The Decemberists’ outstanding “January Hymn”, the possible centerpiece to their very fine new album THE KING IS DEAD has been released on a nifty vinyl single, but the real curveball is the flip side’s cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Row Jimmy”, which hails from that band’s fantastic 1973 LP WAKE OF THE FLOOD. I say curveball because even though Colin Meloy has indulged in a fruitful solo sideline by covering the music of artists diverse as Anne Briggs, Morrissey and Sam Cooke, The Decemberists proper have never promoted themselves as cover stylists outside of the occasional bone thrown in the live context. I count this as the second non-self-penned studio track from the group, the other being a Joanna Newsom tune circa PICARESQUE, and it’s appearance, surely nothing more than a charming diversion (unless it isn’t, maybe being a harbinger of a welcome new development), also helps in the current redirection of the band away of Anglo-folk derived concerns toward the rootsier rock of home shores. The original “Row Jimmy” is a Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia number of typically exceptional compositional distinction, so while there is no need to deviate from the tune’s structure, the band still manages to blend in their strong personality, easily expressed here most prominently through the unique sound of Meloy’s voice but also more subtly through a deft density of approach. So it’s simultaneously immediately identifiable as a Decemberists’ tune and instantly recognizable as an ace plucked from the Dead’s very choice ‘70s’ studio run. And where the Dead differ from The Decemberists in their long established interpretive skill at cover-science (any Dead-ish Head will certainly back up this claim), this take on “Row Jimmy” is spiritually in line with how Garcia, Weir and Co tackled other’s material, a modus operandi that smartly integrated those outside sources into the band’s expansive trademark sound, a trait they shared with their many of their San Francisco psyche brethren. While this version of “Row Jimmy” is solid and well delivered, I’ll also fess up to being something of a sucker for Dead covers, particularly when they spring from places not easily identified as being in league with the magnetic draw of the band’s iconoclastic relaxed intensity. Part of my enjoyment derives from seeing the Dead vindicated from the unfortunate and largely erroneous rep as an exemplar of Hippie excess. Younger ears mightn’t get it, but the Dead were once victims of generational musical friction. The pendulum of opinion has been swinging in the band’s favor for a while now, an arc that can be traced all the back to the Meat Puppets’ second and third LPs (II and UP ON THE SUN, released in ’84 and ’85) and aided by exceptional ‘80s avant-guitar cornerstones Henry Kaiser and Eugene Chadbourne, collaborations between the Dead and out-jazz giants Ornette Coleman and David Murray, John Oswald’s enigmatic and endlessly rewarding GREYFOLDED (an intricately finessed studio construction derived from tapes of the live magnum opus “Dark Star” that spreads out over two compact discs), the warm wrinkles of the freak folk/New Weird America scene and Animal Collective’s oft-stated love-debt to the immense sound thicket of the Dead’s extensive oeuvre. Now I’m in no way thin-skinned when it comes to anti-Dead sentiment; I love and understand Teen Idles’ “Deadhead” and Eleventh Dream Day’s “Bomb the Mars Hotel” both musically and for what they represent in historical context, but my point is that the sincerity of natural reaction and the inevitability of cultural sea-changes often become codified, hardening into and handed down as received wisdom that most often afflicts genres of music, i.e. Cool Jazz is square, Free Jazz is noise, Fusion is a commercial sell-out, Blues Rock is unworthy of its influences, Prog is self indulgent claptrap, Disco sucks, Punk is pretentious, Hip-Hop isn’t “real” music etc. But sometimes it burdens specific artists as well, such as Chet Baker (inferiorly talented White interloper), late-Coltrane (called “insane” as Chuck D sagely identified), electric-Miles (a betrayer of jazz, nailed to the cross fairly recently by Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch), the Monkees (untalented ciphers propped up by studio musicians), The Germs (marginally talented poseurs rescued in the studio by Joan Jett’s production) and yes The Grateful Dead (unfocused drug-addled noodlers). Baloney all the way and nonsense to the power of six. I’m fairly certain that The Decemberists had none of this on their mind when taking on “Row Jimmy”, instead just wanting to kick out a fine, noteworthy B-side, but one of the great aspects of music, all art in fact, is the reward of unintentional dividends. And baby, this one’s positively soaking in them. Enjoy.
