Sunday, March 1, 2009

Duff Review: Nick Welsh- The Soho Sessions

Moon Ska World

In a genre that is typically populated by eight or nine member bands (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, singer, and horn section), it's still a relatively brave soul who bucks the prevailing conventions by performing his or her ska tunes accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar. Chris Murray (AKA Venice Shoreline Chris and previous front man for King Apparatus) was one of the first to successfully go this lo-fi, Woody Guthrie "have guitar, will travel" route back in 1996 with the excellent, vintage ska-sounding Four-Track Adventures of Venice Shoreline Chris.

While Chris Murray specifically wrote his ska tunes for the acoustic guitar, Nick Welsh, on The Soho Sessions, takes some of the best tracks from his career as a member of (and powerhouse songwriter behind) Bad Manners, Buster's All Stars, The Selecter, Big 5, and his current group Skaville UK--and distills these fully-realized productions down to their melodic essence. The results of this re-interpretation of his songbook--and this album is arguably his greatest hits collection--are uniformly good to great. Nick writes extraordinarily catchy ska melodies that stay with you for ages, but what is surprising here is how some of the stripped down acoustic versions of these tunes sometimes surpass the originals (see "Thank God I'm Not Like You" from Skaville UK's 1973 with its amazing cello riff).

I'm not sure if a familiarity with Nick's back catalogue is a prerequisite to fully appreciating The Soho Sessions (if you don't already own some of the albums mentioned below, you really should go out and buy them now), but it certainly can't hurt, and it's fascinating to compare the original recordings with the revamps to see what Nick deemed worth keeping and what he discarded.

"Return of the Ugly" (from Bad Manners' rollicking stompfest of the same name--one of my favorite ska albums ever--which re-launched a post-2 Tone era Buster & Co. into the 90s and beyond) kicks off the album and is perhaps the one song here that is most faithful to its original, losing none of its energy and aggressiveness (plus you can actually understand the lyrics, which wasn't the case with Buster singing: "Like a scratched 45 on an old dansette/this gonna be the best one yet!"). The glorious "Symphony of Love" (from The Selecter's Unplugged with the Rude Boy Generation) is a newly discovered gem for this reviewer. The light, almost satirical tone of Buster's All Stars' "Skinhead Love Affair" (from Skinhead Luv-A-ffair, naturally) is replaced here with sincerity and regret, making it more of a semi-pathetic scene from a misspent youth: "She said: 'Skinhead, can't you see/It's over, it's over'" (the subtle bass guitar overdub during the chorus is a nice touch).

"Memory Train" (also from Bad Manners' Return of the Ugly) now has more bite and anger in its emotional starkness--he can't live with or without her in the present, so it's time to escape to happier times in his head. Even "Since You've Gone Away" (also from Return of the Ugly) is more achingly despondent than the original. It seems in this setting, Nick's happy love songs (like "Stay with Me Baby," with its great, creepy mellotron organ, and originally from his extraordinary skinhead reggae alter-ego King Hammond and the Blow Your Mind album; and Bad Manners' "Rosemary") are slinkier, sexier, and more seductive, while the broken-hearted tracks are bleaker and cut deeper than ever.

"Bad Man" (from Skaville UK's second album, Decadent) is transformed into a rave-up cousin of T Rex.'s glam smash 'Bang a Gong." "Outrageous" (from In Yer Face by Big 5) ditches its rock 'n' roll grandiosity for a more direct plea for peace, love, and understanding. "Non Shrewd" (from Buster's All Stars' Skinhead Luv-A-ffair), which had a Western/Mexican tilt to it, is re-versioned with melodica and dubby effects. The album is capped with a fine new country-ish anti-violence/drug track, "Johny, Don't Take Your Gun to Town."

If the original recordings of Nick's songs are the soundtrack to one's brilliant Saturday night on the town, then The Soho Sessions is the perfect Sunday morning ska record to listen to while nursing your wounds. Highly recommended! (Plus, you have to love any album that credits the busses that delivered the artist to the recording studio!)

Grade: A

(Note: some of the Return of the Ugly and Skinhead Luv-A-ffair tracks first appeared on the Bad Manners fan club-only Eat the Beat LP in 1988, which has been re-released on CD by several labels; however, Eat the Beat is generally not considered to be a proper album in its own right.)

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