MENTO BURU – East Bakersfield Christmas EP

Their name might not be familiar, but California’s Mento Buru have shared stages with The Specials, Long Beach Dub All Stars, Desmond Dekker, Fishbone and The Aquabats. They’ve been affiliated with the legendary Moon Ska record label. They’ve worked hard to bring good time ska, reggae and Latin sounds to enthusiastic audiences since the early 90s and, by often sidelining the punkier elements that cut through so many of the third wave acts, as their name suggests, they’ve always sounded so much more authentic than some of their would-be peers.

The band began a hit and miss 2020 by issuing a mini album of archive recordings (‘The Skarage Days Revisited ’92-’96’) which acted as a great collection filler for the fan. In many ways, their second release of the year is of much bigger appeal, even if it has a shorter shelf-life in terms of listening opportunities. As its title suggests ‘East Bakersfield Christmas’ finds Mento Buru bringing the sunny sounds of Kingston to the Californian suburbs, contrasting various winter wonderland scenarios with music that often suggests beaches and warmth.

Although only six tracks in length – five different songs and a bonus Spanish translation – the band’s picks are absolutely classic. Their performances often bring so much life to the very familiar songs, and overall, this EP – although quite far removed from traditional festive fare – is a lot of fun.

One of the best xmas songs ever, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ (originally recorded by Bobby Helms and given a brilliant makeover by Brian Setzer) actually works very well as a ska based tune. The previous vaguely country air and swinging riffs are replaced by chopping guitar lines and punchy brass. Setting it up as if it were a classic ska piece from the 90s, Mento Buru effectively rebuild the music from the ground up, but ensure this is quickly recognisable by not changing the vocal melody one iota. It’s actually a smart move, and while you might think a semi-crooned vocal might jar against a frivolous tune, due to a huge display of confidence, Matt Munoz makes it sound like the most natural musical marriage in the world. Musically, the band are in great shape: the guitars approximate a sound somewhere between garage rock and 50s twang; a warm bass dances throughout and the brass is understated but fleshes out a great melody. In fact, the way the trumpet is used to punctuate the closing bars is surprisingly tasteful. In terms of presenting something overly familiar in a whole new way, Mento Buru really hit the mark here. An instant classic, the always uplifting ‘Feliz Navidad’ gets a complete ska makeover, inviting full-on skanking throughout. Cranking the guitars, Mento Buru prove that they’re more than able to muscle in on the Reel Big Fish sound, even if something more traditionally Jamaican is often their preferred. By opening with a guitar driven riff that sounds as if it could drop into The Beat’s ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ at any second, the band instantly get listeners on side, and once the melody explodes into a full scale ska bounce, there’s no mistaking how brilliant it is. The tune that’s quickly set in place is lovably frivolous; it’s perfect for the song’s repetitive vocal refrain – a brilliant hook that sounds as if it were always meant for sunny climes – and during an especially upbeat instrumental break (complimented by familiar shouts of “pick it up, pick it up”) you really feel as though you’re in the presence of a great ska band in full flow. This is absolutely brilliant – an instant highlight on a filler-free release.

Another instant classic, ‘What Child Is This?’ (aka ‘Greensleeves’) allows a brilliant horn section to take the lead. Driving a very familiar riff, the trumpet is bright, but in many ways it’s a sultry sax and moody trombone that win out since these take the weight of the melody. Shifting the focus midway to allow for a superb organ solo and absolutely killer trombone break, this is perhaps the point where Mento show off their musical skills most obviously. By making the traditional melody sound like a deep cut from the Rico Rodriguez catalogue, it’s easy to understand why such so many legendary bands (and The Aquabats) have been keen to take these guys on the road. Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘The Christmas Song’, meanwhile, is transposed to a slow lover’s rock groove where a deep bass and wheezing brass compliment a relatively smooth vocal. It takes a little longer to tune in: the music is fabulous in the way the mellow backbeat drops a lazy, summer groove and the featured sax solo is flawless, it’s just a little unnerving to hear something you’ve always known sung in such a way. A few plays later, there’s plenty to suggest it isn’t as good as ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, but could still provide a welcome distraction on your well curated festive playlist.

Rounding out this yuletide banger are two versions of ‘Donde Esta Santa Claus?’ (one in English, one in Spanish), which applied to a standard Jamaican reggae rhythm sound like a shinier versions of an old Trojan classic. In many ways, the mix of ska, mento and Spanish elements applied to a Christmas scenario brings everything much closer to novelty, but as before, there’s no doubting Mento Buru’s musical talents. The easy brass has a great sound; Matt’s vocals, although reinforcing an Hispanic accent for effect, are perfect for the job in hand and the rhythm section really excel through a display of all round tightness. It might not quite reach the the heights of ‘Feliz Navidad’ and ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ for all round brilliance, but it’s a great performance.

If you’re a fan of Christmas and holiday songs in general, you certainly own these songs in their most familiar recordings already. You possibly even own other takes from a range of pop and rock musicians, but this – ostensibly sounding like a summer disc – lends a whole different vibe to those festive favourites. Although never meant for year round regular spins, you’ll get enough pleasure every December to make it an essential download.

Grab your free copy of ‘East Bakersfield Christmas’ here:

November 2020