SAFETY SECOND - Four Elements
CD - 1999 self-released review by visser
This local foursome from Marshalltown, Iowa established themselves in 1995 and have been together ever since. They have recorded a successful demo tape, which went very well. Now, finally, the much-anticipated CD has come out with almost a complete new set of songs! First off, I would like to say that Nick Beard (lead singer) is an outstanding songwriter. Before listening to this CD, you should take the time to read the lyrics, as they are all very meaningful with lots of issues and views. When first popping this CD into your CD player and listening to the first track, you may think they sound like a pretty good punk band. But keep on listening and you'll see that this band is more. These guys just don't only play catchy ska/punk with meaning, but they make you just want to join in singing!
Four Elements can be described as melodic punk with flavors of ska and sweet-laced guitar smothered all over it in just the right spots - it will make you want to do something! Get up! Move!! Whatever!! It's a very energetic CD, that will either have you on your feet movin' or singing along. Safety Second also uses a unique style that includes the fast punk rock of today with a 2-tone type of guitar and Jamaican toasting, which musically reminds me a lot of the Suicide Machines and Operation Ivy, but with their own unique twist. Overall, if you haven't heard of these local punks yet, I would definitely check them out! They are ready and talented enough to surpass the local scene and to start creating some fuss in the rest of the U.S. If I were a label, I would definitely be looking into these guys, before someone else does!!
Contact the band at http://pages.prodigy.net/cobrass/safetysecond.html
THE SCOFFLAWS - Record of Convictions
CD - 1998 Moon Records review by sharky
If for some reason the editor of the fine publication told me that there was space limitations and that I could only review this in one word, I would pick "Wow!". The Scofflaws released a great live album last year, but Record of Convictions is their first album with new material since their 1995 Ska in Hi-Fi. This album is much more like their first self-titled album than Ska in Hi-Fi - it has the poppier numbers, the slick keyboard lines, and the general fun of their first album.
One of the reasons I like the Scofflaws is that every song showcases every instrument without a long, drawn out solo from each member. Take their first track, "Show Band Anthem", the keyboard line is incredible, the guitar and bass parts are very funk driven, the horn line is tight and punchy, and the drums are right in line. But the best part is all the elements of the song are delivered at the same time, so you can enjoy the full sound of the band.
Every track sounds fantastic. The Buford O'Sullivan song "I Can't Decide" from the Skankaholics Unanimous compilation has been juiced up on this disc, played a little bit faster and with a heavier guitar part. "Soul Twist" is a very slick cover of a '60's soul instrumental. "In The Basement" is already earmarked to become another staple in the Scofflaws' live show. In the grand tradition of the Scofflaws covering movie themes (i.e. "Pee Wee's Big Adventure"), Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is given the Scofflaws treatment. "On Hold With Quackie" is just a manic instrumental. The track "College Student" hits a little too close to home for this particular reviewer with lyrics like: "College student sits alone in his room/His mind is blown from too little sleep/Supposed to learn the meaning of life/He wondering what he should do now". My only wish for you , dear reader, is that some day you have a record of convictions as swell as the Scofflaws.
SECRET CAJUN BAND - Big House
CD/Tape - 1994 Razor Boy Records
review by megan
A slightly-better-than-average "local band" release, Big House is upbeat ska from Virginia. The album's strengths are musical variety - while the songs remain firmly entrenched in the sound of 90's 3rd wave, they aren't carbon copies of one another. Musically, Secret Cajun Band is strong enough to create a nice, quick tune like the title track (an ode to the band's old home) and still play a convincing, neo-trad instrumental like "Crazy Horse". Then there's the slight but sweet "Hot Dog Boy" & the catchy social commentary of "Teenage Smokers", songs that are just nice music. After 3 listens I was already humming along to a lot of the songs.
The album's weaknesses lie in immature tunes like "Buttsteak" and "Ska State", songs that are little more than frat-boy crowd-pleasers. Sure you can argue that ska is all about having fun, but aren't there enough juvenile, one-dimensional ska bands out there? When Secret Cajun Band drops the goofiness and adds a few more dimensions to their tunes, like in "Big Mistake" or the tight instrumental, "Tesfaye", Big House is an interesting and catchy album.
Big House is available on CD for $10 (including shipping) from the band. Write to Secret Cajun Band, 444 Newtown Rd, Virginia Beach, VA 23462 or visit their website.
THE SKALARS - Change Up
CD - 1999 Moon Records
review by sharky
The Skalars' sophomore release Change Up is a smooth, tight, and the kind of release I hope to see more of now that the ska mainstream and the emphasis of quantity of quality has disappeared. Change Up has much the same sound of the Skalars first CD, Skoolin' with the Skalars, an impressive feat considering that the band has had such a dramatic change in band members. Jessica Butler's vocals are much stronger and more mature on this CD (and complimented nicely by Evan Shaw's harmonizing and occasional lead vocals). Even the musicianship on Change Up seems to be tighter than on the Skalars previous CD.
