A year or so back, I called Los Skarnales the Dropkick Murphys of Houston, a band that drew on its ethnicity, its working-class roots and its home turf and came up with music that represented the soul of its home city in some ways. That's still right, I think, but only up to a point, 'cause this album takes Skarnales beyond that.
There's only one other musician I've heard who can mix so many forms so seamlessly and with such a sense of fun, and that's fellow Spanish-speaker Manu Chao -- and this album is an American version of one of his rootsy, Gypsy-souled pan-European mind-benders. As Chao is to the EU, so these vatos rudos are to NAFTA. Rockers from Montreal to Merida all have something to love here. Don't let their name fool you -- ska is merely the highway that carries them from psycho surf to Jamaican dancehall to doo-wop to thrash to Mexican folk to rockabilly to blues boogie to metal to rap to cumbia to wherever else they want to go.
Accordionist Roberto Rodriguez is the latest addition to the band, and on songs like "De Repenté," the hypnotic "Mariquita" and the Trad Mex tune "Juarez," his squeezebox makes the band sound simultaneously more Mexican and more Texan. (Although on the toe-tapping, iron-grin ode to weed, "Juana," it makes the band sound like they're from Lafayette, Louisiana.) Chris LaForge's guitar ranges from ska timekeeper to the Sabbath shredder of "Bar Fight"; Ryan Scroggins's roller-rink organ rides over the top of it all; and underneath rumbles the upright bass of Nick Gaitan and the snap-crackle-pop drums of Simpleton ex Beans Wheeler. Of course, at the center of this tormenta of sound, there's the maniacal Felipe Galvan, one of the best front men in the state, if not the country.
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Guests such as Roger Miret (formerly of Agnostic Front), Jamaican dancehall rapper Ragah-El and Roco from Mexican rockers Maldita Vecindad all drop in, and it's a testament to Skarnales's versatility that none of them sounds the least bit out of place. From the hair-raising surf intro on, the album captures the adrenalized rush that is the band's live show -- you can almost smell the smoke and beer and feel the flying sweat. And if they aren't the most consistently great live band in town, I don't know who is.
In a city with a primarily middle-class rock scene, it's refreshing to hear the blue-collar cats representing in rock, as opposed to rap. I don't want to get all class-conscious and whatnot, but it's safe to say Los Skarnales is not a band of law students or trustafarians. Nope, this is East End rock, northside boogie, music from the parts of Houston where both the houses and the cars are on blocks -- a close spiritual match to original two-tone ska in English working-class towns like Coventry and Birmingham. (And this band is two-tone too -- only the colors are brown and white.)
It's all too easy to take these guys for granted because they play so many shows here. That's a shame, because we should treat them as much like a national treasure as other unique street-level Houston landmarks like the Orange Show, the Alabama Ice House and the original Ninfa's.