Readers of my on-again, off-again blog have probably come to realize that I only write reviews of albums that I like. Perhaps I just don’t like offending anyone, or perhaps my goal is simply to share with you good music. Why should I waste my time and yours writing about something uninspiring to me?
When I spoke to Dave Wakeling (yes, I am name-dropping) about this a few months ago, he made a rather valid point. He said something along the lines of, “Bobby, if you love everything, that makes your reviews seem less credible.” Never to argue with The King of Ska, I can only say in my defense what I opened with: I am not inspired to write about “bad” music. I am only inspired to write about music that I truly love. So, yes, it may appear that I “love” everything. Not so. I only write about it if I love it, at least for now.
And the latest record that I truly love is the debut masterpiece of The Skapones, Cradle to Grave.
The 9-member band hails from the Tees Valley in northeast England, and they have branded their sound as “Northeast 2Tone Ska.” When I first heard three of The Skapones’ singles, two of which appear on this debut gem of an album, I found myself coming up with my own name for their unique sound: “Soulful Ska,” a mix of ska and 1960’s Northern Soul. But I’m not sure my description quite effectively captures their sound. On “Betrayal of Trust,” for example, I am transported to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” a song I have loved since I was a child. Think of a mix of “Downtown” and the classic 2Tone music of The Specials.
Speaking of The Specials, “(From) Cradle to Grave,” a single that hit #1 on the UK Reggae charts, sounds like a fresh reinterpretation of “Gangsters.” Another single that does not appear on the album, “The Ghost in Me,” harkens to the soulful and romantic style of Dusty Springfield, with rich 2Tone undertones from the horn section.
Paul Willo’s crisp, clear, and poignant tenor voice shines on this album, and his bandmates back him up beautifully, particularly that aforementioned horn section.
“The Rolling Years” kicks off the album. “I remember the crackle you only got from vinyl,” Willo plaintively and nostalgically croons. But somehow, the song is not sorrowful, with the upbeat horns leading the way to the final, hopeful lyric, “The childhood memories, how it used to be, keep me warm as time goes by.” “The Rolling Years” is a perfect beginning to the album, setting the stage for our trip down ska’s memory lane.
The aforementioned “Betrayal of Trust” is next, a song I could honestly play on repeat for an hour or two without the nostalgic smile ever leaving my face.
Just when you think you’re in store for 12 tracks of nostalgic memories, “track 3, “Benefit Street,” brings you right back to the modern reality of single mothers and hardworking immigrants. The song is unabashedly political, making a bold statement about right-wing moral corruption. I’m blown away by the unexpected electric guitar solo blazing through the middle of the song. It’s sheer brilliance.
“Masque of Anarchy” is next, and it continues the thoughtful consideration of modern political sins in the form of a rollicking, “patriotic” ska tune — quotation marks around “patriotic,” because I sense a dose of well-intended parody here. The song ends with a beautiful round and harmonies.
“My Lady” continues the carefully considered political discussion, a beautiful sax solo breaking through midway.
“From Cradle to Grave,” a well-deserved hit single, follows, and it’s an absolutely perfect homage to ska. “From cradle to grave/It’s been Ska, Two-Tone, New Wave/I’ve lived the life that I wanted to live/from cradle to grave” are perfect lyrics for a perfect song.
A lone harmonica takes us right into “JB’s body,” as we move from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to “Taps,” to an upbeat, electrified dirge. What a song! The electric guitar, the horns, the ska beat throughout … JB gets a proper send off.
The next two songs are about girls — “The Girl Inside” and “Redhead Girl.” But don’t expect predictable, cliched lyrics: expect, instead, a continuation of the intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics that permeate the album.
Back to politics, and the Tories (the song title is “T.O.R.Y.”): “they want your money and they want your soul.” At this point, I’m quite happy to give both my money and my soul to the Skapones, mostly because they have done what few others do: write intelligent lyrics set to rip-roaring ska beats. And I’ll take that trumpet solo any day of the week.
The album closes with “Captain Cutlass” and “Skapones a Go Go,” two upbeat numbers that serve as a fitting close to this instant masterpiece. I try to avoid hyperbole, but it’s almost impossible to do in this case. Cradle to Grave is an album that does the ska genre justice and then some.
However you would like to categorize the sound of The Skapones — “Northeast Ska,” “Soulful Ska,” or perhaps even “Downtown Ska” — I am confident you will file Cradle to Grave at the very top of your collection, within easy reach, to enjoy again and again and again. You might even like it so much, you decide to buy a t-shirt.