Suburban Rhythm is an innovative, indefinable band from the 1990's that unfortunately never released an album. My friend Alex lent me their only recording ever, a 17-song CD, which combined the eleven songs they recorded in the studio during their numerous attempts to record an album, five live songs, and one poorly-recorded, unnamed song, which is unaccredited on the case.

Alex had been lucky enough to find it at “some obscure SKA show,” which is about the only way you will get your hands on this recording.

When Alex told me about them, I immediately recognized the band name from a Reel Big Fish song of the same name, but I never realized what the song was about before I heard about the band: “What ever happened to Suburban Rhythm?/Why did Ed and Scott quit?/Pleas don't go, Suburban Rhythm./All the other bands are just shit.”

When he told me about them, Alex described their sound as SKA-esque, but with some jazz thrown in. He mentioned organs, and a slightly 80’s sound. It didn’t exactly sound like my cup of tea, but I took the CD and promised to listen to it, if only to placate him.

I brought it home and, as I so often do, played it in the background as I read and did my homework. I didn’t pay much attention to the music, but I heard organs and some pretty heavy bass. The third song started with a riff on a xylophone that made me feel like I was at a carnival. It caught my attention, if only because I found it to be slightly annoying. But then the guitar and bass kicked in, and suddenly there was an intricate layering of sounds rounded off by an excellently played second guitar part. I looked to see the name of the song: “Coming Out Of The Woodwork.” I pictured termites or something of that ilk, but then I heard the chorus, an explosion of guitar and funk-bass with the lyrics “I guess I’m just blind/To this hatred we call the racist crime.”

Suddenly, they had my ear. How could a song that sounded so silly at first possibly be dealing with something as serious as racism? I listened more closely to the lyrics: “You can see them coming out of the woodwork/In the guise of unity/But if blood must be spilled so that it won’t be mixed/Then so it must be.”

Suburban Rhythm was no longer a ridiculous bastard group with meaningless lyrics, like so much SKA and Jazz; they were a serious band with a voice. They had some sophisticated irony here. I was sold.

I started the CD over and listened to the songs more closely. Even songs like “Lust” and “18-Inch Ruler” had a message of some kind, and they were all very skillfully written.

In “Lust,” which incorporates an organ and an absurd little saxophone tune during the bridge, the guys in Suburban Rhythm very accurately capture this universal feeling in a somewhat whimsical way, but still manage to maintain their integrity and seriousness as a band.

“18-Inch Ruler” deals with the issue of discipline and punishment in such an amusing and endearing way, partly due to the clever use of detail in the lyrics. “One day my momma made me mad/So I pissed on all her flowers/It made me feel like I was getting even/Felt like I had power/...When I came home from doing things that were considered wrong/They gave me wooden discipline/That’s why I wrote this song.” The lyrics in their songs have an intelligence that is simply not present in most contemporary music.

The subtle organ behind the powerful bass, an arrangement that runs through most of their songs, adds a strong element to the would-be predictable SKA guitar. Each musician in the band plays with his own unique style; each also plays a certain genre, for the most part. When they all come together, the result is a sound unlike anything you have ever heard.

The clever lyrics and crazy screams of the vocalist also make their songs unique. He has a voice one would not equate with any one style of singing. He has a deep baritone sound and a quality that I cannot accurately describe, except to say that it is a mix of falsetto and vibrato, if that is even possible. The freneticism of his singing sometimes seems almost appropriate for hardcore, except that he sings with a much more melodious sound than most hardcore singers.

Whenever he sings, he sounds as though he is letting the listener in on some kind of inside joke. He appears to be amused by himself, even when chanting lines like, “It doesn’t matter/You’re not human anyway.”

As someone who tends to notice the quality of the singer’s voice before the words, I found myself quite pleased with both aspects when listening to Suburban Rhythm. Unlike some SKA and punk bands in which the singing is often played down, the singer in Suburban Rhythm obviously knows what he is doing.

Probably my favorite studio song on this CD is “My Sister Sam.” It starts with one of the strong bass licks that are a staple of this band. The drums come in next, playing what sounds like a sped-up military march, followed by a suitable electric guitar intro, full of fast fingering and expert picking. The vocalist screams, and the song breaks into full effect; piano, slap bass, SKA and rock guitar, rock beats on the drums, and hardcore vocals all combine into a mass of what should sound terrible, but in reality makes for one of the best and most surprising cuts on this CD.

The juxtaposition of one song to the next is interesting to say the least. One song ending with the line, “You didn’t want me, girl/And now you’re dead,” is followed immediately by a song that begins with, “Oh, I wish that life was like a game show/ I could use my smarts and my intelligence.”

While some bands may have the same kind of variety, the amount of range displayed on this album is a truly admirable feat.

I can’t remember the whole history of Suburban Rhythm, but essentially what happened to them was members kept quitting, and at some point partway through the recording of their first album, they decided that if any more founding members quit, they would have to break up the band because the original sound would have been too watered down. It was a short time after this that Ed (the original bassist) and Scott (the replacement guitarist) quit due to the cliché “creative differences” that break up so many bands. Regrettably, the group stayed true to their agreement and separated.

In their prime, Suburban Rhythm was an unbelievably innovative, groundbreaking band. But they broke up before they ever had a chance at their much-deserved fame. Now, the only way one can even hope to hear this brilliant hybrid of SKA, jazz, rock and roll, and 80’s pop is the way my friend Alex did: by going to an “obscure SKA show,” and just happening to find this CD in a basket behind one of the sale tables. Or, like me, you can have a friend who does it all for you.

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