Back in the mid 90s, some of my friends were big Skunk Anansie fans. It took me a while to appreciate them though, since although their albums were solid enough and I recognised their frontperson Skin had a fantastic voice, sometimes I felt the music didn’t always have that sledgehammer edge the anger within their lyrics often demanded.
I saw them live a couple of times, though – once at the Phoenix Festival in 1996 and in a support slot for KISS the following year. In the live setting, Skunk Anansie were terrific; the music had that extra something and Skin proved to be one of those people who could hold an audience in the palm of her hand from the minute she stepped on stage. During their KISS support, they were especially good, even having the edge over the day’s other angry band Rage Against The Machine, whom, despite meticulously crafted, sharp rhythms and outspoken political views, played their fifty minutes on autopilot.
Skunk Anansie disbanded in 2001, but reformed eight years later. In the summer of 2010, I had the pleasure of seeing them live once again. Skin seemingly hadn’t aged a day and, as before, captivated the audience with her brimming confidence. Within minutes, it was hard to believe that thirteen years had passed since I’d last seen them.
I initially had mixed feelings regarding the release of a new Skunk Anansie album. Their early works were often overshadowed by their live performances and since that summer 2010 performance came as a timely reminder of how good Skunk were live, I feared that ‘Wonderlustre’ would pale in comparison.
This time around, that’s less of an issue, since ‘Wonderlustre’ carries a fair amount of softer material. You’ll find little here as overtly angry as ‘Little Baby SwastiKKKa’, ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’ or ‘Selling Jesus’, with the band concentrating more on songs which really bring out the cry within Skin’s vocal range. This is demonstrated excellently during ‘Talk Too Much’, a beautiful combination of lush orchestration and rock guitars and ‘The Sweetest Thing’, a funk rock swagger where the vocal arrangement (strong lead counterbalanced by harmonies in a not-quite-call-and-response style) is the main focus. During ‘Feeling The Itch’ Skin’s hushed tones are delivered in a high register and with a great strength and despite the heavy usage of drum machine on those verses, a solid, guitar-driven chorus brings out the best of the harder end of her vocal.
‘You Saved Me’ is probably ‘Wonderlustre’s greatest track, one absolutely made for radio – and probably one of the greatest tracks Skunk Anansie have ever recorded. Clean toned guitars, understated bass work and sharp but gentle drums back Skin, who delivers a really soulful and honest performance. Subtly multi-tracked vocals create an extra layer on this great rock ballad, which encapsulates georgeousness without ever becoming sappy. Even at its most powerful moment, the band resists any temptation to give this track any aggressive qualities.
The lead single ‘My Ugly Boy’ has a hard rock edge, a truckload of confidence and a memorable, but simplistic hook. It’s more in keeping with a more “traditional” Skunk Anansie style. That said, although it’s punchier than at least two thirds of ‘Wanderlustre’ it’s still rather less urgent than some of Skunk’s previous works. In their nine year absence, Skunk Anansie have matured a great deal and mellowed, possibly to their advantage. ‘Over The Love’ features a quieter verse, where Skin demonstrates her full vocal range, where between the power and passion, she occasionally hits notes which are so loaded with pain, they almost don’t register. This is contrasted well by the rock chorus, which manages to remain hard without getting heavy. ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ captures Skunk rocking out with staccato rhythms and a spiky, bouncing riff. It’s notable for being one of the times Skin’s vocal style most closely resembles its angrier performances of the 90s. In many ways, this sticks out a little as part of ‘Wonderlustre’, but its inclusion means this album comes close to covering nearly every musical style within Skunk Anansie’s repertoire.
One of the album’s most interesting numbers, ‘You’re Too Expensive For Me’ employs a distinctly London style vocal against a choppy rhythm which incorporates elements of new wave, funk and reggae – and as such, is slightly reminiscent of early work by The Police. The chorus falls into a more standard rock territory, but is none the worse for that. The guitar parts with their moderately loud approach (but once again, clean tone) provide a decent enough backdrop for Skin, who in turn, drops the almost spoken delivery of the verses for an effortless wail, nearing full belt.
It takes a while before you realise how good ‘Wonderlustre’ is. There are some great songs here. No doubt some of you would have preferred something with consistently more bite. However, what ‘Wonderlustre’ does, it does well, marking a very welcome return for Skunk Anansie, who on this album, are content with moving forward and aren’t attempting to recreate a carbon copy of their past sounds.