Music Reviews

The Pietasters


Fueled By Ramen

Since ska arrived in America it has become an elaborate minstrel show, as white boys (and girls) have compromised it roots and codified it as an all-white form. Admittedly, there are a few exceptions to this phenomenon, The Pietasters being one. Not only are The Pietasters influenced by the riddims of 1960s ska and rocksteady, but their sound also borrows the gritty vocal stylings, punctuated by resonant horns, that is synonymous with Stax soul. (Incidentally, it was this very brand of Southern soul that in part gave birth to ska). The Pietasters appreciation for both forms is immediately apparent on Turbo, the band’s fifth studio release. In fact, at times they sound better as a soul band than as a ska band.

Turbo opens with “Told You the First Time,” on which Steve Jackson belts out some of the most invigorating soul since Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett (see also, “Got To Stay” – it’s hard to believe this is a white boy). Quickly shifting gears, the band rips through “Set Me Up,” a swift-tempo number that is reminiscent of the good ska that emerged in the mid-1990s (the brand of ska that fell somewhere between Hepcat and Steady Earnest, not to be confused with the minstrel drek of The Toasters and many of their Moon Ska acolytes). A slew of reinterpretations begins with a straight up rocksteady take on Derrick Morgan’s “Drunken Master.” Over the slower-paced, bouncing syncopated beat DJ Selah offers his facility as a seasoned chatter, nodding to the early dancehall era of the mid-1970s. Also included are soulful covers of Bob Marley’s “Mellow Mood,” a song whose title speaks for itself, and a mellifluous version of The Zombies’ “How We Were Before” that appropriately concludes the album.

Throughout, the listener is aware that it is not just Jackson’s set of pipes that makes The Pietasters so damn convincing as both a soul and ska band. With utter dexterity, the musicians who lay down the rhythmic textures of this album straddle the gap between The Skatalites and Booker T. and the MGs. This is best witnessed on the melodious instrumental “Step Right Up,” where Jackson’s often overshadowing vocals are absent.

Despite Turbo’s corroboration of The Pietasters’ maturation as a group of musicians who really understand the variegated traditions from which they came, there are a few regrettable inclusions. “Every Afternoon” is a bit too poppy, evincing a Brady Bunch “Sun Shine Day” feel. Intimating some semblance to the rot that defecated on the roots of ska several years back, “Wrong With You” really just doesn’t fit. Nor does “Got To Stay,” a song whose vocals seem too forced. However, the likelihood of these few songs detracting from the rest of the album is nugatory. With ska recently trying to poke its head aboveground, we are again deluged with lackadaisical interpretations (a nicer way of say “minstrel versions”) of the originators (who are not Operation Ivy and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, for those of you who have no idea of ska’s roots – then again, it’s not your fault that MTV and Rolling Stone haven’t a clue). I am not even going to attempt to make sense of contemporary soul music. Is there even such a thing anymore? Point is, The Pietasters don’t just love the traditions of ska and soul, but honestly understand the lessons of their ancestors. Turbo is a fine attestation of this love and understanding.

Fueled By Ramen Records:

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