Friday, March 02, 2007

"Talk Is Cheap" / The Toasters

Today started out rainy and ended up sunny and that seems as good a reason as any to listen to some ska. Now, when I think of ska I want it to sound like the Specials or the English Beat -- or like this New-York-based band that's still performing, still recording (as far as I know), and still clinging to that ska-reggae-punk blend that Two Tone Records made famous at the dawn of the 1980s. That retro name (sounds like a doo-wop group from the 50s, doesn't it?) tells you that the Toasters are not about re-inventing the genre: as you'd expect they've got a tight, sly horn section, a hopped-up beat, frenetic percussion, rapid-fire guitar riffs, and a lead singer with a working-class British accent.

This song is even about ska, at least in the first verse: "Well I heard bad news from the man in the street / His shades are dope but his dogs are sweet / Ska isn't reggae, it's a brand new beat / It's the same old tunes on a New Wave beat." The main gist of the song, though, is that people run their mouths all the time and say stupid things. (A warning to all of us critics.)

Ska musicians always seem to me to have their politics in the right place -- they're street-wise cynics who can spot a blowhard or a hypocrite or a bigot a mile away -- and the I've-seen-it-all attitude cynicism is underscored by a jerky, jaundiced minor-key melody. These two lines especially make me snicker: "And I heard some crack about unity / That only works when the beers are free" and "Talk to me about the problems of the world / You want to bone your best friend's girl."

But the lyrics are minimal, really; it's that breathless runaway rhythm that makes this track work, as if the entire ensemble is working like mad just to keep up with each other, fuelled by some kind of crazy adrenaline that I wish they could bottle and sell over the counter. My favorite part of the song is about three-quarters of the way through, when the lead singer launches into the fastest spate of nonsense scat you ever heard, a sarcastic sort of blub-a-da-blub-a-dah that, I swear, makes me imagine nothing but a pair of fat fleshy lips flapping in the wind.

It's no surprise that my son, who loves ska-punk, turned me onto this band -- the speed and energy of this track probably seems normal to a teenage boy's raging metabolism, and the anti-authoritarian political sentiments are perfect for the under-30 mentality. But on a cold, rainy day, we could all use a shot of fierce head-thrusting music with snappy so-there horn flourishes (is it any wonder that ska took off in England?). It certainly kicked my mood up a couple of notches -- just in time for the sun to come out.

Check it out at:;songs&om_act=convert&om_clk=arttabs

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