The story of ska-rockin’ maestros Less Than Jake isn’t told in their sizable discography. It can’t be calculated by the amount of road miles they’ve logged. (But if we’re forced to calculate, we think they might be a block or two short of the Van Allen belts.) Nah! Less Than Jake’s cumulative worth is all about what they bring to your party. From sweaty club shows to uproarious festival dates to opening up for America’s most beloved rock acts, these five lifers’ deeds are best measured in the smiles they’ve slapped on the faces of true believers and new listeners, alike.
Silver Linings is the name of the new Less Than Jake album, their first full- length for the Pure Noise label and the follow-up to 2013’s See The Light. It also doubles as a bunch of sonic diary pages and a mission statement that cements their conviction after two decades in this rock ‘n’ roll circus. Indeed, LTJ—frontman/guitarist Chris DeMakes, bassist/vocalist Roger Lima, trombonist Buddy Schaub, saxophonist Peter “JR” Wasilewski and new drummer Matt Yonker—have escaped most (but not all) forms of ennui, depression and violence against screen-based objects to create an endorsement of humanity.
Silver Linings also does a good amount of myth-exploding in its pursuit of joy. The songwriting core of DeMakes, Lima and Wasilewski wrote all the lyrics. New drummer Matt Yonker, whose former positions included LTJ tour manager and hammering along with such punk outfits as the Teen Idols and the Queers, helps bring a new sense of urgency. And that album title? Yeah, that was decided upon long before bands began to offer face masks in their online merch stores. Pro tip: Dial back your preconceived notions. The only things the Jakes have to prove are to themselves. Their laurels aren’t so comfortable that they’d willingly choose to be painted into a retro-colored corner.
While Silver Linings doesn’t skimp on the joy, fun or grooves, careful listeners will sense a bit more reality seeping into LTJ’s escapism. The calisthenic bounce of “Lie To Me” is slightly undercut by Lima’s tales of how “the flames we hold the closest burn the worse.” On the urgent track “The Test,” DeMakes dares to seek some self-examination through someone else’s prism. “Dear Me” might be the first rock song that doesn’t couch its disdain for technology with poetic metaphors. That track addresses the loss of friends via distance and tragedy. The word “love” also appears in the album’s lyrics at three junctures. That detail should not be lost on anyone.
“We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable,” offers Wasilewski. “In the past, previous records’ lyrics were about leaving a specific place or time. This is more about the departures in our personal lives: family, friends, relationships. We’ve never really explored that side. With this record, we tried to pull back that curtain. We’re showing some fragility in a time when people seem so hardened.
“We’re not looking for silver linings,” he clarifies. “The record is about appreciating them. Nobody appreciates them until maybe it’s too late or maybe it’s after the fact.”
Don’t worry. The phrase “woe is we” isn’t in the LTJ lexicon. “King Of The Downside” is the best self-affirmation track we can learn from. “Monkey Wrench Myself” could either mean fixing one’s self or hammering said tool repeatedly into your noggin just because you can. (“Gonna do what you told me not to/I’m gonna get myself through.”) “Bill” is a loving, full-throttled tribute to legendary drummer/producer Bill Stevenson. As a member of crucial punk outfits Black Flag, Descendents and ALL, he helped blaze the trails driven on by every aggregate describing themselves with a “-punk” suffix. LTJ know this and have acted accordingly. And if you’ve been paying attention, you already know that “So Much Less” features Wasilewski’s first ever sax solo on an LTJ record.
What else do you need to know about Less Than Jake in 2020? The band would tell you quite unpretentiously that they are here to bring a good time. Of course, LTJ would’ve said the exact same thing back in ’97, 2006, 2011 or 2018 when the Warped Tour’s punk ‘n’ roll roadshow was coming to an end. What makes things different now? Why, nothing less than a divided nation and a dangerous pandemic. Consider Less Than Jake the first responders when your psyche doesn’t think it wants to continue. Because we do need all the joy and levity a seasoned ska-punk band can dish out. The reality that LTJ are also feeling reminds us that some kind of triumph is within our reach.
“We hope that the record transports you,” Wasilewski resigns. “We’ve always hoped our music takes listeners from the troubles of the world. Nowadays, that very act seems to be more important. Once you turn your phone and your TV off and venture outside with a mask, and actually talk to someone else, you realize that the world is not the worst place ever. We hope the takeaway from this album is that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not that hard—it’s just easier to be downtrodden.”
In 2020, there’s no “scene,” merely good times and worse ones. For Less Than Jake to call their new album anything else but Silver Linings? Well, that would be fronting.