The Slackers establish a new benchmark for modern ska. And it's not just for the skankers.
The Slackers may well be the best ska band playing today. But they've also mastered its sister genres -- rocksteady, reggae, rock, and jazz. Seamlessly fusing these styles, they double as a top-rate reggae, swing, and big band that will appeal to listeners with an ear for rock 'n' roll. The Slackers are adept in all modes -- and on Peculiar, more adept than they've ever been before across their 10-year catalog.
Peculiar is a hybrid live/studio record, so the Slackers also sound more aggressive here than in any of their five prior studio albums. The rhythm foundation comes from a performance at Ernesto's in Holland, the same place they cut 2000's Live at Ernesto's and 2004's Upsettin' Ernesto's. Vocals and horns came later in New Jersey and Los Angeles studios. The production stitching couldn't have been better; from the bass drum booms to the high-hat sizzles, every sound is captured and every instrument mixed to perfection.
Peculiar proves to the ska skeptics -- those scarred by the likes of Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones during the late '90s fad -- that a world exists beyond the simply syncopated rhythms, unflinching guitar upstrokes, and sexually frustrated lyrics that characterized probably 75% of the last decade's ska. Any fan of more traditional ska -- Specials, Skatalites, Toasters, Hepcat -- knows what it's supposed to sound like. But few likely know where to find it today. The Slackers are the place. They've been part of a lively revival scene in New York City since the late '90s, but little from ska's third wave can stand up to the Slackers' latest effort.
From the first seconds of "86 the Mayo", it's evident the Slackers have achieved a standout sound through the hybrid recording approach. The bass is warm and billowy; the guitar sharp, cutting one step ahead of the rhythm with each upstroke; the horns rusty on the low end and sparkling on the high end; the drums and organ alternately on controlled simmer and stepped-away-from-the-kitchen boiling over. Lead singer Vic Ruggiero's voice is loud and proud, the pumped-up rhythm tracks goading him to project to the bustling crowd at Ernesto's -- even though he's back in the studio.
Like so many once-apolitical artists in these conflict-ridden times, the Slackers have given space to social and ethical concerns in their new material. The roots-reggae "Propaganda" is the first to arrive. "See my Congressmen to my President are all businessmen just scheming / They tell me who's my enemies and who's my friends, and I'm not sure that I believe them", announces Ruggiero during an early breakdown.
"Every day I'm living in a world gone crazy", he laments in "Crazy". Then there's "International War Criminal": "Information is minimal / Weapons of destruction / They are gasoline and petroleum", he sings over a robust one-drop rhythm. "International rules of war / They get spoken / When it suits someone to have them broken / It's funny how they'll go on / And define terror / As killing and exploding things to force your own agenda".
The success of this political batch is all on the strength of Ruggiero's lyrics and ability to convey them convincingly. But he's just as effective singing more traditional fare about love, family, and colorful characters. Highlights include the skinhead stomp "In Walked Capo" and a closing cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released", which turns the tune into a roots-reggae gem that should be powerful even to someone who's never heard the original. The lyrics take on a Rastafarian feel in this context, and one can't help but picture Dylan in dreads.
The Slackers have never forfeited their foundation in '60s and '70s Jamaican music, but can assimilate other genres like no one else. Peculiar is for the rude boys, the skankers, the Rastas that don't mind secular music, the softhearted punks, the swingers, the Oi! crowd, the skinheads, the jazz fiends, and the straight-up rockers. Many will be impressed, few will be disappointed. Slacking has never sounded so nice.