I discovered ska at age 12, when my brothers turned me on to an assortment of Fishbone albums. My favorite was their 1985 self-titled debut. I can name a number of factors that contribute to the genre’s universal appeal: The catchiness that stems from prominent use of major chords; ska’s direct relation to reggae; the way it implements horns; and the playfulness that dominates even songs containing the gloomiest of outlooks.
It is a music borne from political unrest and economic distress, which makes the genre even more important in current times.
North Shore Oahu-based band Upstanding Youth, who will be on Maui this weekend for two shows, offers a brand of ska that explores the genre’s transformative potential. They come to Maui on the heels of their aptly titled latest release, A Sense of Urgency.
The newest addition to their discography takes a detour into rockier territory. Inlaid with the horns, punchy rhythms and vocal inflection traditionally used in ska are streams of distorted guitar and rock-inspired melodies; Urgency is all over the map, but not in a way that distracts.
“We decided before writing the songs that we wanted to be creative within the genre, to try to do something new without straying from our original sound,” says guitarist and lead vocalist Marc Allred. “Something that would make ska more accessible to the mainstream.”
The opening track, “Warning Call,” serves as a perfect example of the record’s exploratory spirit. It opens with a simple yet electrified riff, eases into reggae-style upstrokes and explodes into a distorted rock chorus. The track “Flying V” opens pretty much like a straightforward punk tune and wanders back into horn-laden ska when the verse rolls around. “Wailing and Gnashing” uses organs in a way that lends heaviness and drama to the tune.
But each song differs substantially in its employment of elements from a diverse array of genres.
While every tune incorporates horns, they seem to play a different role in each track, punctuating verses in tunes like “Headlights” and contributing to the buildup on songs like “Electric Fence.”
The idea behind the record is that that time is running out on numerous fronts; that youth and the band’s ability to focus on music are slipping.
“One of the themes behind the title is that most of us are moving on with life, kids, careers, graduate degrees, and we feel an urgent sense to finish a great record before life takes over and we can’t devote time to music,” Allred says.
While the central theme is time slipping away, Urgency also touches on topics like war (“Warning Call”) and selling out to evil corporations (“Wailing and Gnashing”).
“I’m inspired by life and usually take a kind of political/theoretical slant to it,” says Allred. “In the end I always try to take something personal and specific and then relay that in a general way so that everyone can relate to it.”
The end result is a record that carries high energy and never loses momentum.
Upstanding Youth plays Friday at Life’s A Beach and Saturday at Charley’s. Acoustic Tides and 2008 Battle of the Bands finalist Highly Unlikely, whose versatile and creative sound and ultra-stylish look make for a pretty entertaining evening, open the Charley’s show. MTW