Every track here is rich, with particular standouts being "J.A.M.", "Box of Death", and "Mixed Blessing". The Skalars are the rare band that can play a smooth brand of ska without falling into the trap of sounding like a "traditional" band. If the dearth of mainstream attention to the ska scene brings us more quality releases like Change Up, then lets hope the scene stays "hype-free" for a very long time.
SKANIC - Last Call
CD - 1998 Moon Records
review by sharky
It's a rule of thumb - any CD with a martini glass on the cover will be a winner in my book. It must be chemical, because I look at my CD collection and I have 6 or so different CDs with martini glasses somewhere in the cover art and, sure enough, every one of them I like a lot. So maybe this is the reason I like Skanic's new CD Last Call, but I have a feeling that the super decent tracks on this disc are a factor also.
Skanic has a very 2Tone sound to their songs, with tight horns, heavy keyboards, and socially relevant lyrics. The disc opens up with a song about society's ill effects on the environment with "Eyesore". The neat thing about Skanic's sound is that they can sing a song about this topic without sounding trendy. They also touch upon the growing trend of violent dancing at ska shows, frat boys pay attention, in the song "Don't Dance Too Hard". The irony is that this is the song the ignorant will probably be trying to mosh to.
Lest you think the CD is all socially relevant, Skanic does have their moments of levity. There is a great song about the perils of inebriation called "Closet Case" and a keen cover of Nirvana's "Breed", which lends itself perfectly to a ska setting.
Skanic play each song wonderfully, from the slow, jazzy, title track "Last Call" to the slightly ska-core "Yard Duty". Skanic is what I look for in a band, playing different styles of music while still being consistently good. If Skanic keeps putting out CDs of this caliber, then they should be going places in the ska scene.
SKAVOOVIE & THE EPITONES - The Growler
CD - 1999 Shanachie Records
review by megan
The long-awaited follow-up to 1997's Ripe, Skavoovie's latest effort is surprisingly dark album and a little disappointing for anyone expecting the giddy buoyancy of Ripe. The quality of the music and style isn't in doubt - Skavoovie & the Epitones are still one of the best, and most creative, ska bands currently performing. But the lightheartedness found on previous Skavoovie albums, and in the bands live performances is missing here. Don't expect to find an "Aquaman" or "Old Man of the Mountain" here. Even their catchiest tunes, like the almost salsa chorus of "Boyo", are filled with minor chords. The band also relies a lot of dissonance, most prominently in "Soul Searcher" and "Sharp Teeth", but also scattered throughout the album in songs like "Lucy" or "Texas Size".
If you can't tell, I was taken aback by the album's sound, and while I personally liked Ripe better, I've still got to recommend The Growler on quality alone. There are a lot of good songs here and good effects, like the odd, almost rock bits of "Tiny Machines" or the swinginess of "Texas Size". My own favorites are the goofy love (?) song "Zombie Song" and the bittersweet "Salad Days", but there's something here for any fan of modern traditional ska, 3rd wave ska, or Skavoovie.
THE SKOIDATS - The Times
CD - 1997 Moon Records
review by megan
The Skoidats have just entered the list of my top ten favorite contemporary bands. Not only do they put on a great show, managing to make even the jaded HMV shoppers tap their toes at a recent promo show uptown, but the album fuses ska and oi so well that every time I listen to it I want to dance.
One of the greates things about the album is that the band proves it can play traditional as well (better, in a lot of cases) as all those so-called "traditional" bands out today. They know their music history, and hit that old time sound on tracks like "Rootsawalkin'" and the classic cover "Moonstomp '97". When it comes time to pick it up, the Skoidats don't miss. "Alone" features an incredible intro/chorus riff that gets feet moving immediately, and the quick beats in songs like "Granted" and "Saturday Skins" keep them going. If you're tired of slow ska or want to see it done well, The Times is for you.
SLOW GHERKIN - Double Happiness
CD - 1997 Asian Man Records
review by hans
Following in the proud tradition of the West Coast acts recently being forced upon the ska world, this album is a classic of cliché & pretentiousness. Mostly unoriginal, this band seems to have carefully studied & derived it's influences from the same Ska 101 Textbook that almost everyone else seems to be reading. A Dicky Barrett-esque raspy voice delivers poorly written lyrics that are grossly mismatched with the vocal melodies that accompany them (Especially track #1: "Slaughterhouse"). The lyrical lines just don't match the words; it's almost as if the lyricist has never sung a song in his life - or at least never sung these songs. The lyrics themselves, while striving to be deep, often fall into a stream-of-consciousness ranting that tries to fit every philosophical statement possible into the space of one paragraph (Ex. Track #14: "Thumbs Down to Generation X"). On the other end of the spectrum are songs with simpler philosophies, such as "Tetley [tea] makes me wetley - an earthy herbal medley" or "I'm a bad driver. They taught me how to park & steer. I can't do either going 55 in second gear." Also, someone should pass a law prohibiting the inappropriate use (chanting) of the word "oi" (see Track #4: "Cable"). For fans of oi, this gets REALLY annoying.
