It’s tempting to call the Pietasters the saviors of American third-wave ska, but the fact is they may really just be its sole survivors. Blending authentic Jamaican dancehall, rock steady, punk and soul—the Pietasters change it up enough to keep rude boys true to the faith and jaded punks from pitching their beers. But most importantly, the Washington DC combo offer up enough hooks and bachelor party debauchery to win over fans who could care less about “file-under” categories and punk purism.
A return to grace after the abysmal Willis (their Hellcat debut, 1997) Awesome Mix Tape #6 builds on the elements that made their Oolooloo (1995) the defining moment in American ska: a strong sense of melody, amazing horn charts and a looseness that made the record seem very alive. Its brilliance was its imperfections. And while the Pietasters have gone out of their way to prove they don’t give a fuck, they’ve never gone out of their way to stake a claim on ska authenticity. Their most engaging moments are hybrids, part Jimmy Cliff, part Booker T. and part porno. Skinheads will argue that it’s the Pietaster’s firm commitment to Guinness, violence and two-chord ska joints that keep them viable. I’ll use their growing love of Motown as my point of entry. More Detroit than DC, tunes like “Chain Reaction,” “Yesterday’s Over” and “Crawl Back Home” belie a deeper love for ‘60s soul-funk then their previous ska-reggae releases suggest.
Still, it’s not maturity but growth you’ll find on Awesome Mix Tape #6. Throw-away shit like “Chooch’s Bitch” and “Dub-fi” are irritating reminders of the self-sabotage the ‘Tasters flaunted on Willis. Mums and dads may be put off by a steady sprawl of pro-drug references and pro-femmes will be no doubt pissed at the thinly veiled misogyny and tough-guy ball grabbing. For sure, the Pietasters are sometimes given over to frat-boy banality. But every once in a while, they’re given over to genius.