There’s surely a book to be written on the mysterious historical adhesion of ska and punk. The inexplicable solidarity of faintly related (by virtue of velocity) musics and distantly removed cultures somehow traveled through several generations of English skins to spark the early-’80s uprising of 2-Tone bands like the Specials, Madness and the Selecter. A few years later, with ska fully isolated from its Jamaican roots and its leading revivalists moving onto other pop rhythms, the phenomenon alit in Boston, where the Mighty Mighty Bosstones picked up the hybrid’s banner. As the most visible major-label proponents of America’s resilient and flourishing grassroots ska scene, the group competes for young goodtime fun-seekers with hippie jam bands, yet offers a distinctive and febrile enough alternative to get invited onto 1995’s Lollapalooza (whatever that proves).
Recorded as a scruffy six-piece, Devils Night Out is a strong and confident debut. The common hazard with bands that graft forms together is that fans never know how much of each component they’re going to get, and the Bosstones, on record anyway, have frequently shown more devotion to bludgeoning hard-rock than bluebeat. (Live, they make like an early Madness tribute band.) Devils Night Out is a some-of-this-and-some-of-that joint free of the stylistic ambition that has since messed up their focus. A couple of minutes into the opening track’s grubby hardcore, the band suddenly shifts into a brisk pick-it-up beat, and that’s about the size of it, although there are some out-and-out punk numbers that don’t change direction and “The Cave” stays away from the rock channel. Dicky Barrett’s gargly lead vocals are punkily gruesome, but tight, imaginative rock-hard arrangements (with guest trombonist Davey Holmes joining the lone on-board horn man, saxophonist Tim Burton) and boisterous, nearly humorous lyrics (“Hope I Never Lose My Wallet,” “A Little Bit Ugly,” “Do Somethin’ Crazy,” “The Bartender’s Song”) keep the spirited jam moving.
Before making their second album (again co-produced by Paul Q. Kolderie), the Bosstones wacked out an untitled EP (referred to as Where’d You Go? because of that song’s pole position) of two originals and three rock covers: Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” (which ends up sounding like the Dictators), a roaringly reverent rendition of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” complete with Nate Albert’s bargain-bin Eddie V licks.
Signed to Mercury as a better-dressed octet with three full-time brass-blowers, the Bosstones equivocate heavily on the self-produced seven-song mini-album, Ska-Core, the Devil and More. Covering Minor Threat, SSD and the Angry Samoans (all inside of five minutes), they’re flat-out speedpunks with horn breaks; digging into Bob Marley’s pre-reggae catalogue, they do a jazzy bluebeat job on “Simmer Down,” letting second vocalist Ben Carr spell Barrett (who only sounds right bellowing punk) on a few lines. They also take a live run at two tracks and deliver their mightiest original yet, “Someday I Suppose,” a catchy and well-integrated rock-ska ode to uncertainty.
Metal veteran Tony Platt produced the misbegotten Don’t Know How to Party, gaining the plaid-clad band a devastating guitar and drum sound while reducing ska’s role to a stylistic accent — a rhythmic variation that gives the horns something to do. “What Was Over,” the most concerted effort in that direction, is half-hearted and quickly abandoned. Encouraging the band’s rock mainstreaming might have worked out if the charge had been applied to equally high-voltage songwriting. Except for “Holy Smoke,” Stiff Little Fingers’ “Tin Soldiers” and an inferior remake of “Someday I Suppose,” the turgid songs are like dead bodies being plugged in to make them twitch.
Getting Kolderie back for the bulk of Question the Answers (the Butcher Brothers did three tracks) was a smart move: he helped pave the band’s way home to an organic blend of its better impulses on what is by far the Bosstones’ best album. The group skates comfortably around a pit of pure ska-pop, funk and unmitigated thrash (frequently piling the pieces together with seamless skill), scooping horn charts into the unlikeliest places and pressing it all into service of thoughtful, well-crafted singalongs. “A Sad Silence,” “Hell of a Hat,” “Pictures to Prove It,” “Toxic Toast” and “Bronzing the Garbage” are among the blaring highlights.