The American ska community is a fairly tight-knit bunch — one step beyond your local branch of the Oil Can Boyd fan club — so when a band goes under the radar of the checkerboard mafia, it generally means that they haven’t moved too far beyond the high school talent show phase of their career (the talent aspect probably ought to be surrounded in quotation marks when it comes to barreling through a set of lousy third generation Reel Big Fish covers). For a band of fine musicians to wallow in ska cultural obscurity, after playing around for nearly a decade, is downright absurd.
Enter the Monkey.
After nine years of touring the country and selling self-released records from the trunks of cars, the San Francisco-based group finally managed to catch a bit of a break, landing themselves a spot on Mike Park’s Asian Man Records, alongside some of the most notable names in the genre. Cruel Tutelage, the group’s first record for the label (their third in all), is their warmest, fullest record to date: an organ driven affair that happily marries first-wave ska and rocksteady with rock guitar, with the occasional Perry-esque echo-heavy dub thrown in for good measure. The record sways back and forth between mellow Hepcat-type grooves and more rocking affairs, no doubt the product of many a late night spent wearing down the vinyl of a few Toots and the Maytals LPs.
“Shanty Party” and “Voice of America” are the record’s stand out tracks, and even if nothing quite matches “$30 Suit” and “Bachelor” from the band’s debut, Changito, in terms of pure energy, Cruel Tutelage is easily the group’s most fully-realized effort. Though Monkey is no doubt a bit more mature (both musically and literally) than your co-worker’s nephew’s ska band, Cruel Tutelage does manage to sneak in a bit of juvenilia, as the track “Trailer Park Love” attests — although, anyone who might suggest that your average ska fan in the year 2005 is much older than twelve, ought to find themselves a new prescription for their horn-rims. Perhaps then, a track with a line like “I don’t think she even knows how many mangy mullet men she’s ever known” will work towards the band’s advantage, because after all, unless you’re a member of The Slackers, too much maturity can oft be a ska band’s death knell.
Whether 2005 will be the year of the Monkey is in the eye of the beholder. Anyone who might suggest that Cruel Tutelage will the land the group a spot in the hearts of millions is, well, apeshit. But as long as the album does well enough to keep the band around to teach the kids a thing or two (cruelly, or otherwise) about what good ska can be, it can’t be all bad.