OF the bands that emerged during the two-tone ska movement in the late 1970s to the early 1980s, it was the Specials who are perhaps the most lauded of them all.
That is why, as they embarked on their reunion tour of 2008, it was well-received with the excitement that spilled on both sides of the Atlantic.
The fact Encore shot to the top of the British album charts this April as soon it was released really says something about them. And I am sure it isn’t only Generation X’ers buying copies.
When was the last Specials album? That was 2001’s “Conquering Ruler.” Some might even argue that the true last album was 1980’s “More Specials.”
In a recent interview, Specials vocalist Terry Hall specifically referred to Encore as the third album. That, of course, is up for debate.
Nevertheless, not since “In the Studio” (released in 1984) has there been excitement about a Specials album (this was credited to Special AKA) .
Unfortunately the band is now down to three members: Hall, vocalist and guitarist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter, with Danish musician Nikolaj Torp (keyboards and vocals), Steve Cradock (guitar), Kendrick Rowe (drums), Tim Smart (trombone and tuba), and Pablo Mendelssohn (trumpet).
Torp, who has performed with the band since 2009, especially makes his presence felt as he is a part of the songwriting process.
It doesn’t matter though if only three from the original line-up are around, because Encore is a special album. Pun intended there.
However, the first thing you have to do when you listen to Encore is to disassociate any of the previous works, especially their seminal debut and follow up “More Specials.”
If you figure 40 years after that wondrous debut, which knocked Britain for a loop, that they would sound the same, think again. Because people change. Sounds and tastes change. If that is your purview, then you are in for a major disappointment.
On the other hand, if you open up your mind, you’ll find that “Encore” is a damn good album that approximates the brilliance of their self-titled debut, albeit wrapped in poly-rhythms.
Occasional reggae, ska
“ENCORE” is a funk-inflected album with occasional reggae and ska overtones. At times, I wondered if the Specials ventured into third-world territory. At times, it feels like listening to cousins of Blondie’s 1980s hit Rapture, complete with the disco vibe.
So, free yourself of that notion and enjoy the album that just as it first did in 1979 when Tory politics, recession, poverty, unrest, war, racism and immigration plagued the United Kingdom. While 40 years later, it seems that nothing has changed: the fire that lit the Specials hasn’t dissipated.
The music though is closer to the styles they explored for the “In the Studio” album, or even Hall’s own Fun Boy Three (after he left the Specials following their second album).
The Specials share their thoughts once more about being one homogeneous family, regardless of race and color after the war is done (Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys), racism (BLM, or Black Lives Matter that Golding narrates in spoken word fashion).
Vote for Me touches on Brexit and is a dead ringer for Ghost Town. They cover Hall and Fun Boy Three, which is also Golding’s former band (formed with ex-Specials mate Neville Staples) with The Lunatics. I love the heavier—if not gloomier—arrangement.
IN Side 2, the Specials find their true groove in this outing.
After Blam Blam Fever, they segue into 10 Commandments, a dub track that features activist Saffiyah Khan also on spoken word to a wailing Hammond organ. (Recall: A photo of Khan was snapped during a standoff with a protester in 2017 while wearing a shirt by the Specials. And now, she’s performing with them on one of the best tracks of Encore.)
Embarrassed By You is a lovely song, and one of the last, with The Life and Times (of A Man Called Depression), and We Sell Hope evoke the late-inning home runs of the Clash’s “Combat Rock” (Ghetto Defendant, Inoculated City and Death is A Star).
I should note that, for all the pent-up anger of this album, the Specials opt to end Encore by taking an optimistic view in We Sell Hope. Aren’t you glad they’re back?
When the lads first formed in 1979, they embraced Jamaican rhythms and imbued it with a “gangly” punk energy. Four decades later, the band—or what is left of it—makes use of everything it has picked up in the world since, and come out with a brilliant and relevant album.
It says that they don’t have to live on their old hits. They can create new ones during these crazy times we live in.