that added standard bright punctuation and rhythms that alternated between ska pep and punk-rock pummeling. The performance was inconsistent--sometimes tight, but too often marred by cluttered, muscle-bound drumming.
Reel Big Fish's best asset is its knack for spitting out catchy chorus hooks. Its worst drawback, besides those predictable rhythms, was its obsession with the most tedious subject in the whole wide world of modern rock: the debate over whether the very act of trying to sell one's music makes one a sellout.
Half the set was taken up with songs such as "Trendy," "Snoop Dog, Baby," "I'm Cool," "Everything Sucks," "I'll Never Be" and, of course, "Sell Out"--all of which vented Reel Big Fish's anxiety over hopping on a career ladder that might net the band members some bucks.
With all their repeated, sardonic commentary about music for hire, not only in the songs but in front man Aaron Barrett's between-numbers chat, one began to suppose that the laddies doth protest too much and that deep down they want to make it so badly it's in their prayers.
And what's wrong with that? The Beatles dreamed of being "toppermost of the poppermost," and getting there didn't prevent them from also being tops in artistic integrity.
There has been a good deal of involving music made about the art-versus-commerce issue in rock and about the corrupting or distorting force of the music business.
But Reel Big Fish's songs lack anything approaching the anguish and perceptiveness of such rock-biz loathing works as Agent Orange's "Living in Darkness," Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and "The Wall" or the Kinks' "Lola vs. Powerman."
The set's highlights were "All I Want Is More" and "Beer," both of which gave good, close-in snapshots of a guy with girlfriend troubles, trying to swim the difficult currents of ordinary emotional life. Best to keep fishing in that stream.
The second-billed Aquabats' mission is to have fun with a cartoonish concept: band as goofy superheroes.
Turned out in uniforms that called to mind the gung-ho commando sperm of Woody Allen's film, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)," these nine masked men were musically inconsequential but mostly entertaining.