By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Seventeen years after their debut, this version of the Specials--which corrals a few of the originals (Neville Staples, Roddy Byers, Horace Panter) but suffers from the absence of Jerry Dammers--doesn't even sound like it ever heard the first. If ska is indeed being reborn, then the Specials are here to kill the progeny dead in their cribs. Anyone dumb enough to pick this up thinking the first still do it best is going to get the wrong idea: Ska doesn't mean watered-down reggae or synth-pop, and it only means Neil Diamond songs if you're UB40.
The Specials wrote some of the best songs of the ska/punk era that asked tough questions with a tough sound. But without an original song in sight, today's Specials cover Bob Marley ("Hypocrite," "Simmer Down"), Peter Tosh ("Maga Dog"), and Desmond Dekker ("Shanty Town 007") when they want to get political; the Clash when they want to get powerful ("Somebody Got Murdered"); Dave Brubeck ("Take Five") when they want to go off; and Diamond when they want to go pop.
The slick, hollow result makes you wonder if the horns aren't as synthesized as the soul (without Dammers as foil, Staples sounds as thin as the backing dance beat), and in the end, the Specials are as tedious as any reggae band that covets a groove more than a song. That they can't even find the groove only makes a bad situation worse.
Songwrights and wrongs
In Their Own Words, Volume Two
Razor and Tie Records
If the first installment in the series rescued the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl" from new-wave oblivion and highlighted the anonymous pens behind a handful of '60s soul hits, then the new CD pushes the limits: William Bell reclaims his "Born Under a Bad Sign," while Sir Mack Rice stakes his claim to "Mustang Sally"; Billy Bragg and Suzanne Vega and John Cale do their "hits"; Marcia Ball nails Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927"; and Jill Sobule makes pop-folk hay of "I Will Survive."
But the so-called unplugged format inadvertently validated the likes of Great White while it cut the legs out from underneath Nirvana. So just because Scandal's Patty Smyth gets included on an all-acoustic album celebrating the craft of songwriting doesn't mean she deserves a medal. She just sounds better unplugged because everything turns to "art" when strummed on an acoustic guitar--especially crap.