North Jersey-based Joker’s Republic team with members of Backyard Superheroes and The Toasters to create Falling Behind, a well-crafted reggae-rock LP with elements of punk and ska. They will celebrate the release of their debut full-length, Falling Behind, on April 27 at the Brighton Bar, Long Branch, with Mephiskapheles, Backyard Superheroes and The Schwam. ARTWORK BY ED MULLIGANJoker’s Republic are not just a band, but a movement that makes fun of the government, as well as themselves and punk rock for not being political enough. Yet, the North Jersey ska band’s 11-song debut full-length, Falling Behind, offers the kind of commercial-sounding pop-punk that fell away from the original political intentions of The Clash, Bad Religion and countless other true, hard-edged punk bands.
Promoted as ska-punk, Joker’s Republic are on the lighter side of Rancid, Reel Big Fish and Jersey’s own Hub City City Stompers and don’t hold a candle to the hard edge of The Clash or Sublime but, for the most part, hold their own alongside the reggae rock of 311 and latter-day No Doubt. That’s not to say Falling Behind isn’t well-constructed because it is, especially the passionate, often political lyrics of vocalist-guitarist Austen Grey, exceptionally vibrant bass parts of Billy Smolen, and strong harmonies and gang vocals of Backyard Superheroes, whose drummer, Ryan Weil, recorded the LP and co-produced it with Grey. I just wouldn’t qualify this music as ska-punk and definitely not punk because my 83-year-old mom – a fan of Backyard Superheroes’ ska -- would like how cute ‘n’ crafty Joker’s Republic are. Punk rock isn’t cute ‘n’ crafty. At least it shouldn’t be, but then, what passes for punk rock these days and since the commercial success of Green Day in the mid-‘90s is suspect.
However, Joker’s Republic do aim to keep the political spirit of punk alive right from the get go with the opening standout “American’t Dream,” an indictment of the wealthy few who turn the American Dream into a nightmare for the rest of us. Like most Americans, the tune marvels at how we could stoop so low as to vote someone as an evil and immoral as Donald Trump as our president. I love the line, “And the problem is the state of mind of the people in this country who say I’ve got mine. Fuck you!” Backyard Superheroes’ gang vocal at the end of that line is my favorite part of the whole album.
The social commentary continues with “Mannequins,” a look at the ingenuousness of media and other miss perceptions and lies about the stability and validity of American democracy in the face of the kind of economic injustice that creates apathy. This is among several outstanding performances by Smolen, one of the best bassists I’ve heard in a while.
Next up is an eclectic cover of Bob Marley’s classic, “Three Little Birds,” which starts out as mellow 311-like reggae-rock, then revs up into a genuine ska-punk take, as well as a manifesto to save rock ‘n’ roll. The great albeit slightly overlong Marley tribute ends with a snippet of “One Love,” which hopefully can be included in a radio edit that should be shopped to Jersey stations this summer because it would be a local hit. Smolen is at his best here with a solo that takes up a good chunk of the end of the track. Backyard Superheroes’ melodic backing vocals are so great, they seem as if they’re an additional instrument.
The politics continue with “Trump Card,” a statement about the fascism the so-called president has flamed, as well his ludicrous border wall, and “Politics Belong in Punk Rock,” a somewhat hypocritical chronicle of the political history and purpose of punk rock and the lack of it within its modern-day commercialization. Bottom line? “Punk rock should make you think,” which this crafty tune does, but again, without punk rock’s dangerous-sounding jagged edge. But oh my, how my mom would love these guys because they hate Trump as much as she does.
“Grow Up” looks at the immaturity that often is associated with rock ‘n’ roll and the second childhood that can be found as a member of a band no matter how old you are. Great doo-wop-like backing vocals by Backyard Superheroes add to the strength of the track, as do their gang vocals on “Just Don’t,” a solid ska-focused tune about a lack of self-respect.
Falling Behind also includes the poppy “Talking to Strangers,” featuring Toasters keyboardist Dave Barry; “Migraine,” a noisy ode to medical marijuana; the energetic breakup song “Indecisively Indifferent,” and the closing title track, featuring a nice, gnarly guitar solo by Grey that balances out its poppiness. Record at Weil’s Weilhouse Productions in Middletown, the collection was mastered by David Irish (Reel Big Fish, The Interrupters) at Pot of Gold Recording in Orange County, Calif.
A follow-up to the seven-song Anti-Social Media, the forthcoming LP also features fantastic album art by Ed Mulligan, the band’s manager and Grey’s dad. While the great artwork can’t be seen on CD or vinyl, it is available on a musical multimedia flash drive that will accompany the digital release of Falling Behind. The artwork is part of the drive’s Rich Media.PDF for both PC and Mac that functions like a mini-website and also includes other images, as well as bonus songs, lyrics, videos and other Easter eggs hidden throughout.
You can celebrate the album’s release and, if you aren’t already, become a citizen of the Joker’s Republic on April 27 at the Brighton Bar in Long Branch. Sharing a fun bill will be the New York City ska band Mephiskapheles, the North Jersey ska band The Schwam, and, of course, Backyard Superheroes.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.