Talk about pressure! In the realm of post-punk, the arrival of the first new Slits album in 28 years is roughly akin to a surprise return to publishing from J.D. Salinger. Led by the charismatic Ari Up, the Slits were deeply rooted in the first-generation U.K. punk scene (a couple of members had been involved in semi-mythical rehearsal-only collective Flowers of Romance alongside early Clash guitarist Keith Levene and a pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious), and became pioneers not only of post-punk itself, but of femme-punk and the use of reggae and dub in a post-punk context. The Slits' 1979 debut, Cut, inspired legions of jagged, rebellious, female-fronted bands for decades to come, and 30 years later, the long-inactive pioneers finally got around to releasing an official third album. Up and bassist Tessa Pollitt are still on hand for Trapped Animal, along with a batch of relatively new (the re-formed band had been playing live in one form or another for the last few years) recruits, including Sex Pistols' drummer Paul Cook's daughter, Hollie Cook, on keyboards. When you recall that Up herself is John Lydon's stepdaughter, those aforementioned punk roots come into even sharper focus.
For all their punk cred, though, the first thing one notices about Trapped Animal is how damn professional it sounds. That's not a pejorative statement, simply an observation about how far the band has come from its unschooled, rough-and-ready beginnings. Not only is the reggae influence that's always been at the core of the Slits sound more concentrated than ever here, easily dominating the proceedings; more strikingly, Ari and company sound like a legit reggae band -- albeit a quirky one -- locking into their one-drop grooves like seasoned Studio One pros. Over the course of the album, they dip convincingly into everything from a roots reggae feel to dub flavors, ska, and even semi-dancehall. Lyrically, they're as uncompromising and in-your-face as ever, coming on strong straight out of the gate with the unrepentantly feminist opening cut "Ask Ma," and examining the struggle between art and commerce on "Pay Rent." That said, the album's only real misstep is one of the most overtly topical tunes, the child-abuse-themed "&Issues," which suffers from a blunt, clumsy lyrical approach. Beyond that, the 21st century Slits rarely take a wrong step, even when they dip into a sort of Henry Cow-gone-cabaret feel on closing track "Had a Day." Die-hard Slits fans who aren't put off by the band's newfound professionalism or the greater reliance on keyboards at the expense of guitar will find their faith rewarded by Trapped Animal.