The Phantom Tollbooth

Fourth from the Last
Artist: The W’s
Label: 5 Minute Walk/SaraBellum Records
Producer: Masaki
Time: 46:24/12 Tracks

In yet another contemporary swingster offering, The W's have concocted an album that owes more to other hip hit-makers climbing the current Billboard charts than your Granddaddy-O's swing. The result is a youth group's "Christian alternative" to bands like The Cherry Poppin' Daddies or the Royal Crown Revue and even the more ska-focused Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The W's swing-core is a similar sound owing some comparisons to these bands. The difference, of course, is The W's music is coupled mostly with distinctively Christian messages.

The current ska movement is giving way to more swing influenced fare, and commendably The W's are right there to make it happen. The horns are the real highlight. Bret Barker a.k.a Smiley plays the trumpet; James Carter a.k.a Yabbo plays the alto sax; Val Hellman a.k.a. Valentino plays the tenor sax and the clarinet. Together they form the horn-heavy core of this swinging mix. More horns would be more powerful, but these three fellows blow a brash, upbeat and catchy cacophony. Brian Morris a.k.a. Nigel on drums and Todd Gruener a.k.a. Rodd W. on bass throw down an adequately relentless rhythm. Both of them also present moments of truly inspired boogie, without being overly showy. A careful listen to the slippery bass lines shows a fondness for funk. Andrew Schar a.k.a. Little A uses his guitar primarily as a rhythm instrument as well, jangling and riffing along the beats, but staying out of the mix's focus. Schar also doubles as the vocalist, but sounds like he'd be more at home in an MxPx or even Supertones type band than in full-swing mode. He's no Frank Sinatra and he knows it, yet he does his best to try different singing styles to varying degrees of success. Overall, the band sounds like they are having a blast playing their post-punk pop mix of swing- influenced ditties that aren't over reaching to prove their musical skills--this party was made for sock-hopping. Skanking is more in order than, say, the cha-cha. Skid-il-ly-doo!

In a move that makes no sense, the former Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, now known as Lifeway Christian Resources, has pulled Fourth from the Last from their stores's CD bins in a reported move to "remove objectionable products." Their objection: the verboten use of words like "suck" and "butt." Five Minute Walk's response that "This is true, but we aren't dwelling on it. We believe that (The W's) are relevantly relating with their generation" is correct. Lyrically, The W's offer a whole batch of songs geared toward adolescent and twenty-something concerns in commonly accepted vernacular. None of the songs are overly clever or deeply profound, but these messages, drawn in part from scripture and simple observations of life from a Christian perspective, are precisely what parents wish their young people were filling their heads with rather than the more sexually explicit content subjected on their swinging or skanking peers. Maybe the fact that Billboard charted this album at #4 with over 9,000 scans resulting in the highest debut of an EMI Christian Music Group project proves that young people don't really care what the LCR says.  Sales are up. The party continues. Grab your guy or gal and hit the dance floor!

This is not to say that the album is without more curious attributes. The song "Pup," for example, details the experience of an obsessed stalker who enters his girlfriend's home after dark under the pretense of feeding her pooch. It's not likely that some "Charles Mansonish" listener will use this song in a "Helter Skelter" type fashion, especially since the perpetrator is caught in this case. Another song, "J.P.," goes too far, perhaps, when it names the person receiving the message, "Why don't you just grow up?" Lastly, the chorus of "The Devil is Bad" is reminiscent of DeGarmo & Key's "God Good, Devil Bad," and could prove appropriate fodder for another Swirling Eddies Sacred Cow lambaste:

Regardless of the song's lyrical triteness, it is one of the most fun tracks on a fun album. By contrast, in a rare turn at the lyrical helm, the bass player provides some of the more interesting and better constructed lyrics in "Dexter," a first hand account of odd incidents in a small town: Further displaying their spirit of frivolity, the secret track is an intentionally cheesy-sounding ode to both label mate Five Irony Frenzy and their label, Five Minute Walk Records. Another track, "Alarm Clock," ends with raspberries that could be misconstrued as tooting--which would surely send the Baptists packing even faster. They'd be more comfortable with "Moses," a simple Sunday School lesson on God's ability to use people great or small. The real highlights, however, include the album opener, "Open Minded," which has the most inspired horn-playing on the album, and "Frank," which humorously tells the tale of a contractor hell-bent on destroying the band.

Deep theological insights are obviously lacking, as is great poetry, but overall the lyrics aren't shamefully embarrassing, and the music is consistently enjoyable. Despite a fair diversity in the songs sounds, there is a sameness to the entire record that will prevent this from ever becoming a classic--something their sophomore effort might avoid. Nevertheless, The W's Fourth from the Last  is fun stuff played well. It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it. Dick Clark says:

By Steven Stuart Baldwin a.k.a. "Dick Clark" (9/23/98)

The sight of trumpets and saxophones at rock concerts don’t send audiences into shock anymore. It sends them into fits of skanking, because brass has become so closely associated with ska in the recent Christian music scene. The muted trumpet and clarinet of The W’s opening track, however, put listeners on notice that this is not their big brother’s ska. This fledgling group from Oregon had a lot of fun figuring out what else you can do with wind instruments in popular music, and ultimately settled on a sound that will probably be known forevermore as “Christian Swing.” “Swing-core” may be more accurate, though, because like their labelmates Five Iron Frenzy, they place themselves firmly in the '90s with their lyrics and punk backbeats. Dance instructors may cringe, but the result is a lively CD soon to become a fixture at Christian skates, sock hops, and weddings.

By Linda T. Stonehocker (8/18/98)