Sunday, February 3, 2019

Duff Review: The Specials "Encore"

Island Records/UMG

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Barely a day after fans had a chance to unwrap the cellophane from their CDs or LPs and social media was already afire, grinding out both brutal condemnations of and impassioned praise for the new Specials album Encore. (In contrast, in the music press, the album has generated mostly positive, if not glowing, reviews.)

What seems to be lost in the instantaneous rush to judgment is that after years of touring since their reunion in 2009, we finally have an album of new music from the current, if pared-down, version of The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter--joined by top collaborators Nikolaj Torp Larsen on keys, Kenrick Rowe on drums, and Steve Craddock on guitar) and they deserve fans' respect and support for doing so, full stop. This in itself it is momentous.

As for why The Specials have released this album now, one suspects that they didn't want to show up for the 40th anniversary of 2 Tone with nothing in hand. Their peers have been pretty busy moving forward of late (see Madness' Can't Touch Us Now, The Selecter's Daylight, Dave Wakeling's Here We Go Love, Ranking Roger's Public Confidential, and Rhoda Dakar's The Lotek Four, Volume II--all of which are great!), while The Specials have been mining their catalogue for their admittedly phenomenal live shows for years now (I just re-watched the video I shot of them playing "Nite Klub" on Pier 26 in NYC in 2013 and they're so good that the hair on the back of my neck was on end). So, fan expectations are high, probably impossibly so.

Perhaps the best way to approach The Specials' Encore is to attempt to put The Specials' late '70s/early '80s releases temporarily out of mind (these classics do loom large) and take a break from basking in the comforting and familiar nostalgia for all things 2 Tone (if you want The Specials of '79, break out their debut). All of the brilliant, youthful, creative tension generated by the original band members' various personalities, talents, egos, opinions, class, educational backgrounds, and drug choices (sped up or slowed down) was never going to be resurrected on this record. This is the middle-aged core of the band that's still standing and able to stand each other. You pined for new music from this decades-on version of The Specials and here it is. So, have at it. (Give it some spins on the turntable or CD player, and live with it for awhile before coming to conclusions.)

With expectations re-calibrated, you'll find that Encore is a thoughtful, well-crafted album with ace performances that picks up where the two camps of the band were heading during and after More Specials (less ska/reggae and a bit more of everything else) and is legitimately great, at times outright stellar, in its own right. The brilliance of the original Specials output (and of 2 Tone in general) was that the music and lyrics moved both your body and mind, and Encore is highly relevant--if generally downbeat--music for our dark and dystopian-seeming times. However, one senses that the music occasionally takes back seat to the very worthy messages contained within (there are three spoken word tracks on the album). Like The Special AKA's In the Studio (which I previously wrote was "a record that often found the world to be a terribly and disappointingly ugly, petty, predatory, and unjust place"), Encore needs its one moment of pure joy, its own "Nelson Mandela" (an impassioned anti-apartheid song about an unjustly jailed political prisoner/freedom fighter that also managed the trick of compelling you to sing along and dance) to counterbalance some of the gloom in the songs and the world around us.

The Specials' deep commitment to the anti-racist ethos of 2 Tone is emphatically and explicitly reaffirmed by Encore's first two tracks--an unexpected but right on cover of the interracial Equals' fantastic hard funk, anti-white supremacist 1971 UK top ten hit "Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys" written by Eddy "Electric Avenue" Grant (which imagines a world of human beings free from socially constructed divisions: "They ain't got no country/They ain't got no creed/People won't be black or white/This world will be half-breed") and "B.L.M.," a spoken word piece by Lynval Golding (which musically quotes both "Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys" and "Ghost Town") that recounts his father's experiences of racism as part of the Windrush generation, as well his own as an immigrant to both England and America ("In England they call me a black bastard/In America they call me a goddam n*gger/Boy, welcome to my world/But I'm not here to teach you.../Black lives matter"). Like his song "Why" (which recounted the horrific, racially-motivated knife attack he endured in 1980 outside the Moonlight Club for walking and talking with two white women), Golding's personal stories of encountering ubiquitous, everyday racism--whether, verbal, physical, or institutional--resonate powerfully.

Upon first listen, it's sort of a shock to hear the opening bars of "Vote For Me" musically quote a bit of "Ghost Town" and then settle into the moody, minor-key territory staked out by The Special AKA's In the Studio (think the reggae and jazz of "Racist Friend," "Alcohol," and "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend," plus a bit of Rico's Jama; there's also a wonderful, Madness-like bridge with strings in there, too!). On one hand, it makes sense for the remaining Specials to go this route--they're essentially time traveling to pick up where The Specials left off at their demise (and Hall, Golding, and Staple went on to form the Fun Boy Three). So, in one sense, "Vote For Me" is a safe move, reminding the listener of Specials' sounds and songs of old that are ingrained on fans' hearts and minds. Yet, it's also sort of audacious, given how The Specials' dissolution was driven in part by dissatisfaction with the musical direction Dammers had taken with More Specials (he was the band's primary--though by no means sole--songwriter and arranger), as well as his leadership style (his given nickname "The General" was not meant to be endearing). Whether intentional or not, with "Vote For Me" they've validated Dammers' vision for the evolution of The Specials' post-"Ghost Town" music that was realized through In the Studio. It's just a shame that Dammers, Staples, Radiation, and Bradbury and Rico (RIP) couldn't be back for the ride, as "Vote For Me" successfully keeps faith with The Specials' collective sound and mission.

