Intro: My Planet Smashers fandom was one of few holdovers from my first epic fail relationship. It wasn’t until I was exposed to them by way of a rather crazy live performance in 1997 (involving a saxophonist touring a bar by walking precariously across unstable tabletops), during my university days that I even took notice or cared about ska music. The Smashers, for the next few years, were then very much a University band, but their pop-ska ditties were completely infectious and I’ve followed them since the release of their second album. I even attended a gig earlier this decade in Toronto, witnessing the fact that the band may have aged (just as I had) but their fan base actually got younger, the skank pit was populated by adorable teenage children in their rebellion clothes. But ever since then, even before acquiring their sixth release in 2005, I’ve had this weird feeling that the Smashers were either to old to be doing what they’re doing, or that I’m too old to pay attention.
The Smashers emerged out of the “third wave” of ska in the early 1990’s, and it’s fully their humorous, almost comedic repertoire that solidified their popularity. Matt Collyer (lead vocals, guitar) and Dave Cooper are the only original members to see through all five albums, which were released on Collyer-founded Stomp Records, the major player in the Canadian ska scene.
Here I’m going to revisit four Planet Smashers albums (excluding their first, which I have on vinyl), examining how I feel about the band and each successive album.
Attack of the Planet Smashers (1997)
Embracing the sci-fi-ness of their band name, the album’s cover and titular introductory track are full-on SF in their nature, although they sadly (perhaps wisely?) don’t go full bore into a theme album. From the first album, Attack… is much better produced, with clear, vibrant sound, the instruments and vocals leveled and balanced. There’s also more complicated arrangements with the sax and trombone, bass and drums, although the “chuka-chuka” guitar is ever-present, the constant in almost all Planet Smashers songs. Despite the “chuka-chuka”, the Smasher manage to show surprising versatility and variation in their tunes, frequently verging on surf. The sound is still stripped down in some respects, especially compared to what comes later, but Collyer’s vocals are audibly enthusiastic (you can hear his enjoyment of the songs in his voice). At this stage, Attack… is so familiar to me it’s almost impossible to be objective about it, but here it is: the rhymes are at times overly simplistic, the song matter often juvenile, and every so often things seem to go off key. And yet there are very few tracks here I don’t like (”Get out my baby”, “Dirty Old Man”), and some I still downright love.
Favourite track: “Uncle Gordie” (this should be playing at every Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena)
Life of the Party (1999)
A monolithic leap forward for the Smashers as their sound ventures further away from stripped-down carribean/pop into a more aggressive rock sound, stronger guitar presence, faster pacing, and more sing-along chants. The Smashers were always good at developing a catchy chorus, and often an infectious hook, but here they crank it up a notch. The title track is full-on rock, the Clash inspiration, and likely the developing Canadian alternative rock scene seeping deeper into their material. Collyer’s lyrics, while still fun move further away from jokester into some genuine sincerity, and the organization of the lyrics in tracks like “Shame” actually start getting complicated. “Too Much Attitude” is one of the few regressive tracks, but even it winds up becoming catchy the deeper into the song it gets. Many of the band’s best ever party tracks are here - “Life of the Party”, “Surfin In Tofino”, “Super Orgy Porno Party”, “Holiday” - and their non-party tracks developed into something more interesting than on previous albums. “Whining” is perhaps the album’s lowest point, as a song about annoying whining does get annoying itself, but the message is quite sharp. “No Matter What You Say” was their most mature song to that point, and also one of their longest, just over four minutes where most tracks barely make it past two. This album would seem to be the apex of the Smasher’s career, especially after No Self Control, their maligned fourth album, which no longer resides in my collection.
