Thursday, December 3, 2015

Duff Review: The Selecter "Subculture"


(Review by Steve Shafer)

After hearing how good their String Theory album was from my friend Marc Wasserman (Marco on the Bass blog, Bigger ThomasRude Boy GeorgeHeavensbee)--and then catching their fantastic and surprisingly fun show at New York City's Gramercy Theater in September of 2013--I was curious to as to what I would find on Subculture, the third album from Pauline Black's and Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson's iteration of The Selecter. What finally compelled me to buy the album was randomly coming across Pauline Black's terrific interview with Rachel Martin on NPR in late September, where Black commented that she and Hendrickson are like the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of ska! (It's been a long time since a new ska record has been given a strong promotional push in the US --check out these interviews on Vice's Noisey music blog and Flavorwire, and read a profile of Ms. Black on Vice's women's experiences-focused site, Broadly).

I recently brought along the Subculture CD for a long car trip, since I had many uninterrupted hours to listen to--and digest--this album. From the very first play, I was struck by how many strong, catchy, and pointedly political songs there are on Subculture (apart from two covers, all songs are credited to Black, Hendrickson, and Neil Pyzer--who plays sax, guitar, and keys; recorded and produced the album; and is a former member of post-punk band Spear of Destiny; it also should be noted that the great Prince Fatty did a stellar job of mixing everything). While The Selecter with Black and Hendrickson is clearly rooted in the sound, vision, and social consciousness of the original 2 Tone version of the band, their new songs aren't attempting to be a rehash or clever facsimile of the band's classic sound captured on Too Much Pressure (which, apart from several excellent vintage ska covers and two originals by Black, was very much shaped by Neol Davies' stellar songwriting). The better reference point is Celebrate the Bullet, where The Selecter's sound expanded to incorporate more elements of reggae and rock, as well as material from additional songwriters within the group (on Celebrate the Bullet, Davies wrote five of the tracks, Black composed three, Compton Amanor penned two, and Gaps one).

As the Banksy-like street art cover suggests, Subculture is about presenting the alternative viewpoint in contrast to whatever is being propagated in the mainstream. On one level, the album acknowledges (and celebrates!) ska music's dogged and less-than-glorious place in the pop culture hierarchy. But it also is very concerned with issues of political, social, and economic injustice. Many of the songs on Subculture are written from the point-of-view of the wronged and oppressed--groups of people whose interests are subordinate to those of the dominant society.

Inspired by appalling incidents in both the UK and the US, "Breakdown," the most politically potent song on the album, posits that the relatively frequent unjustified police killings of mostly unarmed (and sometimes handcuffed) black boys, men, and women are a horrific symptom of entrenched racism, societal dysfunction, and purposeful neglect. The failure of government and institutions at all levels to successfully address long-standing issues afflicting disadvantaged communities of color--substandard schools and public services; job and housing discrimination; limited access to health care; grinding and inescapable poverty; crime/addiction; and much more--has created neighborhoods, towns, even entire cities, full of people that have been effectively abandoned/written off. They are "others" apart from the rest of society, who--as the conservative/Ayn Rand-ian narrative goes--through some moral failing/deficit are responsible for their own lot in life (the rich are all self-made men, who achieved great success without anyone else's help, right?)--and, as such, society isn't responsible for their well-being. (It probably doesn't help that the people in these poor communities of color don't have the power to influence or flat out rig the system for their own benefit.)

In these neighborhoods, cities, and towns, nothing functions as it should, including the law and those who are entrusted to enforce it.

"I know a place
Where after six it's shut down
Where police just a drive around
But people just go on with their lives
The same

Stranger beware
The taxicab won't take you there
And he will charge you double fare
He says that there is danger down there

There's going to be a breakdown
A cultural breakdown
A social breakdown
In the eyes of the law
There's going to be a breakdown
A cultural breakdown
A social breakdown
We've heard it all before

Young souls rebel
They need to make a quick buck
They don't rely on nobody's luck
But people just go on with their lives
The same

Out on the streets
People sending dangerous tweets
For five minutes of dubious fame
So, tell me who is to blame?"

After Pauline Black sings, "Some things are so wrong that nothing ever makes it right," Gaps Hendrickson recites a devastatingly long list of black boys, women, and men unjustifiably killed by police in the UK and USA, starting with Stephen Lawrence and ending with Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice (though there seems to be an ever-growing number of new names to add to this list...). "Breakdown" is a "Ghost Town" of sorts for the 21st century (it borrows just enough of "Ghost Town's" structure and snippets of its melody and horn lines to reinforce that notion) and like that iconic song, it reflects the great inequity, fractiousness, and despair of our times.

