Old Friends

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Now that the frenetic sound of ska-punk has had its brief heyday, the bands that remain standing tend to be the ones whose sonic roots spread out a bit more broadly to include reggae and rocksteady -- groups like the Slackers, Hepcat, and the Expos. Based in Ontario, Canada, they favor a distinctly old-school groove, one powered by a sharp horn section and anchored by a growly Hammond organ. Songs like "Before Breakfast," "On the Road," and, especially, "Little Red Hook" are built on elastic rocksteady rhythms and feature quirky lyrics and rough-hewn, regular-guy vocals -- and those vocals are worth mentioning. They're perfectly fine, but there's so much of that vaguely thuggish Vic Ruggiero vocal style going around these days that it does kind of make you long for the era of Ken Boothe and Cornel Campbell, just a bit. But that's a quibble. The loping "A Flower for Tara," the saucily swinging "Dans la Rue," the vintage Kingston rhythms that they swipe here and there (and respectfully acknowledge in the liner notes), the weird rhythmic changeups on "School Days" -- it all adds up to a very enjoyable retro-modern reggae experience. A few more really sharp hooks would have nudged this one into four-star territory, but it's a righteous three.

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