For some listeners, this alone may seem a sufficient review, but that would be based on the narrow assumption that all ska bands sound the same. Sure, The Big News thrives on genre tropes, but its utter enthusiasm, original songs, and musical choices do plenty to make the group stand out rather than be washed over in ska punk genericism.
Have You Heard? is the debut full-length album from the Norman group. Clocking in at under 30 minutes with eight fast and fun tracks, it makes the smart choice of keeping the experience brisk and the sound consistently upbeat throughout. A longer runtime might have pressured the band to insert token slow songs or otherwise vary the flow to avoid monotony. As it stands, it's a nonstop party that satisfies -- or perhaps emboldens -- every skanking urge that may consciously or unconsciously rest in the listener's bones.
The album begins on a distorted guitar part, which is quickly joined by an eager bass line and a prominently featured horn section. One of ska's trademark characteristics is clean, rhythmic guitar hits on the upbeat, but The Big News doesn't use it here and employs it sparingly throughout the rest of the album. Later, in the chorus of the opening track, the lead vocalist is accompanied by collective male shouts from his bandmates on certain lines. The song ends on this note, with the music wrapping up to leave a brief, casually out of tune vocal punctuation from the band.
What this establishes is that the band knows when to be clean and when to be rough. Have You Heard? strives to be a good time, and a good time is often a blend of both. The emphasis on rock guitar gives the music an edge that sets well against the mostly crisp horn arrangements. The tempos tend to be on the quick side, too, which subtly affect's the band's precision but keeps them on their feet for more energetic performances. Meanwhile, the lead vocals maintain a certain slacker integrity, clear and on pitch without any attempts at harmony or embellishment.
All of this makes especially good sense in the context of anthems like "I Hate Sundays" and "Quit My Job Today." The former is a fun riff on liquor law in Oklahoma, while the latter boasts the lyrics "Ain't got no money, but I still got bills to pay....and there ain't no way that I'm ever going back again." Both are standouts if only for their immediate, tangible topics.
The other songs seem to be about relationships and friendships to a certain extent, but there is clearly a self-reflecting element to them. "P.R.S.M.L." mentions "I'm not as cool as I once was, and I'm not as cool as you think," and "Loganio" signs off with "I like to get drunk" before a guitar solo carries the song out.
One highlight here is "Joke's on You," which is only unconvincing with the line "I hate it has to be this way." The song plays as scorned glee, perhaps even vengeful in its own incarnation. Biting words fill out much of the rest of the lyrics between a collectively shouted chorus of "The joke is on you a-ay." Upbeat swing time gives the track an extra layer of sarcasm. Its moderate tempo also gives the band a chance to explore other arrangements less feasible in faster tunes. The trombone, saxophone, and trumpet parts, for instance, break out of unison at times to pass melodic focus around, and the pleasant opening guitar riff stretches comfortably across the first half minute of the song.
Speaking of jokes, the band seems to have a running one with regard to the lead story on its faux newspaper cover art, which reads, "The Goatfish Strikes Again!" Stay tuned after the album for a brief skit that explains this headline and how it somehow relates to one of the album's songs. Actually, it doesn't explain anything at all, but it's a fun, hokey listen nonetheless. It will also make the live show presence of the Goatfish plastered across the drummer's kick drum feel like an in-joke for concert attendees.
The Big News may not transcend the genre it so lovingly purveys, but Have You Heard? is a great record in the context for which it's designed. It's a must-hear for ska fans and a worthy spin for the unaccustomed.
Have You Heard? is available on Bandcamp, iTunes, and presumably every other online music outlet for a mere $4.99.