Hippos Not Extinct

There's a story about how the Hippos formed, the best part of which is that Danny Rukasin (trombone, keyboards, backing vocals) and Rich Zanhiser (keyboards, backing vocals, trombone) were, according to their bio, “drafted from jazz camp.”

Jazz camp! Just think about it—the brochure with grainy photos of bunk beds and tumbleweeds and musical instruments. Imagine the bus ride out to jazz camp. Imagine the TV movie starring members of tired family sitcoms (Urkel, definitely Urkel). Imagine the girls' jazz camp across the lake. It's simply too much! And it's true! It's so great because it hearkens back to that innocent pastoral childhood no one had, the one depicted in all those nostalgic 1980s teen movies, the one suggested by the wistful lyrics and smooth, summery melodies of the Hippos, whose six members are barely out of their teens themselves.

“Let's just say this out loud: the Hippos are a party band,” says the aforementioned bio, as if this is something edgy and different. A band that doesn't bore you with politics! A band that just wants you to have a good time! A band that won't preach to you and just writes honest lyrics about what it knows!

Come on, public-relations people, this is every band these days. Popular music long ago turned its back on trying to inspire anything in the listener other than a feeling of being entertained, and, unlike politically charged traditional or two-tone ska, the third-wave ska scene, from which the Hippos spring, has almost always been about escape, about circumscribing a little area where you can go and feel relief from the pressures of coming of age—which, don't get me wrong, is an important function of music.

With all the zany keyboard madness, it would be easy to write the Hippos off as just a party band, but there's more promise here. The lyrics generally follow the geek ne'er-do-well formula (“Why do you treat me oh so badly, oh so cruel/ I'm just a good boy needs a good girl, someone cool,” from “Pollution” on Heads Are Gonna Roll), but every now and then, they dig something a little deeper. On “Paulina,” a quirky Dixieland-jazz-influenced number from the same album, singer Ariel Rechtshaid elucidates adolescent game playing: “It's just a game to take the spotlight off of me/I'm just afraid of what you might think. . . . Paulina, you know this isn't me/I've been dishonest; now it's time to come clean.” Throughout the album, the Hippos, who formed in Van Nuys four years ago, reveal a vulnerability that puts you on their side.

So what of third-wave ska, then? With the popularity of bands like No Doubt and Sublime as proof of its possibilities, it was supposed to explode into the Next Big Thing. That didn't quite happen, not to the degree everyone expected, so it was then seen as a fire that burned brightly but would extinguish itself. Ska's quick death was predicted again and again, in this very newspaper even. Judging from the popularity of the Hippos, among others, third-wave ska is still alive and well, and there is still an audience for it. “The genre's been around for 40 years,” says Vince Pileggi, manager of ska bands Reel Big Fish and Let's Go Bowling. “It'll never completely go away.”

The Hippos perform with Rx Bandits and New Found Glory at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 469-5800. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $12.50. All ages.

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