There are a variety of permutations of ska, and then there is the elusive essence of “real” ska. Purists who cling tightly to their two-tone suits speak of waves, the first rising out of the Motown era and the second arriving in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Third wave ska has muddied the distinctions between what is and isn’t with many bands finding a ska-esque sound that brings them commercial success, such as UB40 and No Doubt. Ska is also intertwined in the punk scene, and whether or not ska remains simply a sub-genre of punk, or of reggae, is still a matter of musical contention.
All of the acts on NYC Ska Mob & Friends have what would probably be considered the “real” ska sound. Mostly reggae-inflected, it brings back the second wave feel of Madness and other horns-and-guitar bands, not forgetting the maraca scat that characterizes so much ska. This compilation CD features 18 songs by nine artists, giving it a feeling of continuity rather than diversity.
But if putting on black and white wingtip Doc Martens and dancing around in circles is for you, then this album features some decent ska tunes and would make a fair addition to your collection. Stubborn All-Stars offer up the classic “Rude Boys,” “Bald Man Jump,” “Lose This Skin,” and “Tired of Struggling.” “Rude Boys” is done up in such a classic tone, complete with the obligatory English dock worker cockney, that it sounds like pretty much every other version of this song. “Bald Man Jump” is a dancey little horn number, but lightweight. “Lose This Skin,” in contrast, with a harmonica and almost bluegrass guitar is an interesting deviation away from standard ska sounds. Vocally and musically, it almost sounds like a hick ska band covering Paul Simon. “Tired of Struggling” is a pretty standard reggae number with an obvious theme, the same theme that made reggae and ska appeal to working class white kids in the old days.
Rocker T follows up this reggae style with Jamaican dub sounds on songs “One More,” the prison protest song “Not Guilty,” and “Fiya Bunn Roam.” King Django joins Rocker T for a more traditional reggae song, “Wayfarer’s Prayer,” featuring strong harmonies and a fairly straightforward musical arrangement. King Django acts as producer on the majority of the songs on this disc, which might account for the more reggae-influenced direction that this representation of ska receives. Django includes his own song, “No Trial,” which acts as an interesting counterpoint to Rocker T’s “Not Guilty,” which follows it on the album.
More Anglo-inflected ska comes from The Radiation Kings, who are also notable for featuring a female vocalist. “Murder” and “NYC Blues” sound like slowed down Save Ferris, and this distinction helps delineate the differences between second and third wave sounds. Unfortunately, the liner notes are sparse, but the vocalist for The Radiation Kings has a great voice, and these are some of my favorite songs on the disc.
Similarly, the Skoidats play straight-up white-boy-imitating-Jamaican-reggae ska, but manage to stay true to traditional roots. “O.I.” is a toe-tapping number that sounds similar to the Bouncing Souls in its jazziness. It’s probably the most well-produced song on the collection, although it competes with the other Skoidats song, “Smash Your Fucking Head,” which reminds the listener of the violent undertone and punk scene that somehow follow this quiet and slow musical style. It’s almost as if Alex from A Clockwork Orange listened to reggae instead of Beethoven.
Filling out the rest of the tracks are Da Whole Thing’s “Seven,” a funny song that is probably my favorite here, especially for its loungey vocal delivery. Checkered Cabs weigh in with “Fight for Your Woman,” which rather than sounding like ska sounds like acid jazz with a ska tempo, and also features a female vocalist. Victor Rice gives us “FCC” and “Long Island City,” two jazzy instrumentals that have a lo-fi feel and are really cool noir-ish tracks. Crazy Baldhead’s “Amateur’s” closes the album with a stripped down dub guitar and drum track that’s even more hollow than the others songs on the disc.
If you like your ska served up with a healthy dose of rock guitar or punk attitude, you probably will be disappointed with NYC Ska Mob & Friends. But if you stick to more traditional, reggae-influenced songs from the old school days, then you’ll find a few gems here on this album. First, second, or third wave, this is a fair example of what pure ska is all about.