Bringing together the disparate words of reggae and indie on their 2015 release ‘Indie Reggae Revolution’, Leeds ten piece collective The Ship-Tones bring the world some of the best mash-ups and re-imaginings since Mark Ronson dropped ‘Version’ to almost unanimous critical praise in 2007. Taking some classic sounding reggae sounds (mostly rooted in the 70s and 80s), the band rebuild a few familiar tunes from the ground up, with largely enjoyable results.
An instantly lovable affair, The Vaccines’ ‘If You Wanna’ appears as ‘If You Wanna Reggae’, complete with Justin Young’s vocal tripped out and echoing – although often retaining a recognisable melody. Meanwhile, The Ship-Tones set to work chugging out a classic tune borrowing heavily from a few Trojan influences throughout, the defining moment coming from an interpolated element of the classic Harry J Allstars hit ‘The Liquidator’. For those wanting a basic grasp of the project’s intentions, this provides one of the best entry points, bringing a melodic track and well known reggae sound together in an almost seamless style. The Inspiral Carpets’ ‘Good For Me’ marries a loud Manc drawl against a rocksteady beat – heavy on the muted guitar chops and constantly throwing out a fuzzy wahed retro sound. Naturally, Clint Boon’s organ sounds blend with the old-school reggae stylings and by the point that Ian Holt steps down, we are treated to a busy – and all too brief – organ solo that lifts the reggae elements ever farther. A second outing for The Vaccines brings a bouncing bass loop and choppy guitars against a heavily stylised vocal performance. Initially it can seem quirky for quirks’ sake, but settling into the chorus of ‘Teenage Icon’, it provides the perfect basis for a catchy and feel-good hook, delivered here with plenty of gusto and joyful harmonies. Low fi acoustic strums make up the bulk of ‘Try It Again’ (featuring Jeffery Lewis) and this short number doesn’t really fit the album at all. While it could be argued the multi-voiced chorus hook has a reggae slant, especially given it’s repetitive nature, very little has been done to modify the material. This sounds like a demo recording of a Robert Pollard-esque DIY musician then tampered with by adding a couple of electronic effects. It’s short, but doesn’t fit the flow of the record; given the talents displayed by The Ship-Tones elsewhere, it’s a mystery as to why this sounds like a job half done – it’s begging for a huge dubby bass loop to compliment the chorus if nothing else.
My listeners will be instantly drawn to the Bob Marley inspired ‘Dialemma’, working a superb bassline against keyboard stabs and joyous group vocals. Taking the lead, Mr. Edwyn Collins cuts a huge presence, his slightly stylised and off-key voice suiting the slow groove. Aside from the fact that Collins is so, so distinctive, the music could have been recorded decades earlier, given The Ship-Tones love of homage and the attention to detail. Of particular importance here, an occasionally stabbed keyboard lends edge while some minor key parped brass adds a darker quality to the lyric. Perhaps best of all, Stephen Malkmus’s ‘The Senator’ (from his highly recommended ‘Mirror Traffic’) is reworked as a slow and heavy groove – hard beats, tight rhythms, meaty bass that barely shifts from its original mission throughout. With the band tapping into an early 70s lovers rock groove, Malkmus’s voice then joins… His slack, drawling style suitable and yet at odds with the lazy, hazy beat. Perhaps it’s not so much his overall performance, but the repeated refrain of “the senator wants a blowjob” that jars against the hot and sunny musical sounds. Once you get past that, of course, it’s plainly obvious why this is essential listening – the marriage of two worlds at opposite ends of a musical scale – and for a Pavement fan, so much fun. The Kaiser Cheifs’ ‘Little Shocks’ (naturally now ‘Ickle Shocks’) is another example of The Ship-Tones imaginative streak blossoming into something natural, but previously unexpected. Ricky Wilson’s hugely English delivery is an odd bedfellow with the chosen music – in this case, a mid-paced belter heavy on the synths that sounds like it could mutate into a remix of ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ at any given moment. A couple of changes in key keep things buoyant across the measured – and brilliantly arranged – verse; the chorus, meanwhile, is one of the more uneasy, but credit to the inventors for not wanting to mess with The Chiefs’ scattergun approach too much.
Although it is not as focused as Little Roy’s collection of Nirvana tunes – and that’s only natural given the broader palette from which The Ship-Tones have chosen to work – when this works, man, it really works. The ten unexpected results are recommended listening for those who enjoy classic (albeit commercial) reggae chops from the days of Trojan through to the 2-Tone scene, or else are keen to hear a few twenty first century indie works with a new set of ears.