Every so often in the underground music scene, a record label will come along and completely dominate the market with one successful release after another. Some of these labels become so dependable that fans go on to purchase anything that is released by them, simply by virtue of their reputation. In the early and mid 90’s, that label was Epitaph Records, and today it is No Sleep Records. When I was in high school, that label was Drive Thru Records.
Remember, kiddies, that this was the late 90’s and pre-iTunes, so finding new bands consisted of such strategies as mail order catalogs from labels, zines, and thank you lists in the covers of your favorite albums. Finding new bands required a lot more effort when there was no Pandora, Wikipedia, or Spotify, and the fact that there was a label you could count on for releasing good music saved a lot of time and effort. Of course, even the best of labels will have their misses (who signed off on Allister?), but for the most part, Drive Thru was a powerhouse that would lead the way for kids like me for about ten straight years. There are more than a handful of Drive Thru albums that played in the soundtrack of my youth, but for the sake of this series, I will be narrowing that long list of great albums to the five that resonated with me the most and tickled my fancy in particularly profound ways.
This week, I’ll be talking about the “début” album of ska band RX Bandits, Halfway Between Here and There. I put the word début in quotes because the band actually had another album before this one, called Those Damn Bandits, but it was released under the name Pharmaceutical Bandits. Actually, HBHAT was first released under this name as well, until Geffin picked the band up and they re-released the album with a new track order and the new (shortened) name, RX Bandits.
Growing up in the Orange County ska scene gave me a ton of chances to see RXB play small shows and become mildly acquainted with the members. When I say mildly acquainted, I mean I talked to the band multiple times at their shows and at other local shows they attended. Please don’t picture me playing Parcheesi with Matt Embree and his folks at their Sunday night family dinner or anything. But man, that would be awesome. Sigh. Anyway, the lead up to the release of HBHAT was really exciting for me as a fan, because I had been hearing the band play these songs for months at their shows – most notably ‘Metal Man.’ I remember talking with my buddies at school before the release, saying: “I can’t wait to have a copy of ‘Metal Man’ on CD, so I can listen to it whenever I want.” Yes, this is pure music nerdery. Yes, my conversations with my friends were always this riveting.
As expected, HBHAT was a great sophomore effort and it blew away my expectations of what the band was capable of (a few years later, the band would do it to me again with Progress, but that’s another conversation for another day). HBHAT took the ska sound of Those Damn Bandits (a decent album, though lacking in maturity) and took it to the next level with much improved song writing, better production, and a few twists and turns to make it a bit more interesting. In hindsight, the album is very aptly named, and it makes me wonder if the band knew what it had in its future: sonically, it truly is halfway between here (Those Damn Bandits) and there (Progress, and beyond). The album is in a constant state of push-and-pull, balancing the band’s history with its future.
Album opener ‘What If?’ is a great look into what the band would become in their later albums. What makes this song (and RXB in general) so great is their use of shifting dynamics and melody. Remembering back to when this album was released, ska was on its way out and most bands were distancing themselves from the genre. Some bands went the punk route and made their horns almost non-existent (remember Less Than Jake?), others did it by going the indie-rock/power-pop route (I know I am the only one that remembers The Hippos). RXB made a very unique choice of spicing up the original course, and ‘What if?’ is evidence of this. If a song is built around strong melodies and crafty riffs, the horns can be added as another ingredient to the song – not unlike a lemon squeezed on top of a delicious piece of salmon – rather than the horns providing the meat of the song. ‘What If?’ is a great example of RXB doing just that.
‘Gun In Your Hand’ is another stellar track with RXB using their phenomenal songwriting skills to fool you into enjoying a ska song. In fact, this song is probably the most progressive on the album and the most representative of what the band would eventually become – especially when the political content in the lyrics is considered. On ‘Cornered,’ the band once again show off their dynamics, as they transform a slow(ish) ska/reggae song into a full-throttle rocker. I should also mention that these songs show that the band is more than just the one trick pony of Embree: the rhythm section, comprised of drummer Chris Tsagakis and bassist Franz Worth, is outstanding on these more progressive songs.
As mentioned before, the album struggles between RXB’s ska roots and where they clearly wanted to go. For every ‘What If?’, ‘Gun In Your Hand,’ and ‘Cornered,’ there are songs like ‘Ten Seconds Never Seemed So Long,’ ‘Wrong With Me,’ and ‘This Time,’ waiting around a corner to bash you in the head with a ska-infused shovel. The funny thing is that not only does this weird dichotomy exist on the album, but the styles literally go back and forth. Let me display the track listing with a simple “old” or “new” marking to distinguish between their older style and the new one they were creating.
1. What If? – New
2. Ten Seconds…- Old
3. Gun In Your Hand – New
4. Wrong With Me – Old
5. Cornered – New
6. Now or Never – Old
7. This Time – Old
8. Lost – New
9. Andrea – New
10. Walk Away – Old
11. Metal Man – Neither/Or both (still can’t decide)
Eerie, no? And in spite of this strange stylistic waltz, some of the best moments (or at least this writer’s favorites) are littered amongst the old school ska songs on the album. My absolute favorite point on the album is on ‘Now or Never,’ a song heavily nurtured by the band’s ska roots. The first half of the song is very pedestrian, featuring the band’s classic ska sound without too much excitement. About halfway through, the song takes a turn towards Heavy Town in the form of a weird bridge that features Link 80 vocalist, Ryan Noble. At least I think that’s who it is, and I can’t find a reference anywhere on the interwebs. That little bridge carries a fairly heavy edge; something that is pretty out of the ordinary on HBHAT. From there on out, the song takes on a different shape, and even features some screams by Embree.
Ultimately, HBHAT was, and is, a superb album that spawned RX Bandit’s phenomenal career, while also helping Drive Thru Records plant themselves in the hearts of fans everywhere. It was albums such as this that helped Drive Thru gain fans in their early years. Although it’s not an album that I listen to on a regular basis, it was a staple in my collection throughout the early years of high school, and it will remain a solid part of my memories of that time in my life.