New Jersey band Streetlight Manifesto brings a touch of melancholy to the Ska is Dead 2 tour
Ska is not dead. The music that got feet moving on Jamaican dance floors in the 1960s, in English pubs in the 1980s and in American concert halls in the 1990s never really went away. It just keeps reinventing itself.
As the sarcastically named Ska Is Dead 2 tour rolls through town next week, it brings two ska stalwarts to Sacramento: MU330 and the Voodoo Glow Skulls. Both have been favorites of rude boys and girls for over a decade. Also on the tour is New Jersey’s Streetlight Manifesto, a young band that is ska in sound but totally unique in subject and substance.
Streetlight Manifesto’s debut CD, Everything Goes Numb, is at once soulful, melancholy, jubilant and melodic. The songs are about death and loss, and even the most upbeat tunes have sad undertones. The album recalls the gritty passion of the Alkaline Trio and the emotional roller-coaster ride of Weezer’s “blue album.”
Despite the full horn arrangements, it’s almost a minor detail that Everything Goes Numb is a ska record. There are no “pickitups” or “chh-chhs” or other clichés of the genre. This isn’t a record for mall kids with checkerboard backpacks; it’s music for a man trying to cope with difficult times, or a woman who turns to music to feel something real. And that’s exactly what sets the record apart from others: It feels real.
“We’re a lot more serious than other bands in this genre,” observed Streetlight Manifesto’s singer and guitarist, Tomas Kalnoky, in a recent e-mail interview. “We’re not singing about girls and breakups and stuff.”
Ska, as a genre, is primarily known for its happy, upbeat rhythms and not necessarily for emotional depth or profound lyrical content. Ska started as dance music for disaffected, working-class youths of Jamaica in the 1960s. Ska’s second wave hit England in the 1980s, when unemployment was high, and dole queues were long, with bands like Madness and the Specials leading the revival. In the mid-1990s, third-wave ska bands like Goldfinger and Save Ferris were radio staples, but they rarely touched on subject matter any more serious than No Doubt’s grrl-power hit “Just A Girl.”
“In the ’90s, a lot of [ska] was throwaway music,” recalled Kalnoky. “The subjects were too light and … too repetitive. Nowadays, the big thing is writing about girls. … I don’t really want to be part of that.”
Instead, Everything focuses on interpersonal conflict, death, isolation and loneliness. In the song “A Better Place, A Better Time” Kalnoky laments, “The saddest day I came across was when I learned that life goes on without me.” “Here’s To Life” is an ode to Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. Although both of those authors’ lives ended too soon, the song declares, “I draw the line at suicide, so here’s to life!”
“We are trying to definitely focus on different themes and keep it more serious, because we’ve all grown,” said Kalnoky. “We all still love ska, by all means, but we’re older now, and we have older themes.”
The members of Streetlight Manifesto did a lot of growing in other bands before forming this one in 2002. Half of Streetlight Manifesto helped found Catch 22 in the late 1990s but left after recording that band’s remarkable debut CD Keasbey Nights. Catch 22 continues to tour and release albums and has been successful by all measures. However, Streetlight Manifesto’s debut CD definitely surpasses Keasbey in passion and urgency—something that all of Catch 22’s subsequent releases have failed to do.
Kalnoky hesitated, though, at the suggestion that Streetlight Manifesto has taken ska to the next level. “That’s probably a little too grandiose,” he said. “I wouldn’t say ‘taking it to another level’ but just shooting off to the side of it. … I’m not going to sit here and make it like we’re inventing a whole new sound or whatever. We’re just taking all of our influences and our whole background and mixing them with some of the serious things that are going on in our adult lives now.”