The Slackers: Ska Lifers

God bless Vic Ruggiero et al, who turn old dogs into new, vaguely dog-like creatures

Better Late Than Never, the Slackers' first full-length CD, came out in 1996 on a label called Moon Ska Records, founded by a guitarist named Robert Hingley. People called him "Bucket." Bucket was in a band called Not Bob Marley, later renamed the Toasters. He formed Moon Ska to release the records nobody else would. This becomes a theme.

Around that time, Moon Ska opened a storefront on East 2nd Street to sell records nobody else sold: old ska, early reggae, Jamaican r&b, import-only compilations of Northern Soul, and bands that Moon Ska themselves were supporting. (I remember myself at 15, staring into their glass case of buttons and patches, dreaming of a bomber jacket.) The store moved to East 10th, expanded, and closed before 2000. Then the label went bankrupt. The Wetlands Preserve, a club on Hudson and Laight that nurtured ska, closed shortly thereafter. Condos. Ska in New York might live on, but I'm not sure where.

Still, some of the bands from that era—the Slackers, for example—soldier on, touring, recording, preserving the music they love. I mention Moon Ska because the label was a bad fit for those guys to begin with. Moon felt all-ages. They released spiky, positive music for checker-clad kids ready to pogo. Fans called it "third wave"—it retained ska's emphasis on the off-beat, but replaced most of its r&b roots with the vibrancy of punk and new wave. The Toasters, the Pietasters, Let's Go Bowling, the stupidly named but surprisingly great Mephiskapheles . . . even No Doubt showed up on some of Moon's first compilations.

Prepare a Bronx accent.
Joelle Andrews
Prepare a Bronx accent.

The Slackers, by comparison, play music as if music died in about 1965. Or maybe it lived on in a couple of countries until 1970, but certainly not in America or England—no funk, no hippies, no Beatles. In the words of keyboardist and singer Vic Ruggiero (prepare a Bronx accent), "The caterpillar told them not to eat the mushroom on the right. But they did, and for 15 years now, they've had to play Imaginary-Jamaican-Rock-and-Roll, and try to explain that to everyone who passes."

They immediately signified as classy, or at least tried to sound classy—or, really, they sounded like genial barflies who replaced class with heart. Sometimes, they experiment with jazz flourishes, sometimes Latin music, sometimes early rock 'n' roll. Their second album, 1997's Redlight, ended with the sound of vinyl noise. Corny sometimes, entertaining always.

The Slackers have never progressed because they reject progression. They've released more than a dozen albums—none of them reinvent anything. It's nostalgic, in a way, but nostalgic for a blend that never existed. At their best—the first song to mind is 1997's "Soldier"—they make a new sound out of old music that seemed dead. They didn't always teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes they took a bunch of old dogs, cut them up, and made some vaguely dog-like creature that did things no other dog could.

At this point, such a sonic commitment puts them in league with bluegrass musicians—acolytes to styles that have never been truly popular, will never be popular, and exist as a kind of philosophical rejection of all things new. They tour: Europe, Canada, Asia, and sometimes the U.S., where ska exists more as a sidebar to museum-style punk rock than anything else. (Punk and ska share some ideals and history—for years, the Slackers were on Hellcat Records, co-founded by Rancid's Tim Armstrong.) Ruggiero still wears mutton chops and a goatee. Other members are graying.

The Slackers are traditionalists or re-enactors, artists who privilege craft over innovation. They live in a safe and imaginary world, but at least it's one they created. Their latest release is an odds-and-ends compilation called Lost and Found. On the band's website, saxophonist Dave Hillyard writes, off-handedly summarizing their career, "So yeah, it's a fun CD, new and old at the same time."

The Slackers play the Knitting Factory December 18 and 19

 
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