The interracial, multinational seven-piece Selecter emerged from the same Coventry scene that gave birth to the Specials; founder Neol Davies was in on the creation of 2- Tone, the label which in turn ignited the entire neo-ska movement in England. The company’s first release was a Specials 45; its flipside was an instrumental credited to and entitled “The Selecter” which had, in fact, been recorded by Davies and Specials drummer John Bradbury some months earlier. When the A-side became a hit, interest in the Selecter also grew, and Davies was obliged to recruit musicians and start up the group. With the gifted Pauline Black (née Vickers) handling most of the lead vocals, the Selecter sounded like no other band in the genre; they employed the same upbeat rhythms, but added a much poppier and individual touch, much of it due to Black’s style and influence.
Too Much Pressure is bursting with such great songs as “On My Radio,” “Three Minute Hero,” “Time Hard” and the title track. Davies wrote much of the material, but contributions from other sources — within and without the lineup — add further variety. As the playing hops along, with a horn section added in spots, Black, shining with enormous vocal talent, continually provides the spark.
Celebrate the Bullet has little of the first LP’s brilliance; although the performances don’t lack anything tangible, the songwriting is vastly less inspired and none of the anti-trendy cleverness so vital to the previous album’s uniqueness can be discerned.
The group then splintered into other musical ventures, with only Black (who went solo, at one point partnered with ex-Specials/Fun Boy Three Neville Staples and Lynval Golding) seemingly certain of a real career future. Lacking both rarities and liner notes, Selected Selecter Selections contains, more or less, the nine best songs from the first LP and the five best from the second.
But the latter-day bluebeat refuses to die, and the Selecter returned to action with a credible live album from a ’91 reunion tour. The efficient quintet of Black, Davies and three new sidemen plays the old Selecter tunes with less than manic energy but credible fealty to the originals. Betraying a tinge of embarrassment amid the enthusiasm, Black introduces “Three Minute Hero” by saying “This one’s for us.”
The Happy Album, an all-new studio effort, introduces a reconfigured band. Davies is out, vocalist Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson, whose verbal jousts with Black back in the day gave the Selecter a lot of its bustling excitement, is back in; the core quartet contains Black (fussing over a faux-ragamuffin accent) and two holdovers from the live album: bassist Nick Welsh, who co-wrote and co-produced, and keyboard player Martin Stewart. Playing a modern-sounding mixture of new originals and reggae covers (Toots Hibbert’s “Sweet and Dandy,” Delroy Wilson’s “I Want Justice”), the Selecter keeps ska as its boppy touchstone, although occasionally slowing it down to a reggae strut, while using samples, electronics, contemporary rhythms and broader songwriting to roughly parallel for the memory of 2- Tone what Big Audio Dynamite did for punk. Burdened by a social conscience (“California Screaming” is about, among other things, Rodney King; the anti-war “Copasetic” and “Mother Knows Best” veil their particular issues in obscure detail), The Happy Album is anything but, and that’s to its credit.
The same mob made Hairspray, but you’d never know it from the catchy chorus of “My Perfect World,” which leads it off, or the cornball pot-centric version of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” that curls up near the end. In between, the Selecter returns to a mild- mannered, occasionally silly (“Chocolate Whip”) version of its roots, clinging to the familiar peppy keyboard, bass, guitar and snare syncopation of ska but adding giddy new wave power pop elements and sunny, lightweight (save for the misery epic “Then She Did”) lyrics. The sound suggests some 1980 band — the Yachts, perhaps, or the Go-Go’s — that has just happened onto some old Skatalites records. A surprising step backward, to be sure, but the harmlessly bizarre blend of elements (including, on a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town,” sessioneer B. J. Cole’s pedal steel) is surprisingly delightful.
Back Out on the Streets is a compilation, with several new items, of three ’90s albums.