As much as I’m an unabashed fan of Jamaican Ska and island-derived sounds in general (the druggy strangeness of Dub being my personal tip-top, but also Mento, Rock-Steady, Reggae [natch] and even discreet doses of Dance-Hall), I’ll admit that for years I completely avoided and vocally disdained the US-UK derived Ska revival in toto, and for the most part I still do. On the North American side of the equation I’ve yet to hear an example of the form that’s anything beyond mildly diverting, with the possible exception of San Fran’s The Offs, whose kooky “Everyone’s a Bigot” is included on the seminal Alternative Tentacles punk comp LET THEM EAT JELLYBEANS. A big part the phenomenon, particularly the British end of the movement, was inspired by The Clash, a band that in my estimation continues to hold the most outsized reputation of all the canonical UK punk bands, frankly inferior to the often criticized Sex Pistols and a prime example of the Springsteenization of punk rock (an idea I’ll save for another time). If these statements get anyone’s hackles in an uproar, please just shrug it off as strokes of a differing sort. My point in bringing it all up isn’t to take a leak in any reader’s well balanced breakfast, but instead to actually advocate in favor of the scene known as 2 Tone. Where I was once wont to dismiss that impulse as the result of kids playing dress-up, at this date I can only borrow the words of some old Hippies and say that alas, I was so much older then. At its best 2 Tone retained and adapted the brittle seductiveness of island-Ska’s still potent style, redirecting it into a giddy, celebratory party music that could ride tough mid-tempo groves and also shuffle up a storm. While there are numerous collections available that detail 2 Tone’s arrival and development, I really feel the sound is best exemplified by The Specials’ 1979 self titled debut LP. Formed in ’77 by principles Jerry Dammers, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, all individuals with an intense knowledge and devotion to Jamaican music and culture, they filled out to a septet that honed a heavily calculated triangular geometry where all points were given equal emphasis: image (looking sharp signifying mental sharpness), ideology (hold yr head up, be proud, assist yr mates, never fall victim to the bugaboos of race or class) and music (the soundtrack to the survival of the downtrodden). All of this would be admirable but unexceptional if the songs weren’t up to snuff, but in the case of this record that’s thankfully not an issue. And while the 2 Tone movement is sensibly identified as a branch of the whole punk impetus, the well groomed focus of The Specials and cohorts was markedly distinct from the often disheveled anarchic spirit that surrounded much of the other limbs and stems, similar to the refined attitude carried by Mods like The Jam. Actually, Mod and Brit-Ska are very closely aligned, sometimes overlapping, with both essentially unconcerned with throwing over any real or perceived old musical order and far more focused on gleaning the best bits from only the finest antecedents and reframing it into a contemporary environment. That’s why some folks continue to deride Mod and 2 Tone as retro in function, but I disagree. The better operative term is neo. What’s harder to deny is that the blatant style-consciousness they displayed helped along the eventual dissolution of punk’s unkempt threat into the softer attitudes of late-New Wave and New Romanticism in particular. But they weren’t the only or close to the biggest factor contributing to punk’s decline/eclipse, they’re just an easy target, and one that I and others used as a scapegoat for many years. But SPECIALS is so good it can withstand the naysayers, opening with one of their signature songs, “A Message to You, Rudy”, a cover of Dandy Livingstone’s 1967 Rocksteady classic. The difference between the two is palpable. Where the original is relaxed and confident, the Specials’ version is tougher, displaying a woozy tension that points to the air of desperation that enveloped the era. It also features the sly trombone of Rico Rodriguez, a Ska vet that helped imbue the tune with an aura of legitimacy. From there the band glide through a sharp set of originals with a few more choice covers thrown in, namely Prince Buster’s “Too Hot”, Toots & the Maytals’ “Monkey Man” and the Coxsone Dodd penned “You’re Wondering Now”. Some of the tracks display a decided nod to punk atmosphere, “It’s Up to You” “Concrete Jungle” and in particular the conclusion to “Stupid Marriage”, but others like “Doesn’t Make It Alright” attain a looser mood that really aids the record’s needed sense of variety. It’s not a study in perfection, however. “Too Much Too Young”’s six minutes could’ve used some trimming and the up-tempo slinkiness often loses the intensity of the slower numbers, “Little Bitch” being a nice exception. But overall nothing really detracts much from the high-minded thrust of the whole affair. Plus it should be said that along with his chair-time with The Pogues, this is Elvis Costello’s best work as a producer (not that he has a particularly long list of credits). So there, I said it. SPECIALS won’t make any doubters go out to buy a mohair suit and loafers or for that matter start wearing sunglasses indoors at night, but ears not entirely allergic to the marriage of style and substance could find themselves the recipient of a very good time.