For more than a decade, party-hungry punk rock fans have been turning to Less Than Jake for churning guitars, pogo melodies, bleating horns and kooky lyrics.
With their sixth studio album, Anthem, Less Than Jake continue to deliver loud, bouncy, brass-embellished songs, but they've cut back on the silliness, balancing jubilance with sobering lyrics about apathy, sexual tension, suicide and the dangers of self-indulgence.
"It's just not time for a joke record," said drummer and songwriter Vinnie, who is now clean after many years of self-abuse. "There are a lot of things that are heavy going on, so releasing a joke record would be an injustice to a few people I know that have had a hard year — whether it was a friend of mine dying from an overdose or a good friend going through a divorce. And nationally speaking, we've dealt with war and economics and the aftermath of 9-11. It was time to get serious."
The first single, "She's Gonna Break Soon," is a punchy, upbeat cut about a friend of Vinnie's who was comfortable with her life in high school, then went away to college and felt like an outsider.
"She left home, left her boyfriend and struggled to try to fit in," Vinnie said. "It's about going out on Friday night to drink to forget, to try to move on to different boys, and being sort of played in those sorts of situations that alcohol and chasing the opposite sex create."
After the song runs its course, Less Than Jake will follow with "The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out," a folk-punk number featuring Billy Bragg, one of Vinnie's idols.
"Billy Bragg is the f---ing sh--," he gushed. "For people who fawn over Dashboard Confessional and Onelinedrawing, if you want to know where the heart of a true heartfelt acoustic love song is, man, that's f---ing Billy Bragg. Besides being the father of the emotional love song, which he's amazing at, he's also the father of political punk."
Though the experience of making "The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out" with Bragg was a dream come true for Vinnie, the song is about one of the biggest nightmares of his life.
"A friend of mine overdosed when we were making our last record, Borders & Boundaries," he said. "He left me a note and he left his parents a note, and then he killed himself. That was really hard for me, and on this record I finally got over that hump and over the hump of abusing alcohol and drugs. It was really cathartic ... and now I feel like a brighter future is ahead."
After he curbed his hedonistic revelry, Vinnie found he had a lot more time on his hands, and he vowed not to waste it. So instead of banging out an album of similar-sounding tracks, he and his bandmates worked intently to make sure no two of their 28 new songs sounded too much alike.
"My biggest thumbs down to punk rock is that so many bands release albums where every song is interchangeable. We wanted to retain what Less Than Jake sounds like but take each individual song and evoke a mood and make it the best song possible."
Fourteen songs made the cut for Anthem, and the rest will be released later this year on two EPs. The idea of releasing a double CD was never raised. "We're doing punk rock," Vinnie explained. "It's candy. It should be digested quickly. It's not this epic thing like Zeppelin or Smashing Pumpkins."
In addition to writing and shaping the songs, Vinnie put together artwork for Anthem and commissioning painters and cartoon artists to create representations of each song for the liner notes (click to see the album art). Among those who contributed were experimental artist Jason Miracle, cartoonist Mitch O'Connell and commercial artist Chip Wass.
"That was the ultimate for me because I'm a big fan of art," Vinnie said. "Having people I respect in different genres create work that surrounds our record was a real honor. Things have been really cool lately. They've definitely changed for the better."