This situation has very good reasons. It appears that members of the band are all immigrants from anglophone countries. We can find here representatives of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. Some of them experienced their very first contact with this kind of music in times of so-called 2nd wave of ska. These inspirations have quite strongly influenced The Red Stripes during their 7 years existence, but don’t expect The Specials or The Selecter here. Essentially it’s mostly traditional ska, some rocksteady, it can be very soulful, and there’s a dub flavor too.
The Red Stripes – Made In Hong Kong
I’ve been trying to write this article for the last three months. I’ve become a true king of procrastination, yet at the same time I actually listened to this record for at least 30 times. On the one hand I was simply motivating myself to write a review. On the other, I really had lots of fun hearing it over and over. There are some albums you treat as a piece of art and there are some that are supposed to be pure entertainment. Not saying anything wrong about the artistic level of “Made In Hong Kong”, I most certainly put it in the second category.
Despite some quite serious socio-political lyrics you just hear how much fun the band had while making music. My positive reception is probably influenced by some connotations – to this day I’m not sure if the singer here is actually Fred Croft and not Bucket of The Toasters. Maybe it’s just me but this resemblance is hitting. If that wasn’t enough in “Can’t Stand The Heat”, despite the quite fast tempo he suddenly starts to sound like Judge Dread and I’m more and more confused yet very satisfied by all this.
There’s also a female voice here. Sarah Watson is pretty good as a second vocal. Usually she perfectly complements Fred but sometimes she has some more space to show off as in really great “Train Wreck” or totally Motown and probably my favorite “Mercy (Show a Little)”. But there’s one song where something went very wrong. I’m talking about “When The Darkness Returns”. It’s a very good song altogether, brings to mind some newish Madness stuff. Its idea is to make a dialogue between vocalists. Unfortunately key elements of the female part sound so flat that it hurts. It’s surprising that with such a greatly produced album no one picked up that something is wrong here.
While we’re at production, it’s worth saying that the one responsible for it is King Zepha – a prominent personality of the British scene. Album was recorded on analog equipment in legendary Avon Studios which in the past hosted Gorillaz and Blur, among others. I have to admit that everything sounds excellent here. 3-piece brass section (trumpet, trombone, and saxophone) does a truly great job. Their effort is simply invaluable in fast tunes like “Big Boss Man”, “Can’t Stand The Heat” or “Do The Ska” as well as in those more atmospheric – “Train Wreck” steps out here, but it’s only slightly better than “55 Minutes Later”. It’s fair to say that half of the power of these songs comes directly from the pipes. It’s supplemented with clearly audible keyboards and occasionally with marimba, which adds some Caribbean mood.
The longer I think about it the more I’m sure that’s a very good album. You could say that apart from distinguishable vocalist’s voice there’s nothing here to make this album stand out above what I’m used to listening. But the thing is right now I listen to it for the n-th time and I’m having no less fun than three months ago. There are no bad tracks here (despite that flawed one I already mentioned). Every single one is unique, recognizable, and most importantly memorable and that’s not at all obvious on many records. Even the closing “Made In Hong Kong Dub” is a very solid finish that beautifully sums up this almost 40-minute musical trip. You should make yourself acquainted with The Red Stripes’ latest achievement and I strongly recommend it.
The album was released by Mad Sound Records and is available in digital, on CD, and red vinyl. I’ll just add that the beautiful cover alone is worth spending a few bucks on a physical record. You can do your shopping on the band’s website, Bandcamp or for example at Jump Up Records.