Oral Surgery

Reconstructing Smash Mouth

You can hear the payoff from this strategy on the new No Doubt anthology, The Singles 1992-2003, 15 heady examples of pop-ska. You can hear it on the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' overlooked masterpiece, 2000's Pay Attention. You can hear it on "You're My Number One," the first single from Get the Picture? The song comes from Neil Diamond, that famous Rastaman who supplied "Red, Red Wine" to UB40 and "I'm a Believer" to Smash Mouth.

This time Smash Mouth joins one of its ska heroes, the English Beat's Ranking Roger, who adds some patois toasting to the authentic island groove nailed by bassist Paul DeLisle and drummer Michael Urbano. But Greg Camp can't resist adding sci-fi synth sounds on guitar and keys, and lead singer Steve Harwell can't resist the Brill Building giddiness of Diamond's original melody. The give and take between the pop and the ska is so volatile that the song appears twice -- as a ska-heavy track and as a pop-friendly "radio remix."

Smash Mouth benefits from a brave uncoupling of the singer-songwriter formula. At a time when songwriters with limited voices and vocalists with limited vocabularies insist on singing their own material, this group has adopted a more reasonable division of labor. Camp writes the songs, and Harwell sings them.

Don't hate them because they appeal to juveniles: Smash Mouth is the best bubblegum going.
Don't hate them because they appeal to juveniles: Smash Mouth is the best bubblegum going.

This is the best of both worlds, for Camp is a studio rat who spends hours cobbling together bits and pieces into ingenious hooks, while Harwell is a natural front man whose charisma and burly baritone blossom in the spotlight. So Camp crafts the infectious choruses for such new songs as "Whole Lotta Love," "Looking for a Wall" and "105," and then wisely turns them over to Harwell, who milks them for every drop of pleasure.

Don't let a bad case of hipness prevent you from partaking of such gratification. There's no reason to sacrifice 13-year-old pleasures as you add the experiences of being 19 or 26 or 37. After all, growing old should be a process of addition, not substitution.

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