There are some positive aspects of the album. While none of the songs are groundbreaking, some are pleasant to listen to, "Mutually Parasitic" being one of them. Also, the band itself is talented, & it makes you hope that there is better material for them to play. And while some songs are enjoyable, it is difficult to ignore the poor lyrics. Just because you use big words doesn't mean you use them well. If they want to sing about social commentary, they should maybe listen a little more to bands who do it well, such as fellow Californians the Dead Kennedys.
SLOW GHERKIN - Shed Some Skin
CD - 1998 Asian Man Records
review by megan
Slow Gherkin has improved by leaps and bounds since their last release, 1997's Double Happiness. Unfortunately, Double Happiness was so bad that their improvement now classifies the band as adequate instead of terrible. Their songwriting has improved and their hooks are much catchier, but they're still suffering from terrible phrasing ("My head is full of trash/We'd better stop and get some gas/Put in a tape by the Clash/And we're trapped like rats in Myers Flat"), bad vocals, under-utilized horns (why even have them?) and the same boring repetitiveness that classifies most of the ska-punk/ska-core bands today. Not to mention the pretentious literary references ("Roger", "Shed Some Skin") thrown around like popcorn for no good reason.
The only interesting aspect of Shed Some Skin is the obvious hardcore influence. "Get Some More" (some of the best lyricism on the album) and "How Now Lowbrow" both pull off definite Fugazi riffs with no problem, and "Trapped Like A Rat In Myers Flat" starts with a powerful DC hardcore-style intro that degenerates into standard ska-core. Those songs, and the 80's feel of "Another In Your Life", make me wonder why Slow Gherkin is bothering to play ska. Their talents obviously lie elsewhere.
STEP LIVELY - self-titled
CD - 1998 Pinball Records
review by megan
It's funny how different bands can sound live vs recorded. I saw Step Lively at a teeny club in NYC and was enjoying their live show so much that I picked up their 6 song CD. Unfortunately, their energetic performance didn't translate to the CD, leaving only fair 3rd wave ska.
Like all generic ska bands, the accent here is on the upbeat and little else. The familiar ska tempo is both the skeleton and the skin of Step Lively's songs, and while no one will mistake a song like "Without A Doubt" for anything but ska, it makes for a boring listen. Unlike fellow 3rd wavers Edna's Goldfish or, on a more complex level, Bim Skala Bim, who subtly incorporate the upbeat into the structure of the songs, Step Lively makes it the focus. "Isabella" and "You Don't Know Jack" get away with this by covering the repetitiveness with a quick tempo, catchy lyrics, and energy. But the rest of the songs on this CD can't rise above the ska cliche.
This Australian group has long since broken up, but thankfully they've left behind one of the best albums I've ever owned. Bluebeat Party is tight, strong, political, & straight out danceable. The Strange Tenant ska style is 2-Tone derived, and most of the songs on Bluebeat Party have a very quick, controlled, beat. And happily, like the 2-Tone era bands, the Strange Tenants aren't afraid to get political. My favorite song on the album, "Soldier Boy", intelligently rails against military society, while "Hard Times" points out the plight of the underclass from an insider's perspective. Yet even in more traditional songs the band's writing holds up. "Saturday Night" brings to mind the Specials's "Nite Klub" with it's chant of "Go home/It's late/Your life/Won't wait", & the covers "These Boots" and "Moonstomp" are (dare I say) as good as the originals. While the album may prove hard to find (check out the Melbourne ska page) it's worth the search. There are few albums that can match the musicianship & drive behind Bluebeat Party, & even fewer that have so many great songs.
STURGEON GENERAL - Stout
CD - 1998 Radical Records
review by megan
Surprise, surprise. A band I'd never heard of putting out one of my favorite albums of the year. Book ended by two nice instrumentals ("Ska in G" and "Ska Out G...") Stout is 13 tracks of jumpy, modern ska with a distinct street sound. The album adds some basic rock & roll to the ska formula, moving from bluesy bar rock ("She Knows My Name") to all out rock 'n' roll (my favorite, "Teenage Wedding"). Their more straightforward ska tunes are vibrant and interesting - "Mojave" manages to use its repetitiveness to its advantage for a quick, fun song, while "Darkness", with its dark sound and sweet lyrics is a great blend of disparate elements. Of course, not every track is a winner and Stout could have done without the lousy lyrics of "Laundry" and "Sourass", or the standard, repetitive beat of "Saturday". But even these missteps aren't that bad. Meanwhile, tunes like "Ska in G", "Teenage Wedding", and the hidden track provide great music, a rockin' sound, and a sense of humor
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