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ALBUM REVIEW: "ENCORE" by The Specials

Island
The Specials latest album, "Encore," has a political urgency needed in our divided and troubled world.
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ALBUM REVIEW: ENCORE by The Specials (Island) 2019

Extra! Extra! After so many years, the classic ska-punk icons, the Specials, returned to the studio, giving those with ears to hear, Encore, an album that is, as others have noted: “frighteningly relevant.”

And it seems to me that the triumphant return of the 2 Tone ska revivalists – which includes vocalist Terry Hall, bassist Horace Panter and guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding – is offering up a platter that really, really matters in 2019, when racism and fascism seems to be rearing its ugly heads once again, sadly.

This is the first Specials album of new material since 1998’s Guilty ‘til Proved Innocent! Additionally, this is the first time since the 1981 “Ghost Town” single that Hall has appeared on a Specials recording.

This groove-heavy album kicks off optimistically enough, with a cover of The Equals’ 1973 all-is-one-melting-pot song “Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys,” penned by Eddy “Electric Avenue” Grant and offering an idealistic vision of a world where the color of one’s skin is not an issue because we are all the same color. While that won’t be happening in our lifetime, the song is funky and with an emphasis on fun.

Before I continue, I should mention that aiding the key Specials on this LP are guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kenrick Rowe and horns by Pablo Mendelssohn and Tim Smart, along with strings provided by Tom Pigott-Smith, Oli Langford, Ian Burdge and Bruce White. That said, founder Jerry Dammers, along with other original members like Roddy Radiation and Neville Staple are not involved. And, sadly, John Bradbury, the band’s drummer, passed away four years ago.

Anyway, the Specials have a lot to still say on Encore, as evidenced on “B.L.M.” (aka “Black Lives Matter”, where Golding gives a spoken word, over a funky, disco beat, about coming to the UK as a child, from Jamaica and facing ugly racism there, and later in the United States.

With UK still reeling from the insanity that is Brexit, and the renewed rise of the far-right, “Vote For Me” is a bit of slinky reggae/ska that is a cautionary tale about the Tories and UKIP and growing anti-intellectualism across the board.

The horn section helps buoy the 1982 Fun Boy Three track “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum,” shortening it to “The Lunatics.” There are those Reagan references (“Go nuclear the cowboy told us”) and yet remaining relevant as the war drums pound again this very day! Fun Boy Three had been Hall and Golding with the aforementioned Staple as well, who had started it after leaving the Specials in 1981.

Again, with songs like sinister-carnival sounds of “Breaking Point” (I’m thinking Squirrel Nut Zippers a bit here) things are pretty damn serious: “With the help of God and a few Marines / We’ll blow this place to smithereens / Here we are at breaking point.” Are you paying attention?

A cover of The Valentines track “Blam Blam Fever” is timely, in light of all of the school-and-other shootings that have plagued America for years now, but only seems to be getting worse in a society where Trump and his crazed followers go waving guns around and hiding behind the 2nd Amendment when more innocent blood is spilled. (And does Hall sound like Phish’s Trey Anastasio here, or am I imagining that?)

“Embarrassed By You” calls out the hoodie-wearing yobs - “nasty little brutes” – who stab and steal and “bring shame of this country” by their thuggish actions. Yeah, these guys are getting older and crankier. But it sounds right in these troubled times.

I particularly liked “10 Commandments” which features UK socialist/feminist Saffiyah Khan, who was famously photographed standing up to fascist bullies wearing a Specials T-shirt. The lyrics are pointed, coming from Khan who has a fearlessness that I find utterly refreshing, particularly as she said “I shall not be the icing on your cake and I shall not be the candy on your arm / But I shall be seen and I will be heard,” Khan declares over a reggae/dub groove. These “commandments” by Khan should be noted by all women, worldwide.

“The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression)” is honest in its depiction of Hall’s mental health issues, as a Ray Manzarek-styled organ rains gently, like “Riders on the Storm.”

Can we say Encore ends on a “hopeful” note? Yes, with the nearly-ethereal “We Sell Hope.” The Specials long for a better world where we take care of one another and that if all were appreciated and valued, the world “could be a beautiful place to live in.”

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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