There’s a feeling I get when my mind turns to The English Beat (or The Beat, for you purists). I’d call it nostalgia, but nostalgia alone can’t explain how the band continues to pack nightclubs some 25-30 years after its last major hit. And it can’t be dismissed as some uncanny, one-hit-wonder attraction either. For starters, The Beat had more than one hit. Secondly, Chumbawamba couldn’t even put two butts in the seats at a coffee shop, let alone sell out a club.
No, there’s something more to this, and it probably mirrors our transient attraction to ska in general. What this has to do with Mustard Plug and its latest effort, In Black And White, I’m not completely sure. But in my defense, let me say that whenever I catch wind of yet another English Beat show date or I come across new releases from ska bands that came a generation later than The Beat, I immediately retreat to the same place – what compels these crazy kids to keep going after all of these years?!?
Despite the various shades of my personality, I am and always will be a rude boy at heart. Not necessarily in the traditional sense, but rather in my tendency to identify with the brotherhood element that’s firmly rooted in ska’s foundation. There’s an unmistakable camaraderie inherent in ska that isn’t found in other scenes. Above all else, I think this is what compels ska acts from all three waves to continue doing what they do. Some would argue it has to do with paying the bills. Sure, and the love of music doesn’t hurt either.
So why take this stand with Mustard Plug? After all, they weren’t even among the tier-one third-wave players. Well, I’d argue that outside of Skankin’ Pickle, they are the perfect band to represent what the third wave of ska was all about: a bit of silliness, a healthy injection of punk, and more than a few cursory nods to ska’s roots.
Mustard Plug’s new disc certainly embodies what they stood for in the 1990s and apparently what they continue to hold sacred. Not to say they haven’t grown or are guilty of rehashing. In fact, the sound (although still true to its core) has evolved nicely, and it doesn’t hurt when The Blasting Room’s production fingerprints are all over it.
For starters, Dave Kirchgessner’s vocals are measurably more compelling than the primarily nasal sneer found in Mustard Plug’s earlier works. Lyrically speaking, there’s less of the sophomoric “Thigh High Nylons” material, which is a welcome and refreshing change, given how Reel Big Fish overused this goofiness factor and essentially turned the third wave into a punchline. And thankfully, the boys decided to put their own mugs on the album cover (in a Led Zeppelin meets The Beatles motif) rather than stick yet another iteration of that stupid mustard bottle mascot. Okay, so I admit the mustard yellow suits were catchy, but I could never get on board with the “plughead.”
Standout tracks include “Over The Edge,” which sees Mustard Plug with a previously unseen ‘edge’, while the following cut “Hit Me! Hit Me!” takes you right back to that familiar Mustard Plug home. “Time To Wake Up” does the best job of representing everything that’s right about this disc, whereas “Something New” kills the momentum a bit with its overt NOFX flavor. Fortunately, the flow doesn’t stumble for long, getting right back on track with a succession of strong tracks that power the remainder of the album.
For those who prefer their ska with less filler, both “Life Is Too Short” and “Puddle Of Blood” warrant the most attention. And between the bars of these tracks we find that very sentiment that pumped us up so much when The Beat’s Rankin Roger exploded on stage like a man with too much Icy Hot on his sensitive bits. Einstein might correct my logic, but it seems that energy and inertia are what continue to compel these crazy kids.