Let’s be fair: California’s Dirty Heads serve a purpose. The five-piece band from Huntington Beach make music that seems scientifically engineered for keg parties, summer cookouts, and convertible beach cruising. Their sound is also a 21st century update of oft-maligned third-wave ska (although with more of an emphasis on reggae), where bands like Sublime, Less Than Jake, and the Long Beach Dub All-Stars tamped down Clinton-era ennui with chill grooves and plenty of weed-soaked vibes.
While it may seem strange to revisit this genre that virtually sprung out of nowhere a quarter-century ago, Dirty Heads have managed, with their latest album, to provide a sonic update that gives it a bit more depth. Just a bit. Super Moon may contain a heap of derivative sounds that seem cobbled together from earlier bands, but a unique approach sets it apart from that pack. For their seventh album, the band enlisted a top-shelf producer. The hiring of Dave Cobb, best known for his work with acclaimed artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, may initially signal a substantial genre shift. But vocalist Jared Watson was quick to quell those suspicions in the album’s press release: “We’re not making a fuckin’ country album!” It seems like an unnecessarily defensive declaration, especially since sounding like Messrs Simpson and Isbell could hardly be considered a bad thing.
Whatever the case, Cobb’s presence in the control room makes for interesting results. Super Moon kicks off with a bang, as the delightful title track employs a swaggering horn section straight out of a ’70s action film soundtrack. The downside to that strong opener is that it’s the most interesting thing on the album. The next two songs, “Lift Me Up” and “Tender Boy”, settle back into a laid-back reggae groove, with rapping references to ganga and booze followed up with requisite lilting choruses. It’s a fairly standard template, but Cobb sweetens the pot by adding a richer sonic palette – samples, sonic manipulation, random glitches, and more horns – setting the album’s songs apart from earlier Dirty Heads releases.
Super Moon even manages to get downright experimental in places. “Cloudlifter” is almost hallucinatory, with plenty of spoken word and twangy surf guitar interspersed with the rapping. The wobbly sampled piano that runs through “Horsefly” is a refreshingly odd anchor to the tune. But most of the time, the band is happy to take Cobb’s direction and infuse their own “everything is gonna be alright” ethos to the proceedings. Whether it’s the gentle acoustic guitar chug of “Fear and Love”, the almost folkish “Lighthouse” or the catchy, tropical singalong atmosphere of “Crow Bar Hotel” (complete with whistling), this is music designed for good times, good vibes, and plenty of hot, sunny weather (or perhaps an antidote to a freezing cold Northeast winter).
It would be a stretch to say that this is a new, reinvented version of Dirty Heads. If you loved them before, the chances are that Super Moon will find a place on your playlist. But thanks to a new producer, the band manages to move the needle just enough to open up their sound to potential new audiences. It’s a smart move. Let’s see them move things even further the next time.