Lyrically, "Vote For Me" is pointed commentary on the corruption, lies, self-dealing, and moral bankruptcy of political leaders in England and America during this dreadfully bleak age of Brexit and Trumpism ("You tore our families apart" has to refer to the absolutely horrific, repugnant, racist, and inhumane Trump policy of sometimes permanently separating migrant/asylum-seeking kids from their parents at the US-Mexico border)--it continues the kind of "government leaving the youth on the shelf"/should be serving the greater good and needs of the people criticism expressed back in '81. And it's fantastic how the chorus ("There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach/And all that glitters isn't gold") references Queens, NY's bruddah's The RamonesWilliam Shakespeare (and Bob Marley's nod to the bard in "Get Up, Stand Up"), and dings Trump's penchant for gaudiness to hammer home its point about political deception.

Their cover of their own/Fun Boy Three's "The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum" (1981) and the new "Breaking Point" are cut from the same cloth. The former was about Reagan's itchy nuclear trigger and Thatcher's indifference to the poor and destitute and has now been revived for the utter madness of Trump and May. "Breaking Point"--a terrific Madness-y ska track!--is about trying to live in a seemingly out of control world ("Progress would be wonderful/If only it would stop") run by self-dealing and morally bankrupt leaders ("The sales pitch from door to door/Says feed the rich and hang the poor/Twinkle, twinkle little star/Point me to the nearest bar/I'll drown my sorrows with the rest") that is seemingly on the path to oblivion ("With the help of God and a few marines/We'll blow this place to smithereens/Here we are at the breaking point').

The Specials' wonderful version of The Valentines' "Blam Blam Fever" comes closest to being that moment of musical bliss on the album while decrying gun violence--and the band adds some lyrics to address America's insane love affair with guns, its outrageous tolerance of mass shootings of kids, concertgoers, you name it, and the very fact that weapons of war are readily available for commercial sale: "What we gonna do/About amendment number two/Gun fever is back/And we think it is obscene/You can buy AR-15/The gun fever is back/Every time you read the New York Times/Seventeen dead in a school crime...The simplest thing is rat, tat tat, tat tat/NRA how you deal with that?"

While "Ten Commandments" shares the same title as Prince Buster's song, it's not a cover with new lyrics. The Specials' version is a spoken-word answer record to Buster's original with a new instrumental track beneath it (that opens with a similar drum roll) and features Saffiyah Khan listing her version of the commandments from a feminist perspective. Khan, of course, became a potent symbol of progressive resistance when she was participating in a counter-demonstration against the racist, right-wing, and Islamophobic English Defence League in Birmingham on April 10, 2017 and was photographed smiling and relaxed as EDL leader Ian Crossland was angrily in her face after she intervened to stop a number of EDL goons from harassing a fellow counterprotester who was wearing a hijab. Khan's popularity rose even further in certain circles when photographs of her from different angles revealed she was wearing a Specials t-shirt to the counter-demonstration--which led to her being invited by the band to pen the lyrics for and perform on this recording.

This is not the first answer record to Buster's "Ten Commandments." Buster himself released “Ten Commandments (From Woman to Man)” featuring Princess Buster in 1967, which pushed back hard--for the 1960s and within the confines of marriage--against Buster's sexism ("Commandment One: Thou shall have no other woman but me. Two: Thou shall not provoke me to anger or thou will have no peace at night..."). Khan's commandments powerfully and unequivocally refute all of the limitations and expectations that our patriarchal and chauvinist society would impose on her body and volition, solely on the basis of her gender. Her assured declarations of independence and take no prisoners support for women's rights are thrilling to behold. Yet, it's incredibly depressing to realize how little has changed at a societal level--these same ugly and pernicious attitudes towards women were prevalent when The Specials debuted four decades ago (and they were not completely immune to them either; see "Little Bitch"). In fact, apart from the references to femi-nazis, femoids, the internet, and YouTube, these spoken word lyrics could have been written back in 1979.

The Specials back Khan with an orderly, brisk reggae skank that emphasizes the rock solid bass line (Khan says it's from Dawn Penn's "No No No"), but never distracts the listener's focus from her spoken word lyrics. But on the periphery of the entire song there are swirling, dubby synth effects and during interludes between the verses, there are descending, minor-key violin lines--all suggesting a lurking danger and barely contained chaos, like the bottom could fall out at any moment. It's as if Khan's thoughts, will, and voice keep the demons at bay; but in their absence, a terrible darkness seeks to fill the void.

After years of decrying the (eventually repealed) racist Sus laws (where the police could stop anyone merely on the suspicion that they might commit a crime and was used as an excuse to harass/abuse black youth in general) and playing Rock Against Racism gigs back in the day, The Specials' "Embarrassed By You" is a catchy, straight up ska track that calls out the perpetrators of knife violence and muggings by moped gangs for feeding into the pernicious stereotype of black Britons as nothing but low-life criminals preying on whites ("We never fought for freedom for nasty little brutes like you/To come undo the work we do...Shame on the footprints you're leaving behind").

"The Life and Times (of a Man Called Depression)" gives the listener heartbreaking insight as to what Terry Hall has endured for years while dealing with manic depression and schizophrenia (at first self-medicating and finally being treated with psychotropics): "The voices inside his head are playing/Chinese whispers/As all around him play hide and seek; But don't ask him to put a smile on his face or to cheer up." The really lovely jazzy, oddly metered backing instrumental track under Hall's words has horn and flute lines that wouldn't be out of place on In the Studio (or what Dammers has done recently with his Spatial AKA Orchestra). The album ends with the subdued orchestral pop gem "We Sell Hope," which is a plea for love and tolerance and a much needed reminder of what could be if we had a bit more empathy and compassion for each other: "Looked all around the world/Could be a beautiful place to live in...We've got to take care of each other/Do what you need to do/Without making others suffer." The 2 Tone message, version 2.0.

That Hall, Golding, Panter and company have delivered a great Specials album at this point in time is a true gift to the fans. (Take the time to fully appreciate it.)

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