1-STOP-EXPERIENCE: PEEPING TOM (2012)
Nettwerk One Music Ltd OSE001
There are a couple of schoolboy (or girl) errors that a Ska band can make that spring to mind. Neither are fatal, almost inconsequential, after all, making the music is a joyous enough thing, but they can stop an artist rising just that bit higher and attaining the level of a justified Ska classic. One error is for a band to simply knock out generic sounds without any personal identity and with the fear of introducing something different. The other is for an established artist to live off past glories and to coast along without ever bringing anything fresh to the musical table.
Right, following that cautionary opening paragraph, I feel duty bound to immediately and proudly proclaim that 1-Stop-Experience, fronted by the charismatic Jennie ‘Belle Star’ Matthias, not only adequately deal with those two potential pitfalls – they BRILLIANTLY deal with them…smash them, actually. Everything about this first album speaks of adventure, quality and experience, of energy and variety. It’s so lively that you can almost feel the disk trying to wriggle out of your hands and make a dart for the CD player, eager to get to the whole point – the music and the dancing.
We shouldn’t be surprised, of course, and not just because Jennie herself has been anything but idle since those Top of the Pops days of the early 80s, the chart years of The Belle Stars. Since that perfect pop phoenix rose out of the ashes of 2-Tone’s very own Bodysnatchers, this lauded Lady of the best in independent music has been involved with an impressive list of artists such as Dance Like a Mother, The Jam, Gary Clail, Meg Lee Chin, Sounds from the Ground, The Trojans, Jump with Joey, Judge Dread, BIG 5 (with Nick Welsh), The Radiostars, Skacoustica!, Ska Divas (with Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar), Skaville UK , The Inhabitants, Hot2Go and The Gonads. She also formed a ska band with Lee Thompson from Madness called The Dance Brigade.
Of course, this is far from a one star operation, however, bringing together, as it does, the mightily impressive playing skills of musicians well honed as hired guns for many a year. As well as co-producing, on guitar, we have the legendary Skip McDonald, a musician on America’s legendary Sugarhill, who has travelled from Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata to the leading of Tackhead and a return to the Blues as Little Axe. The third producer is Paget King who acts here as keyboard player – he has pedigree in both, having produced since the 1990s and having worn his musician’s hat for the likes of Linton Kwesi Johnson. We’ve also got Winston Marche, current Selecter drummer, and Chico Chagas who worked with Jennie and Lee Thompson on Dance Brigade, just more examples of the many and varied musicians who come together to provide difference in styles, approaches and experiences to make the 1-Stop-Experience what it is. And so, we have a band that makes every move to get things right and avoids all the pitfalls. This is adventurous, unafraid of mixing it up, brilliantly played and forward thinking.
It’s perhaps wise to get over the Belle Stars link here and now, and in a positive way. Of course, that esteemed band of female musicians was the vehicle by which Jennie enjoyed her most consistent chart success. They mixed up elements with Ska but, in the main it was the willingness to embrace pop and move with the times that helped them to succeed. What amazes me is how exactly Jennie’s vocals measure up to stuff she performed around 30 years ago! Her voice is every bit as good as it ever was, she’s just picked up more experience and learned new tricks. Added maturity, basically. Some of the songs strongly recall Belle Stars to me – the lively, fast-moving ‘Headless Chicken’ and the gentler ‘Hope’, in particular. Even then, the assured musicianship and strong elements of Reggae and Ska ensure that the similarity is a mere nod to past lives whilst being part of something new and strong and vibrant.
Listen to any and every individual instrument being played on this album, and I include the vocals in that, and you realise that you are listening to a masterclass in how to play that essential piece of the whole. There’s a glorious Latin feel washing the sounds with sunshine, Jazz and Blues influences that near perfection and they wear such a beautiful and comfortable Ska overcoat! There’s no fear of using technology also, so the mixture of vintage classic sounds immediately sounds bang up to date.
Each and every song has its own tempo and mood so the only thing that you are sure you will get with each passing track is attention to detail, pride in playing and that offbeat rhythm that we all know and love. Lyrics often deal with important aspects of modern life - genuine, intelligent social commentary on our lives today, often dissecting the modern need for and love of celebrity at any cost (often without being deserved). The title track uses a suitably sinister tone to speak of just how much the powers that be are keeping track of us all via databases and CCTV.
But then, we can enjoy more emotive tracks too – the leisurely skank of ‘Hope’ and the up-tempo dancefloor belter ‘Bring It On’ both encourage a healthy ‘never say die’ philosophy whilst wooing us with different takes on our favourite musical stylings, whilst the gorgeous ‘Without Love’ is a quirky as hell polka flavoured summary of exactly what makes the world go round.
It says something that one of the first tunes I plumped for as a favourite, the old skool Ska vs Belle Stars style delivery of ‘Mentally Ska’d’ ends up fighting for its place at the peak of my affections. (Mentioning the Belles again, sorry, I can’t help it but it amazes me that decades separate these recordings!!!) Yep, within a few listens I’m also absolutely loving with a passion you could only dream of tracks such as the dramatic and soulful (in many ways) skank of ‘And I Said’ and the smoky, chilled skank of ‘Don’t Wanna Be’ that breaks into a joyously melodic chorus.
You’ll all have favourites, just as I have, and I have no doubt that your faves, just like mine, will change with every passing listen. No point trying to cut short this review/intro to the remarkable 1-Stop-Experience, I know that I’ve already meandered too long for that…so I shall end with a sound bite that sums up the whole thing in a nutshell:
‘Peeping Tom’ is an exciting and near-perfect example of quality musicians, with an amazing expanse of experience, playing together with a joy and commitment to professionalism that leaps from the speakers and infects you with harmonious delight. It’s integrity and variety does not just make it one of the greatest Ska albums of modern times, likely to delight Ska-lovers and neutrals alike, it confirms that it is one of the greatest Ska albums that you or I are ever likely to hear. It has heart, soul and talent – and that’s still just the tip of the iceberg.
Ian Big E Taylor – Mad Not Mad zine 2012
Friends of Jennie Bellestar Matthias took it upon themselves to set up an appreciation society on Facebook. Feel free to join, leave a comment, tell your favourite Jennie story or even upload a special Jennie photo!
For more information on The Belle Stars check out Malc's fansite.