Favourite Track Super Orgy Porno Party
As damn good as Life Of The Party was, No Self Control completely fell beneath its shadow, too serious, its sound too divergent and I had to wonder if that was it for the Smashers. “Mighty” was a hesitant purchase (the fact that the cover design is unappealing and easily the worst they’ve done it had little shelf appeal), but it very quickly established itself as a much more mature, complex, and stimulating listen without being too stern or resorting to their earlier career juvenile lyricism. The opening track (again following the pattern of being the title track) seems more ska than any of their tracks before, and though it isn’t a party track, is completely infectious. “Explosive” is probably the poppiest track the Smashers have ever done, hand claps, keyboards set to organ and Neville Staple providing authentic reggae vox amidst a hooky refrain, and even the subject matter is message-y, a potent combination that just fails to fail. “Coconut Lounge”, the surf-ska song that follows, just gets under your skin, one of the band’s biggest sounding songs, which then transitions into the near-epic (not in legth but in sound) “J’Aime Ta Femme (I Like Your Girl)”, a humorous but clever track that at times (gasp) ditches the “chuka-chucka” for full on electric guitars, pulsating bass, an agressive drum beat, and playful horns. “Retribution” is smart with some great tempo shifts, while “Direction”, even if it missteps from time to time, still has some engaging aspects. “Keep On Coming” brings the pace, marginally, down a notch, but still is vibrant and active, which leads to the somewhat beautiful “Recollect” which is the most different Smashers track, once again abandoning the “chuka-chuka” at times, threatening to lose their membership in the ska-band association. “Can’t Stop” introduces the harmonica into their stable of sound, and threatens to enter “Sugar Ray” pop-music territory, “Opportunity” comes back into humorous ska track territory, but it manages to sound clever rather than silly, although “Psycho Neighbour” is a silly track (but also kind of intense since its so full sounding) yet utterly infectious. “The Big O”, is the band’s mandatory instrumental track, leading into “Girl In The Front Row”, a vivacious and catchy track, the organ here substituting for the “chuka-chuka” guitar, and the introduction of chimes… this album, though in many respects consistent with the Smashers repertoire, is all about diversity. “Objective” succeeds in traditional ska, while, “King of Tuesday Night” ventures bravely into, seriously, Weezer territory. “Until the End” seems like a brilliant cool-down closer to this 18-track album, until, almost out of nowhere, “Never Going To Drink Again” emerges as the ultimate bar chant, a hyperactively paced sudden rush of adrenalin. It’d be incredibly hard for the Smashers to top this, easily their most successful (creatively) and accessible album. It’s simply a great album which is still (pleasantly) holding up well six years on.
Favourite Song: “Psycho Neighbour”
Unstoppable, had it emerged before Mighty would have been a step up from No Self Control and a decent album, but following their masterpiece, it sounds extremely regressive, Collyer’s vocals sounding shakier than usual, and his lyrics at times painfully simplistic (listening to the other albums, his lyrics are often plain, but it’s so frequently masked by punchy, catchy songs and fun instrumentation). The title track is decent but of all their opening tracks (even “No Self Control”) it’s the least attention grabbing. “Bullets To The Ground” has a fine aggressive hook, but it’s one of those tracks where the rhymes are often cringe-worthy, “Do No Wrong” is frankly dull, sounding like an early track without the silly, fun lyrics. “Cool Your Jets” aims for smooth reggae and fails, while “Raise Your Glass” tries to recreate the bar chant style of “Never Gonna Drink Again” and doesn’t quite make it. “Here Come The Mods” has spark to it, but its too centered around the lyrics, and the instrumentation isn’t as crafty or evocative as it should be. “Giants”, “A Revolution Song” and “Police The Nation” all have missteps but generally show signs of life. The 14-track album ends with “Looking For A Cure”, an almost ballad that tries so hard but just can’t get to something that sounds meaningful but it’s simple strumming as back-up fails to inspire. This album just misses the mark at every turn, and I can only wonder if the shift in roster from Mighty impacted the advances they had made.
Favourite Song: Giants
As much as I like/love 2/3 of the Planet Smashers’ repertoire, I think I’m comfortable at this point in leaving them off the list of 33 (as detailed in “About me #116″). That they have been relatively invisible in the record production front for 4 years makes me wonder if perhaps they’ve dissolved (but a trip to their site shows they’re still performing, even playing the CNE this Summer)