After ten-plus years of party grooves, label woes, and too many shows to count, Less Than Jake's Chris (vocals/guitar), Roger (vocals/bass), Vinnie (drums/lyrics), Buddy (trombone), and JR (saxophone) put everything they learned into Anthem. And what's old is new again. The band reissued its spiny font, but it also returned to the major-label ranks (this time with Warner Bros.), and hired hit-making producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day's Dookie, etc.) to tweak its tried-and-true formula of effervescent pop/rock punk-ska. The result is a hooky, heady collection of heartfelt postcards from the future that LTJ's youthful fan base has to look forward to. While Cavallo and mixer Tom Lord-Alge have certainly tightened Anthem's hooks, all the crunchy major chords and soaring choruses have a tendency to crowd out the band's ska influences and relegate its horn section to support status. While "Look What Happened" does employ JR and Buddy's considerable talents to the song's plaintive melody, and "The Science of Selling Yourself Short" is a bouncing, sunlit reggae rocker, the majority of Anthem is devoted to energizing punk sermons on booze, pals, and a youth wasted on empty wishes and "weeks of weekends" (from the single "She's Gonna Break Soon"). It's as if Less Than Jake is apologizing to itself for all the mistakes it made, while at the same time warning the listener about what not to do. All the lyrical soul-searching and sloganeering make eerie bedfellows for some of the hookiest material the band has ever written. But this also adds much needed character to songs that in younger hands might be earnest, yet empty-headed (see Sum 41 as an example).
"Short Fuse Burning" rocks the stuttering guitar line of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" over a double-step melodic hardcore rhythm. "They are sleepwalking their way through life," laments the painting that accompanies "The Upwards War and the Down Turned Cycle" (each of Anthem's tracks features a complementary work by a unique artist). The song doesn't offer much hope, but its unadorned realism is welcome in a genre that's too often vapid. The horn section makes a triumphant return for "Best Wishes to Your Black Lung," and makes the song the closest thing Anthem ever gets to the third-wave ska leanings of LTJ's earlier material. Some longtime fans of the group will undoubtedly dislike Anthem, and declare it to be a volley lobbed at mainstream acceptance. These naysayers have a point, as the presence of Cavallo's Midas touch proves. But they'll likely miss the larger message of Anthem, which is truly driven home with the album's final word, a bonus cover of one of the all-time classic anthems, Cheap Trick's "Surrender." The song's penultimate moment, when the teenaged narrator discovers that his parents are cooler than he is, in Less Than Jake's hands becomes a warning for a new generation of kids. Surrender to your dreams, they seem to suggest, but don't let your dreams carry you away. It's a lesson driven home over 40 minutes of soul-searching and bittersweet recollection that nevertheless rocks with major-league efficiency.