Artist: The Stubborn All-Stars
Album: Back With A New Batch
Label: Triple Crown Records
As is often the case when a non-rock genre finds its way into the mainstream, the "pure" representation of this "new" genre is often still far from the ears of the general public. Though certain hybrid sounds, which combine this non-traditional element WITH rock music may gain some notoriety, it is rare that the "authentic" groups gain as much credit. This has perhaps been no more true than when one considers the seemingly strange emergence of "SKA" music in the mainstream music scene in the mid-1990's. Groups like No Doubt, Save Ferris, and Reel Big Fish were suddenly giving the general public the impression that "this" is how SKA music sounded. However, anyone who has even the most remote exposure to "true" SKA music knows that No Doubt is about as close to SKA music as Courtney Love is to a talented musician. Sure, it SOUNDS like it might be close, but once you lift the EmpTV sheen, nothing but a well constructed poser remains. Yet, even while the groups getting noticed may have not been anything like SKA truly was, there were a handful of groups who were, in fact, bringing about the so-called "third wave SKA revival." Staying true to the core elements of the genre, as well as putting a more modern twist on the sound, there was perhaps no band that better displayed this re-birth of SKA than New York City supergroup, The Stubborn All-Stars. Led by none other than King Django himself, the group was without question the finest of all of the third wave SKA bands, and their sophomore record, 1997's Back With A New Batch, was without question the greatest album of that year, and remains one of the finest records ever recorded.
As is this case with many of the greatest albums of all time, Back With A New Batch is filled with small touches that make it quickly rise above its peers, and many of these nuances are so wonderfully crafted, that they slip by a majority of listeners. For example, take the opening lyric to the album: "I'm back with a new batch, and a hatchet that I bought from scratch." While it may seem like nothing more than a simple rhyme, if one reads the latter as "a hatchet that I bought from Scratch," one can clearly hear it as an allusion to the one and only Lee "Scratch" Perry, who happened to be the writer of the famous song, "Small Axe." Furthermore, knowing that Perry's music is where King Django took his stage name from, it is hard NOT to see this phase as a brilliant allusion. Later in the album, the group pays tribute to one of the other kings of the dub/reggae sound, as the song "Crop No Drop" can easily be heard as a "send up" to the late Bob Marley. While the group makes to attempt to hide their influences, this in no way means that they are copycats or unoriginal in their sound. Truth be told, the music that one finds on Back With A New Batch is some of the most refreshing and positive music of the entire decade, and with the fantastic, mesmerizing hooks, it is easily one of the greatest, most irresistible "groove" records ever made. The fact of the matter is, if after listening to Back With A New Batch, you aren't a bit tired from shaking your butt, you truly need to check your pulse to make sure you are alive.
In many ways, the fact that The Stubborn All-Stars create such brilliant music should come as little surprise, as the group lives up to their name, containing some of the finest SKA musicians on the planet. King Django combines pieces of his former band, Skinnerbox, as well as a handful of other amazing musicians of the genre. Django's trombone, along with the trumpet of Rolf Langsjoen (Skinnerbox) and the saxophone of Dave Hillyard (The Slackers), gives The Stubborn All-Stars one of the most potent and bright horn sections in recent history. On every song, the horns play in fantastic duality to the guitar and organs, and it is the way in which they are present on each track that gives every song its authenticity. The guitar of David Hahn (Skinnerbox/The Slackers) and "Agent J" (Agent 99) is nothing short of the ideal SKA sound, and they even infuse an almost "retro-swing" sound on the lead riff of "Because Of You." Proving that the "classic" sound of SKA is just as potent and enjoyable in the 1990's as it was in the late 1960's, Hahn and Agent J brilliantly fuse together old and new sounds, and the results are pure musical delight. The rhythm section consisting of shared basswork from Victor Rice and Sheldon Gregg alongside drummer Eddie Ocampo, the teams prove to be the key element in the fantastic sound of The Stubborn All-Stars. From the mellow, grooving tracks to the high-tempo musical explosions, they both perform in stunning fashion on every song, and their abilities enables the band to attempt a far wider range of musical sounds than most of their peers. Rounding out the band are keyboard player Paul Ackerman, and organist and SKA legend, Vic Ruggiero from The Slackers. Whether it is the base of "One Glimmer Of Hope" or the light touches on "Lost Out Again," both of these players create the perfect final piece to the bands sound, and the combination of all of these musicians make Back With A New Batch a truly extraordinary wall of sound.
Much like the music, the vocals throughout Back With A New Batch bring together various styles of "island music," from more formal singing to dub-style toasting to fantastic group vocals. A majority of the vocal duties are handled by King Django, and from his rap-singing to his more straightforward vocal approach, he soars on every single track. DJ Jack Ruby Jr. also makes an appearance, as he takes over "toasting" duties on the song, "Tired Of Struggling." There are also a pair of voices in the background that may be recognizable to both SKA and punk fans, as both Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, as well as Dickey Barrett (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) lend backing vocals throughout the album. Regardless of who is delivering the vocals, they fit perfectly on each track, and The Stubborn All-Stars prove that the "formula" works just as well in 1990 as it did three decades earlier. The album also excels lyrically, as King Django writes some of the finest lyrics of his career. From songs which speak of taking responsibility for making your own life better ("Pick Yourself Up") to remembering the small things in life ("Thankful") to classic reggae musings, ("Crop No Drop,") it is clear that the group knows no bounds, and every song is a true musical treat. The group even presents both sides of the idea of "love" as they play the heartfelt "I Can't Touch You," alongside the snarky, amusing "Because Of You." Bringing a lyrical diversity to match the varying musical styles, The Stubborn All-Stars use a variety of vocal approaches and in turn make their sophomore record one of the most sensational albums ever recorded.
Throughout the 1990's, a number of different genre titles were slapped on to popular music that, while perhaps not really what the genre was, gained the label simply because it was the "closest." While this may have made it easier for listeners to classify the style of music, the truth of the matter is that in many cases, this "new" sound was not representative of what the genre actually contained. During the middle of that decade, the term "SKA" was being thrown around to nearly any band that incorporated horns into their music, but were not "retro-swing." Such laziness in genre identification did have one positive effect: the "true" bands of the genre became far more obvious. With their phenomenal music, amazing lyrics, and one of the most mesmerizing and overall enjoyable sounds in music history, The Stubborn All-Stars stood as the ideal example of how SKA music should have been represented. Led by the brilliant vocals and writing of King Django, the group was comprised of many of the most talented and highly respected players in the SKA/dub scene at the time. Their sophomore album also garnered "cameos" from some of the finest names in punk rock, and the varied sounds and styles presented on the album make it one of the finest records ever made. Making every song as enjoyable and engrossing as the next, The Stubborn All-Star's 1997 album, Back With A New Batch, remains as fresh and fantastic today as it did upon its initial release, and this is one of the key elements that makes it one of the greatest albums in the entire history of music.
Standout tracks: "Pick Yourself Up," "Because Of You," and "Crop No Drop."