The British ska revival of the late '70s produced a slew of talented and rhythmically contagious bands. There were the Specials, Selecter, Madness and, best of all, the complex and versatile English Beat, a band that was just gaining popularity in America when it disbanded in 1983. English Beat fans weren't too disappointed, though, as the group's lead singers, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, quickly formed a new group, General Public, with a sound close to that of its predecessor.
Lost in the shuffle, however, were the English Beat's bass and lead guitarist, David Steele and Andy Cox, who had embarked on a somewhat frustrating search for a new singer around whom to build their band. They finally found Roland Gift, who was singing R&B in London Pops, and Gift turns out to be more than worth the wait. "Fine Young Cannibals" (IRS-5683), the group's namesake debut, not only outstrips General Public's "All the Rage" by a soulful mile, it offers some of the most emotionally potent classic soul and contemporary pop and rock in memory. The group will appear Feb. 20 at the 9:30 club.
One hearing of Gift's anguished singing on the album's first cut, "Johnny Come Home," reveals Gift's vocal stylings as vastly richer and deeper than the pleasing but whitewashed soul mannerisms of a Boy George or a George Michael. In the song, Gift assumes the role of a guilt-ridden father pleading with his son to return home. His ability to inject pain into every word of his confession -- "What is wrong with my life, that I must get drunk every night?" -- creates one of the album's most moving moments.
"Johnny Come Home" also underscores Steele and Cox's impressive melodicism and the rhythmic drive that helps lift the album's somewhat tragic songs past outright despair. There is hardly a song here that doesn't deal with the pain of separation, and Gift emerges with a singular identity as a man who sees and feels the world's miseries and can convey them. While Gift's way with a sad song has resulted in some comparisons to Otis Redding, his clipped phrasing really recalls reggae singers Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff or even General Johnson of the Chairmen of the Board.
The reference to Chairmen of the Board is also appropriate because that band was produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, which also created the Motown sound of the Supremes and the Four Tops. You don't have to be a historian to recognize that Cox's kinetic rhythm guitar figure introducing "Don't Ask Me to Choose" was swiped from the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On." Throughout, Cox's scratch rhythm guitar and Steele's bouncing bass lines surge through these songs in classic Motown fashion, while Gift worries his lyrics exquisitely.
The Fine Young Cannibals are hardly soul revivalist, however. Their sound is both contemporary and worldly. The fluttering trumpet work of Graeme Hamilton imparts a Caribbean flavor to many of the songs, and a smoky ballad, "Funny How Love Is," is set to a light Brazilian rhythm. The band even tips its hat to Memphis with a galvanic remake of Presley's "Suspicious Minds." Like the English Beat, the Cannibals worry about social problems as much as love and, in "Moved to Work," the tale of a distraught lover forced to leave his girl in order to make a living, the group potently blends both concerns.
Another ska-influenced British band, Madness, has spent the last eight years evolving from a madcap vaudevillian dance band into a straightfaced political pop band. It's hard to complain about the more serious musical aspirations evidenced on "Mad Not Mad" (Geffen GHS 24079), but the album's title catches a dilemma that characterizes the record. Madness wants to play the acerbic social and political commentator, and it also wants to just play, and these two worthy motives never comfortably cohabit the same song.
In some ways, Madness' problem is that it has embraced so many disparate musical and thematic traditions that its pop simply doesn't register simply enough. A political song like "Uncle Sam" is full of unpredictable instrumental flourishes that turn the song unintentionally funny. Only a few songs, like the wistfully reflective "Yesterday's Man," hold a steady enough emotional and musical current to create a meaningful impression.