Third wave ska’s greatest blessing is its death. Driven off the best-seller racks at Best Buy and into the underground, only the devout remain. Its mass market clout drained by No Doubt and Goldfinger and its club-level following collapsing under the weight of skinhead violence and punk fickleness, ska flees into the hands of the players who really love it. Few musical forms have endured vampirism on the level ska has…or did. Genre benders The Radiation Kings are a sign that things are changing and that, once again, ska is getting played by people who care.
The real strengths here are singer Lisa White’s husky sexy delivery and the band’s jazz-quality chops. Essentially a lounge album masquerading as ska, The Early Years’ gentle and subdued song structures set up working room for brilliant solos by sax men Andrew Gibson and Michael Loren LaValle. Weaving Charlie Parker-esque runs through plodding organ patterns and melodic bass lines, the Kings dress up the dressed-down simplicity of ska. You’ll find references to ‘60s funk and easy listening but The Early Years’ saving grace is that it never rocks. It’s never obvious and never banal. It’s unapologetic and uncommercial—a record for the loyal.
Only King Django’s nostalgic lo-fi production undermines The Early Years. The horn lines sound gutted and the rhythm tracks get muffled by Django’s heavy hand. Still, White’s soulful voice is pushed to the front of the mix—where she offers pop counterpoint to the band’s jazzier inclinations.
For the traditional stuff I’ll take Delaware’s Agents or Georgia’s Robustos. But if you like your ska served up with faux-leopard print and martinis, The Early Years is for you.
Standout Tracks: “Carry,” “Murder,” “Hotter Fire.”