At the end of a troubled 2020, Bakersfield ska men Mento Buru released an EP full of Christmas cheer. The sunny ska based rhythms were at odds with “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, but that only added to the fun. Not everything on the ‘East Bakersfield Christmas’ EP was of a gold standard, but its best bits – including a terrific ‘Feliz Navidad’ – certainly made it worth checking out and definitely played to the band’s strengths.
The chosen track selection on this second Xmas EP (released in December 2023) mightn’t seem as strong on the surface due to ‘The Christmas Song’ and ‘Feliz Navidad’ already being off the table, but like the first festive EP, when the Mento lads get it right…the results are terrific. A punchy ‘Winter Wonderland’ opens with a chopping guitar and tight roll on the snare drum, almost setting up a new wave feel, before a semi crooned vocal hints at a reggae influence. Moving into the meat of the track, the rhythms hold firm; the guitars cut across a great bassline with a genuine sharpness, and occasional parps of brass suggest something bigger afoot. By the middle of the track, the guitars adopt an even bigger sound, a pointed lead guitar solo adds a vague ska punk quality and, eventually, a huge sing-along hook familiar to pretty much everyone gives the recording a rousing finish.
Stoking up the rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar, the intro of ‘Run Rudolph Run’ sounds as if it takes a cue from The Brian Setzer Orchestra, but quickly steps aside to reveal a brilliant ska driven verse, where a bouncing bass, muted guitar and old style organ do battle in the manner of something from the first Selecter LP. In terms of actual ska, this is the EP’s highlight, and its a real pleasure to hear the band in such tight form. For the second half of the track, there’s a battle for dominance between the busy bass, a returning rock ‘n’ roll guitar, and a horn section throwing out a rousing swing melody. It’s almost impossible to pick the strongest feature since everything sounds superb, and a lead vocal taps into a fun tone that feels vaguely comparable to the least annoying bits of Reel Big Fish, further making this a treat for fans of ska’s third wave. Better yet, ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ allows Mento Buru plenty of room to explore their love of 50s swing thanks to a sizeable brass hook, but they’ve slowed the tempo to allow for a mid-paced ska knees-up to be the main musical focus. There’s still time for a bit of Setzer inspired guitar for balance, and of course, it all works brilliantly. By the time a massive Rico influenced trombone solo takes centre stage, it’s actually possible to forget you’re amid a Christmas classic and not some half forgotten Specials b-side from 1980.
Less effective but still entertaining, ‘Mi Burrito Sabanero’ shifts the mood to more of a mento shuffle with light reggae rhythms underscoring a very Jamaican feel. What it loses in sing-along appeal it makes up for with retro cool, and the understated drum part ensures the music clings to a relaxed feel. If you can tear your ears past the Spanish vocal, you’ll hear another great arrangement unfolding where sparingly arranged backing vocals, another great trombone part and a muted trumpet are all on hand to remind you of how and why Mento Buru’s love of ska and reggae comes from a more authentic place than most of their peers. …And if the Spanish angle works for you, the band also offer a second version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ with a translated lyric that makes it all feel even sunnier! It’s likely not often you’ll find yourself wanting a summertime rendition of a Christmas classic sung in Spanish…but if you do, Mento Buru have you more than covered here.
On top of all of that, you’ll find the self-penned Xmas tune ‘Christmas Time In Bakersfield’, where a timeless rocksteady rhythm worthy of an old Laurel Aitken number helms a world of sassy brass, deep vocals and muted guitars. It doesn’t even matter if you’re interested in Mento Buru’s local history lesson; the music speaks for itself with its steady bass groove, almost jazzy lead guitar and flowing brass. In terms of the style, everything hits the mark…and then some.
Mento Buru might only enter the studio very occasionally – this EP marks the end of a three year recorded silence, and comes over twenty years after the last album of all original material – but they sound great here. There’s a sense of vitality that comes with not being over-exposed (the omnipresent Less Than Jake, a band that really should’ve thrown in the towel years ago, should take note) and the ska angle on the Christmas fare really gives everything a lift. There’s more to Christmas than bland traditions, and more to Bakersfield than Jonathan Davis and his never ending emotional torment, and this tiny package brings ample proof! It’s all rather more “fun” than “essential”, but if you like ska, melodic reggae and good Christmas cheer, you’ll definitely want this download for future enjoyment.