[16 November 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
As a teenager in Eugene, Oregon in the early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time going to Cherry Poppin’ Daddies shows. Whether my friends and I were pooling our sometimes suspiciously gotten change to make the three dollar cover at the Wow Hall, hanging out on the sidewalk in the rain until someone took pity and let us slide, or sneaking into strangers’ house parties, we always knew there was a good time to be had with the Daddies. And these shows were equal-opportunity occasions for sweating. The old school punks, the new wave of “alterna-teens” and several soul-obsessed street kids danced their asses off right next to stoned, out-of-state college sophomores, stoned out-of-their-minds hippie chicks and crusty old flashback casualties. The Daddies surely weren’t the only game in town back then, but surrounded by that diversity, it sure felt like it to me.
One of the reasons the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies appealed so broadly was the fact that the band was one of few truly good local acts at the time. Another reason was that the music was at least as diverse as the crowd it attracted. If you asked an audience at the time to describe the music, you’d have heard everything from “punk” or “funk on amphetamines” to “kinda like the Motor City meets rockabilly”. One night this drunken dude kept yelling at me in the alley across from Max’s tavern (where, possibly unbeknownst to this guy, Daddies’ singer Steve Perry lived at the time) that the sound was “Dance-CORE, man!” because it was hard-core, and it made you move. Back then, I always considered it primarily ska-punk—extra-horn-heavy and super-soul-infused, yeah, but definitely ska-punk. Those were the songs that stuck to me the most anyway, clinging like my sweat-soaked shirt after being pressed into the chest of a skinhead skanking at the edge of the pit. So you can imagine the relative surprise when Cherry Poppin’ Dadies made finally its international impression not with third wave ska in the mid ‘90s, but with the swing revival of a couple years later. Of course, the band’s swing repertoire is fabulous. However, that recognition did sort of pigeonhole the band for a while.
Now, more than 10 years after Zoot Suit Riot: The Swingin’ Hits of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, a new collection, Skaboy JFK: The Skankin’ Hits of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies focuses solely on the band’s interpretations of ska. It combines four new recordings with tracks from earlier albums, and much like the band’s entire repertoire pulls from various styles, it draws from several different kinds of ska. There’s the bright bluebeat of the fabulous last-call lament “2:29” and the funky fusion of “Slapstick.” Then there are the nods to the Two-Tone sound in the title track and “Hammerblow”. Songs like “Hi and Lo” and “Sockable Face Club”, which is pure irreverence packed with irresistible energy, and possibly the collection’s best track, ride the Third Wave that Cherry Poppin’ Daddies came in on. (The band has toured with Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone, Reel Big Fish and No Doubt, as well as legends like the Specials and Madness.)
Debate rises as to whether ska is now entering a fourth (or fifth) wave, but right now does seem the perfect time to spring Skaboy JFK on the masses for more than one reason. One of those reasons is Susquehanna. It was released regionally last year, only available on the band’s website, but now finally gets its national release to coincide with Skaboy JFK. Susquehanna is the sixth full-length original release for the Daddies, and it revisits many of the influences they have gathered through the years, but with a decidedly Latin savor.
Opening with mariachi brass and dusty, gun-slinger guitar, “Bust Out” does just that, instantly setting the tone, and setting the bar pretty high for the whole album. Lyrically it’s about shaking your ass, making a thunderous noise, and having a good time. Musically, it defies you to try not to do those things. (You can’t. It’s impossible.) “The Mongoose and the Snake” takes the previous song’s guitar sound and gives it a rockabilly twang to match the attitude in the backbeat and the pomade in Perry’s slick vocal delivery. “Hi and Lo”, which, along with “Hammerblow”, is also featured on Skaboy JFK , leads into the loping, So-Cal sound of “Blood Orange Sun”. A hard-rocking big band sound barrels in on slashes of hot-rod licks for “White Trash Toodleoo”, and you can hear Perry’s lip curling into a sneer as he spits his social commentary.
“Julie Grave” ventures further into straight-up rock territory before “Roseanne” returns to South America with sultry flamenco-style guitar, rumba rhythms and seductive lyrics. “Tom the Lion” is infused with sunny island rhythms, while “Wingtips” revisits the neo-swing, lounge sound with Perry’s voice in smooth croon mode while his tongue is firmly in cheek. “Breathe” borrows a bossa nova beat, but pairs it with some unexpected subject matter. Ever willing to explore, the Daddies even try a hand at an almost alt-country lament on “The Good Things”. While they pull it off rather impressively, it’s the only song on Susquehanna that doesn’t quite work. It might just be its placement in the track order, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the songs even considering the wide range of genres present. However, “Arrancate”, which closes the set, quickly recovers every ounce of the album’s momentum, and goes even further into the Latin roots, with Perry singing in Spanish over the reprise of the opener. This is a smart move, and it might make an already exciting song even more so.
If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that only two tracks here could be classified as new swing, and that few more fit ska. That’s as it should be. Despite its dual release with the excellent Skaboy JFK: The Skankin’ Hits of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and although it will definitely appeal to fans of both, Susquehanna is neither ska nor swing. It is possibly the closest a single release can get to the experience of a Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ live show. In fact, with its blend of so many musical flavors, it is probably the truest overall representation of the band. But what Susquehanna really is, is the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ best work so far.