The compact disc is crucial to our understanding of the ’90s phenomenon of alternative rock. Many of us between the ages of 24 and 34 who grew up in American suburbs remember going to Target and checking out the CD section. Every Sunday morning, I’d look at the ads for which CDs were for sale, particularly which alternative rock band I was going to add to my collection. I found out about Rage Against the Machine, Garbage, Thursday, the Ataris, New Found Glory, Nirvana, Taking Back Sunday, Alanis Morissette and also, importantly, Sublime, not from attending a punk rock DIY basement show but by picking up a CD at Target on a Tuesday after school.
Sublime embodied a ’90s cocktail of dub, ska and alternative rock. In May 1996, the band’s beloved lead singer, Bradley Nowell, died of a heroin overdose, but that would not be the sunset of Sublime. The band’s Eric Wilson (bass) and Bud Gaugh (drums) went on to form the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, and then, in 2009, Gaugh and Wilson joined twenty-year-old Rome Ramirez to form Sublime with Rome.
On Sirens, the group’s second album after 2011’s Yours Truly, Sublime with Rome calls upon similar reggae and alt-rock rhythms, and the lyrics stick with an accessible, outdoor music festival/surf music vibe. When you hear this music, you think of how many end-of-summer college boys are at the Santa Monica pier with a Coors Light and Sublime with Rome piping in their headphones. But Sublime with Rome leans heavily on Sublime’s laurels. Let’s face it, this band would not have the same opportunities or share of the limelight if it were not for its predecessor.
“Sirens” is my favorite song on the album. It has a vibe similar to that of “Santeria,” a radio hit from Sublime’s star-crossed, self-titled third album (1996), but the lyric “… even when the police try to fight us, you gon’ hear me singing like a siren” is a good message, a big improvement on the misogyny of “Santeria,” which had that line that said “slap her down.” Sirens’ first single, “Wherever You Go,” brings together a lot of the overall sound and feel of the record: a typical American male reggae vibe meets an alternative rock bass line with a story about a girl, a story so simple and unpretentious that it borders on unsophistication. “Wherever You Go” attempts a simile with “I wanna be bad with you, girl, like we’re robbing a bank/I wanna be mad at the world like it took you away.” Two things about that: 1) I don’t know any girl who could give him such a feeling of badness or madness and 2) dude needs a hobby.
“Put Down Your Weapon” and “Skankin” do boast some diversity in the vocal rhythms and horn lines. The vocals in “Put Down Your Weapon” are darker and more somber, while “Skankin” (adapted from Fishbone’s “Skankin’ to the Beat”) ignites a summer-festival-in-the-woods vibe.
There is something remarkable about Rome Ramirez joining the band, barely out of his teens, and the band soon thereafter making records and performing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. That required some serious skanking magic. Then again, Beverly Hills 90210 did come back with a bang, and the movie Clueless is constantly being remade into new memes and memories, so why not Sublime? Nostalgia for the ’90s is emotional for me; it’s why I still like Hot Topic. I wanted Sublime with Rome to pass the ’90s nostalgia test so badly, but it just doesn’t. Sometimes the passage of time can erode something’s emotional appeal, and instead of trying to be something new, Sublime with Rome is too dependent on nostalgia for Sublime.
I know the point of Sublime with Rome is probably not to provide cutting-edge poetry that is empathetic with my feelings. For that, I’ll just blast “Santeria,” misogynistic lyrics and all. But Siren does achieve a meager but palpable effect: a Pacific-Coast-Highway-in-mid-August feeling combined with the image of buff hunks skanking with glee. If that’s your thing, go for it.