There are basically two camps of aging punk rockers. First are those who continue to make music that rarely rivals their previous successes (Joe Strummer, Siouxsie, Wire, etc.). Second are those who have drifted off mainstream radar to become romanticized cult figures (Adverts, X-Ray Spex, Subway Sect, etc.). The Slits and their lead singer, Ari Up, have been part of the latter category since their split in 1981. The all-girl group began to take shape in the mid-‘70s when 14-year-old Ari Up (Ariane Forster) met drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero) at a Patti Smith concert and agreed on the spot to sing with her band. With guitarist Viv Albertine and bassist Tessa Pollitt, the Slits made one of the biggest, wildest rackets in British punk. They toured with the Clash, recorded sessions for John Peel’s influential radio show, transformed from a raw punk band to a dub reggae conglomerate, played with Nina Hagen and Neneh Cherry, and left behind just two studio albums (after Palmolive’s departure) before their demise. Ari Up briefly performed with producer Adrian Sherwood’s New Age Steppers in the early ‘80s, and Palmolive played on the first Raincoats album in 1979, but after that, not much was heard from the former members of the pioneering punk band.
What a treat it was, then, when Ari Up briefly turned up in a 1990s “history of rock” documentary, still decked out with crazy hair and living in Jamaica. In her years out of the spotlight, she had mothered three sons, become a clothing designer, and continued to perform in Jamaica under the name Medusa. Now going by Ariane or Ari Up in the States, she divides her time between Jamaica and Brooklyn, and is looking to reclaim the Slits’ impressive legacy. To that end, she has performed a number of live shows in New York (with a recent stop in Chicago) and recorded a song for the 9/11 benefit album Love Songs for New York with her eight-year-old son, Wilton. Her self-titled six-song EP for Converge Records is her first serious attempt at a recording comeback.
So, should we now add Ari Up to that first category of old punks, the ones who keep recording but never quite reclaim that old magic? No way. Ariane is one of the few former punks who has somehow managed to capture the spirit of her classic period while taking her music in new, modern directions. Synthesizers and drum machines are now used to create the full sound for which the Slits required an extended live band, but for the most part this makes the music sound up-to-date rather than mechanical. The fact that Ari has chosen to record reggae-influenced material adds to the freshness of the sound, since dancehall and dub remain underrepresented musical styles in America and Britain.
The opener on Ariane is unfortunately its weakest track, though. “Bashment” relies too heavily on synthesizers and stilted backing vocals, but Ariane’s prowess as a rapper (who knew?) nearly makes up for that. The rest of the EP fares considerably better. “True Warrior” incorporates the best elements of the Slits circa Return of the Giant Slits: a trance-inducing reggae beat, subtle percussion, and Ari on lead and backing vocals. Her bizarre and intriguing voice, always the defining element of the Slits’ work, is a mixture of straightforward singing, high-pitched warbling reminiscent of a bird call, and rapping. Ari’s lyrics are also an impressive mixture of strong and tender sentiments. While the Slits made fun of romantic relationships in songs like “Love und Romance”, their singer now has no qualms singing about relationships in a serious way. “I need a man with a strong nature” she asserts on “True Warrior”, “A bad boy to society / A lover to his family”. Another song that shows uncharacteristic sweetness is “Can’t Have”, a simple, plaintive ballad about a love triangle. “There’s a man that I love / But I know I can’t have / ‘Cause he’s with her / And I don’t share”, Ari sings. Not everything on Ariane is so restrained, however; “Exterminator” and “Baby Mother” are hard-edged Jamaican-style dance numbers that showcase Ari’s dance sensibility and rhyming skills.
Despite its short running time, Ariane shows an impressive musical range. While putting out six songs on a small label may seem like a low-key way to make a comeback, the music on Ariane is far from low-key. It’s downright fierce.
// Notes from the Road
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