The best band to emerge from the late '90s ska boom opts for a more straightforward sound on its latest album, and goes after W on an ensuing EP. Neither finds the group at the top of its game.
One of the more curious musical developments of the previous decade was the American public's brief dalliance with ska in the late '90s. Given the circumstances at the time, though, you can almost comprehend it. By 1997, the post-Nirvana alternative explosion was whimpering to a close. Half of modern rock stations were littered with the likes of Third Eye Blind, Dishwalla, and Fuel, while the other half were beginning to embrace the very unfortunate, Limp Bizkit-led aggro-rock revolution. The electronica takeover also failed to materialize, although the most surprising aspect of this was that some people were actually surprised when that turned out to be the case.
So there was a void to fill, and for a few glorious months (at least to the manufacturers of black-and-white-checkered apparel), American kids were skanking. The success of Sublime and No Doubt led to the success of bands like Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, and Less Than Jake, who admittedly were playing music that was more or less horn-infused punk and didn't really resemble anything Prince Buster or The Skatalites ever recorded. But the boom even reached the ska underground, and bands that adhered more to the rocksteady influences of ska's first wave saw increased popularity. These included Hepcat, Skinnerbox, the Stubborn All-Stars, and, the best of them all, The Slackers.
Originally an eight-piece, the Brooklyn band brought more to the table than most other ska acts, and most of the credit for that can be given to Vic Ruggiero, the band's primary singer and songwriter. Besides being a much more versatile songwriter than others in the genre, Ruggiero is also blessed with one of the coolest voices around, regardless of genre. It's gruff, smoke-stained, and, when you add in his thick Brooklyn accent ("they" is "dey", "this" is "dis", and so on), it makes for an irresistible combo. On the band's second album, Redlight, The Slackers' brand of ska successfully incorporated Latin, boogaloo, Calypso, and dub, and the album even concluded with a tender, acoustic love song. Ruggiero gave each song a pop sensibility that's often lacking in ska, and the album is probably the high point of ska's third wave. Their subsequent two albums, 1998's The Question and 2001's Wasted Days, kept going in different directions and continued to serve as excellent platforms for Ruggiero, saxophonist Dave Hillyard, and the rest of the band to show off their considerable skills.
And this is what makes their latest, Close My Eyes, a disappointment. Much of the creativeness is gone, and for the first time it feels as though Ruggiero and Co. are going through the motions. Whereas previously Ruggiero's Hammond B-3 was a steadying influence, it's now the foundation for many songs. The charming, straightforward rocksteady of "Axes" is one of the highlights in this set, but in the past it would have just been one of the "traditional" Slackers tunes in between their more interesting numbers. It's not a huge shock that on their fifth album the group would opt for a more simplified approach, especially considering that their fans at this point are probably hardcore ska devotees. But the one thing you could always say about The Slackers was that they weren't just another ska band, and while that's still certainly the case, you couldn't make that argument too well based solely on Close My Eyes.
More recently The Slackers released the International War Criminal EP, and its purpose should be quite obvious by its title. Let's just say they aren't talking about Slobodan Milosevic or Charles Taylor. The problem with making a political record is that it puts the focus squarely on the lyrics. This department has never been one of Ruggiero's strongest, but he's always acquitted himself pretty well by sticking to simple love songs. With a voice as captivating as his, as long as the lyrics don't evoke a negative reaction, you can't lose. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens here. "Propaganda, it's everywhere I look / Propaganda, it's just like history books," Ruggiero sings on "Propaganda". "The weapons of destruction/They are gasoline and petroleum," he informs us on the title track. Subtlety is obviously not what he's going for, and he no doubt wants (or wanted) people to take his words to heart, but all it does is distract from the jumpy and otherwise fun mod-inspired track. Musically, at least, the EP does find The Slackers in a more playful, varied mood than on Close My Eyes. It confirms that they are still a band worth paying attention to, even to people for whom "skank" just means that unfortunate drunk hook-up from back in college.