The axis of numerically ascending street and avenue. A Sabrett's hotdog and a Coke stolen from a Manhattan cart. Christmas drinks in a Queens bar with the same Latina girl you've chased since the eighth grade -- a city of millions, and you can't shake the smell of her hair. The Slackers, amps on subways, headed out to make at the dance. This is New York City.
Not New York City like we've seen it so often lately: trucker hats and Williamsburg haircuts, big belts and media-related temp jobs, a coolness dogmatized by imports from Kansas and Pittsburgh, drowning in their own Pabst and cosmos. No, this is the New York City of Steve Buscemi's Tree's Lounge -- poor-white-guy neighborhood tales that you didn't think happened anymore -- and of a thousand Jamaican and Hispanic immigrants who were there when Brooklyn was a dirty word, not a brand name. That's where the Slackers come in. With a catholic approach to another dirty word -- ska -- that sees as much inspirational upswing and backbeat in dive-bar jukebox boogaloo 45's as in punk-era English upstarts like the Specials, the Slackers have gone to not just outlive the American ska revival of the '90s, but to outshine many of the legends that gave them their rhythms. With Close My Eyes, the latest installment in what's become almost the only living ska collection worth knowing, the Slackers prove that there's still gold to be found by mining '60s and '70s Jamaican styles with a Beat Generation pickaxe. But they also prove that the band may never again reach the climactic heights of master works such as 1997's Redlight and the 1998 double-album The Question.
The Slackers' magic, since the band's 1996 debut Better Late than Never, has been the reluctance to use ska's exciting rhythms and soulful horns as a crutch, a shield against the need for a solid song. So while other bands in the largely vapid ska revival were simply shouting "pick it up" and blasting trumpets over punky guitars, the Slackers -- under the auspices of singer/songwriter/organist Vic Ruggiero -- were populating rhythmically complex songs with a realistic neighborhood of characters. Adulterous drunks, wannabe poets, poor righteous teachers, barroom rebels and cuckolded rude boys -- semi-autobiographical depictions that made Ruggiero's songs something worth listening to for the 30-year-old retired rudie as well as the 18-with-a-bullet dancehall crasher. Close My Eyes continues that tradition, finding the oft-rebellious Slackers acquiescing to some extent. While the fist shaking, meek-shall-inherit shouts are still there (the soulful, Maytals-like "Axes" and the toasting rant "Real War"), they are far surpassed in quantity and quality by songs such as "Close My Eyes" and "Don't Wanna Go". It's these songs, which showcase the Slackers interest in '50s American street-corner songwriting, that point to the band's current strengths: tight, minimal horn lines, vocal harmonies, and kinds of teen-idol ballads crooned by American rock pioneers (Frankie Valli, the Del Vikings) and copied with new rhythms by early '60s Jamaican singers such as Alton Ellis and Bob Marley.
The other side of the Slackers has always been a deep interest in sound experimentalism and dub. (Who else in the ska world claims Pussy Galore as an early influence?) Bassist Marcus Geard is an acknowledged dub addict, and his songwriting contributions -- notably "Deacon Dub" -- reflect it: swirling, reverb-cloaked concoctions of marijuana nightmare and dream world. But where the Slackers' tripped-out dubs and literate, real-world ska generally work, other efforts on Close My Eyes fall far short of the mark. "Real War" is embarrassing -- a timely rant that more echoes the empty-rhetoric sloganeering of bad political punk than the angry roots reggae it looks to. "Mommy" is a rare songwriting misstep from Ruggiero, too much paint-by-numbers Toots for the band's singular abilities. Even one of the album's most original tracks, "Old Dog", contrasts musical and conceptual uniqueness (A Brooklyn-Jamaican Frank's Wild Years?) with the kind of lazy lyrics that seem out of place on a Slackers record.
Redlight featured a song called "Soldier" that served as an indictment of New York mayor Rudolph Giulliani, the man many held responsible for transforming the city into a nice place to visit that you might not want to live in -- especially natives entranced by seedy Times Square and borough dives. "Soldier" painted a picture of jackbooted fascists guarding the city from its own inhabitants, keeping things clean, but at a high price. Close My Eyes, like all Slackers records, is at some level a concept album about New York City -- the New York of the Slackers' lineup, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-vice. But like the new New York, Close My Eyes suffers from being a little too sanitary: maybe you wouldn't notice on your first visit, maybe you'd even still be a little nervous. But if you've been there since the start, you'd notice that a lot of the porn palaces and drug dealers are missing, even if the overall vibe is still the most exciting in the world. Like the city of the band's birth, the Slackers will someday return to full strength as the capital of both culture and vice, but for now, on Close My Eyes, culture will have to do.