We gave it a B
If it’s possible to characterize a band by its fans, no one knows that better than anyone who works at Entertainment Weekly. By a simple twist of fate, our Manhattan offices are situated directly above the Roseland ballroom and concert hall, and a peek outside before show time reveals a distinctive crowd every night a major tour pulls in. Teens in tie-dye and goofy hats? Must be a Dave Matthews show. Older types still flying the flannel? Hmm, didn’t know the Foo Fighters were in town. If tattooed biker wannabes have turned West 52nd Street into apocalypse right now, that can only mean Pantera are headlining.
For sheer party vibe, though, none of those crowds beat skacore fans. Ska, which was most recently appropriated by the geeky new-wave crowd in the late ’70s (remember the English Beat? Madness?), has returned — but in a beefier, more visceral form. Skacore merges the reggae offshoot with harder punk rhythms and slam-dance catharsis, so whenever No Doubt, 311, or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones play downstairs, out comes the white, wool-hat, baggy-shorts skate-punk crowd. An unseen electrical current seems to charge the long line that snakes around the block. These are people eagerly anticipating a good time and a few good beers; there may not be a more life-affirming, boisterous scene in pop right now.
Such an atmosphere makes it all the more ironic that one of skacore’s biggest heroes is no longer among the living. Last year, just as the Long Beach trio Sublime was about to release its third and most accessible album, lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Brad Nowell died of a heroin overdose. For a band cited as the one that would succeed No Doubt in thrusting skacore into the mainstream, Nowell’s death was tragic in more ways than one. But instead of falling by the wayside, the album, Sublime, became a sleeper hit, going triple platinum and — pardon the expression — scoring several hits.
Just as 2Pac, Kurt Cobain, and the Notorious B.I.G. continue to release new material from beyond the grave, so it is with Sublime. Second-Hand Smoke, the band’s fourth album, is its first set of posthumous leftovers, an unabashed collection of audio flotsam. Its 19 tracks range from lo-fi early recordings (circa ’88) to Sublime outtakes to remixes (a horn-driven version of Sublime‘s lounge-ska ”Doin’ Time”). Not surprisingly, it isn’t as sharp or mosh-pit ready as Sublime‘s headiest moments. An alternate take of ”April 29, 1992 (Miami)” is slighter than the original, lacking the tension appropriate for a song based on the L.A. riots. There’s even a third remix of ”Doin’ Time,” in case the idea of padding wasn’t obvious enough.
As a mini-history of this surf-punk-culture band, Second-Hand Smoke has more than a few crests. Nowell’s charisma and sense of songcraft are clear early on, in the acoustic (but hardly unplugged) 1987 cut ”New Realization,” and his brawny hiccup and skittery guitar licks grow more confident with each song. Sublime’s own evolution from beer-bash trio to sonic experimentalists is also evident. By the end of this chronologically sequenced set, they’re mixing up Peter Tosh instrumentals, duetting with pal Gwen Stefani, and concocting soulful pop-reggae like ”Badfish.”
What isn’t heard is any intellectual development within skacore itself. The movement is riddled with contradictions, and nowhere is that more apparent than with Sublime. Using samples and scratching and covering Bob Marley (Nowell’s intense solo rendition of ”Trenchtown Rock” is a highlight of Second-Hand Smoke), the band’s reverence for reggae and hip-hop—and societal underdogs in general— comes through. But so does its love of alcohol, needles, and boorish behavior. Nowell, reportedly an intelligent, likable guy when not on a partying rampage, dotted his songs with references to ”tits” and being ”horny.” He didn’t seem to sense a problem singing ”Racism is schism on a serious tip,” followed later by ”There’s going to be another chick on my tip/But it won’t be you, baby”—or dismissing another woman with ”You’re just a crock of s— with a pretty smile.” That’s probably not what the Skatalites had in mind several decades ago.
Sublime bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Floyd Gaugh are planning future releases, including one of Nowell’s acoustic recordings. Perhaps that will reveal other facets of their late frontman. Skacore will carry on, but we’ll never know if its biggest talent would have continued to mature—and helped transform skacore into more than just accompaniment for the frat party that never ends. B