I was more than a little distressed to find that the latest line-up of the Selecter, the venerable 2-Tone outfit, hardly resembles the original band at all — the only original member is singer Pauline Black — but despite the rather tenuous claim to the famous name, Cruel Britannia is a pretty strong record. Black’s voice is in classic form, and the band she’s assembled includes ex-members of Bad Manners and the Potato 5 (the legendary Laurel Aitken’s old backing band), so there’s certainly still a pedigree here, even if it’s not pure Selecter.
Most of the tracks sound like the old Selecter, which is a definite plus — songs like “Bad Dog” and the stunning title track wouldn’t be out of place alongside the band’s late-’70s/early-’80s output, while “Never Said I Love You” almost sounds like Blondie covering the Selecter’s classic “Missing Words.” That’s not to say the band doesn’t go past their classic format, though. There’s some nice, atmospheric guitar and keyboard work on “Musical Servant” (a heartfelt tribute to late Skatalite Tommy McCook), for example, while “How Can I Win?” has a nice, jangly, mid-’80s new wave feel (imagine the Icicle Works gone ska, and you’re on the right track). Most striking is the acoustic album-closer “Blind Leading the Blind,” which features Ms. Black’s passionate voice set off only by a single acoustic guitar — absolutely beautiful!
The record is rounded out by four tracks featurning the legendary Dave Barker (of Dave & Ansel Collins/Upsetters fame), which are an even split: choice covers of Delroy Wilson’s “Better Must Come” and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “What a Confusion” are sterling silver, while the toasting on “The Viper” and “Lyrical Sniper” (essentially the same tune) comes off as a little silly, and provides the record’s only low point (though Barker does get some nice growls in on even these two lackluster tunes). Discounting those slight missteps, though, Cruel Britannia is a fine effort that does the Selecter name proud, and a record I can confidently recommend to any 2-Tone fan.
Snapper Music, 3 The Coda Centre, 189 Munster Road,, London, SW6 6AW England; http://www.snappermusic.com/webpages/home.htm