Umbrella Bed - Refill
Release Date: November 26, 2013
Record Label: Mad Butcher Records
I don’t know a goddamn thing about ska music. My brother had copies of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, Sublime’s self-titled record, and that one Mighty Mighty Bosstones disc (you know, the one with “The Impression That I Get” on it) when I was a kid. One of my best friends in high school was a huge fan of bands like Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto. And I briefly went through a period where I was really into Less Than Jake and the more ska-inspired sounds on O.A.R.’s records. But for the most part, if there’s one genre in recent music history that I am almost entirely ignorant of, it’s ska.
Which leads me to Umbrella Bed’s Refill, a new EP that claims to resurrect the lost days of 2 Tone ska. For a ska-obsessed music fan, I’m sure those words – the words used to ignite the press release for this record – would incite excitement and geeked-out expectation. I, on the other hand, stared blankly at my screen trying to figure out precisely what the hell “2 Tone” ska could actually mean, or why I would want to invest my time or energy in its revival. After all, there are a lot of revivals going on right now, from the emo revival to the 1990s grunge revival, and both of those trends interest me significantly more than the resurrection of an early phase of a genre I know next to nothing about anyway.
Opportunities like this one are good for someone who aspires to have near-encyclopedic musical knowledge, however, so I hit up the reputable source that is Wikipedia and started reading. Turns out that most the ska I was listening to as a kid in the 1990s was part of what is called “Third Wave,” which generally played up the pop and pop-punk aspects of the genre more than earlier material had done. 2 Tone ska – the genre that Umbrella Bed are seeking to revive and pay tribute to on Refill – originally came to prominence in the United Kingdom as a collision of Jamaican reggae sounds and rhythms and the musical and lyrical elements of British punk rock. In other words, when you hear Clash-infused guitar chords on Refill’s songs – particularly on the first two, “Wish You Would Stop” and “Gone Away” – you’re hearing the 2 Tone U.K. influence at work.
That’s not to say 2 Tone is in a completely different universe than the Third Wave ska bands that most of us are familiar with here in the old U.S. of A. In fact, Umbrella Bed are arguably at their best when they are playing up the style that would have sounded right at home on the radio during a mid-1990s summer party. Case in point is “Got It Wrong Now,” which supercharges two core chords to maximum effect by allowing the band’s horn section to burst through the arrangement with brassy attitude. From saxophone to trombone, trumpet to French horn, the brass section is easily Umbrella Bed’s greatest strong suit, and they turn “Got It Wrong Now” into a veritable feel-good summer smash. Precisely why this EP was released in November is anyone’s guess.
Unfortunately, for all of its enjoyable moments, Refill still suffers from the same problem that I’ve always had with the ska genre, and that’s that I would much rather take it in one song at a time than as a cohesive record…even if this particular album is no more than a five-song EP. The repetitive rhythms, the one-note (or rather, two-chord) guitar playing, the token saxophone solos, and the not-terribly-interesting songwriting, they are all ingredients that are charming enough at first, but which begin to lose their novelty as the disc moves forward. Maybe that’s because ska is inherently a style-over-substance genre, though I’m sure its biggest proponents would call me a blasphemist for even daring to make such a suggestions. To my ears though, the members of Umbrella Bed are talented musicians who are consistently held back on Refill by the tropes of their genre. Whether that’s the fault of the actual songwriters or the genre itself, however, is difficult to discern.