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Jamaican rock 'n' rollers the Slackers celebrate 25 years with enthralling new experimental album

Workin' Overtime

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Slackers, a six-piece New York City-based troupe that has spent its career championing an energetic, nostalgic-but-now rocksteady-ska sound. To celebrate, the band thought this year would be as good a time as any to release its first album of original material in six years. Out last week, their first self-titled LP is the Slackers' thirteenth record, excluding live releases and EPs, in their quarter-century together. "It's a long time," trombonist Glen Pine says with a laugh. "But I think this set of songs really reflects the band as a group — it really sounds like a band record, where everybody contributed."

The band's lineup has changed repeatedly over the years, with the current one comprising Pine, Vic Ruggiero on vocals and keyboards, Jay "Agent Jay" Nugent on guitar, Dave Hillyard on saxophone, Marcus Geard on bass, and Ara Babajian on drums. And this time around, the crew took an interesting new route in creating The Slackers. "What was challenging this time is taking three different sessions with three different producers and locations and trying to make it work cohesively so it doesn't sound out of place," Pine says.

And The Slackers is indeed a seamless, vibrant collection that came together in both Brooklyn and Portland studios with producers Vic Axelrod, Brian Dixon, and the band's own Agent Jay. Brooklyn-based Axelrod is a well-known name who has worked with the likes of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Amy Winehouse. Dixon played guitar for the Aggrolites and is now a Los Angeles-based producer, which is why the Slackers utilized his talents — to marry their Jamaican rock 'n' roll with the West Coast's dirty reggae sound. While the tracks were arranged in L.A., they were recorded in Portland. And the Slackers' guitarist Agent Jay took his own band into Brooklyn's Seaside Studios for four of the record's 11 tracks.

What's more, the band applied a very-1960s technique when crafting the track "Things I Can't Forget," which was written by Ruggiero. "There's a band called Os Mutantes, a Brazilian psychedelic band that's a marriage of British psych with samba and bassanova and stuff like that," Pine says. "We were listening to one of their records, and I was pointing out to Vic that some of the songs they were doing was an approach that they sometimes call modular music. The Beatles experimented with it, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was famous for this, where he'd record different pieces of music and then later try to reassemble them in a cohesive way — like a jigsaw puzzle — so it's not linear in the sense of your traditional songwriting approach."

Like a good acid trip circa 1968, the layered song oozes in and out of focus with feel-good ska, acoustic guitar strums, vocal harmonies, jazzy sax and drums, and organ riffs — a fine prelude to the 1960s psych-ska rocker that come next with "I Want to Be Your Girl." The combination of each unique approach to The Slackers is precisely why the record resulted in a whimsical mix of tracks that remind you of The Specials-meets-The Kinks-meets-Bob Dylan one moment ("Truth Comes Knockin'") or Elvis Costello ("Pockets of a Rich Man") or the Beach Boys ("Run Till We Can't Outrun") or Leonard Cohen ("Chewing on a Face") the next — all while staying true to the Slackers' original sound.

The band's ability to keep things fresh is also one of the reasons they've endured for 25 years and counting — that, and the fact that they know they've got a good thing going. "We're kind of like a big family," says Pine. "Like any family, you have to pick your battles, and you have to let things roll off your back, you know — we all have our moments. But as long we all care about the product and what we're trying to do — that's what I think the secret for us is, anyway."

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