[I love how this song references "Out in the Streets," which Neol Davies states in the liner notes for Access All Areas was about being young and having nothing to do after the pubs closed at 11:00 pm: "You find yourself driving around the ring road and end up somewhere you wish you hadn't. It was a comment on failed nights out in a city like Coventry--out on the streets again."]

It's fitting that the striking "Karma" follows "Breakdown," as they're of a piece. "Karma" zeros in on individual people's bad decisions instead of society's, though the people in the song (a John and a prostitute, a neglected kid and his drug-addicted mother, an abused woman and her abuser, the rich few and host of impoverished people) are stuck inflicting pain and unhappiness on each other (trapped in the neighborhood, town, or city of "Breakdown"), in an unbroken circle of misery (refrain: "And the world spins around/What goes around, round, round/Always comes back one day").

Could it really be that the last ska song to decry the grossly festering Israeli/Palestinian conflict was The Special AKA's "War Crimes" in 1982? With its sly reference to the Biblical tower of Babel myth in Genesis (early in human history, God thought that humanity--which only had one common language--had too much freedom and power, and were full of hubris, so he created and imposed many different languages on human beings, so they couldn't communicate easily with each other) and its cheeky alliterative pun, The Selecter's "Babble On" (...Babylon) expresses great outrage that the situation in Israel still hasn't be resolved after all these decades (two state solution, anyone?)--and that civilians continue to die on both sides: "I don't care what you say/I don't care who you pray to/You're killing innocents/You're killing innocents/Who cares whose god is greater/If there is one creator?" The song also implies that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict serves as proxy war between Christian and Islamic states and interests, which isn't too far off the mark.

The amazing, upbeat, should-be-a-single "Hit the Ground Running" offers encouragement to someone trying to earn a living on UK's "zero-hour contracts" (employees enter an insane agreement where they are essentially on-call all the time for their employer, who can give them anywhere between zero and 40 hours a week of work--talk about rigging the system to one's complete advantage!), while enduring the needlessly punitive bedroom tax (people receiving housing benefits in public housing can see their rent support reduced if it is determined they have "spare bedrooms").

Not all on Subculture is about bleak, seemingly intractable crises! There are many tracks about friendship and love. "It Never Worked Out" is Gaps Hendrickson's fantastic, melancholy, and regretful tune about all that he might be missing after the demise of a romantic relationship:

"Love was out to get me
I didn't know that
Yes, she treated me bad
I should have seen that
Wasted good, good times
Having good times
I didn't know then
What I know now

Life goes on and on
And we were living it up
Down life's happy road
We were giving it up
Been to lots of places
That I never seen
I didn't know then
What I know now

'Cos it never worked out
Yes, it never worked out

Oh, what life could be
Something keeps haunting me
Things I don't understand
Things I don't do now"

"Box Fresh" recognizes the enduring friendship and musical partnership between Black and Hendrickson, while "Open Goal" is about a couple whose relationship has devolved to the point where the man takes the woman completely for granted. The Selecter's cover of Patti Smith's and Bruce Springsteen's defiant classic rock love song "Because the Night" is given a brisk and pretty successful ska revamp here.

And there are other songs of hope, joy, and resilience, like "Walk the Walk" (whose horn line briefly quotes Dandy Livingston's "A Message to You, Rudy"), "Still I Rise" (written in tribute to Maya Angelou and her poem of the same name about being unbreakable in the face of all manner of oppression), Gap's "Stone Cold Sober" (presumably about successfully taking it one day at a time) and his extraordinary cover of Mr. Foundation's rude boy anthem "See Them A Come" ("Wicked dem come/But we nah run/We have no gun/So we nah run/Look how you get up every day/Saying prayers to the devil, I say/Should be like Cassius Clay/Steadfast strong and never run away/Through the hustlings and jugglings/You have to make a stance").

All in all, The Selecter's Subculture is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable record that should please both graying 2 Tone fans and fresh, new, soon-to-be devotees. Like Madness (who themselves keep releasing brilliant new albums every few years!), they deserve extra points for resisting the lure of relying on nostalgia and doing the hard work of making something great and new.

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