There's nothing clandestine about Secret Agent 8 when it comes to its approach to ska. The first three tracks on the band's second album blast right out of the Two-Tone twilight zone where hand-wringing ska purists reside. The sweat equity on this 13-track CD has paid off; this album easily eclipses the flaccid effort on the group's 1998 debut.
The lead-off instrumental track, "Trip into the Blue Zone," is introduced with a tight bass line, organ swell, offbeat chord chops and skifflish percussion, but it quickly segues into a showcase for the jazz-inspired forays of trumpet player Aaron Koerner and guitarist Kenny Dickman. It gives the listener a preview of what's going to jump out of the speakers on "It's Not Too Late." Revving up to a Blues Brothers-meets-David Clayton Thomas-style arrangement, vocalist Will Frith rips into Middle America's quest for blandness ("Your kitty, your kitty is so pretty," he sneers). In the bridge, Frith switches to the banshee-like theramin and unleashes some of the controlled feedback that dresses up the nine-man band's signature sound. From there, Secret Agent 8 rolls out "Better Way," the album's party track, which zooms along at breakneck speed powered by drummer Justin Brouillard with help from the three-piece horn section; guitarist Dickman goes postal with a scorching solo that sets up the final frenetic tag.
While the rest of the album has its ups and downs (and stays closer to more traditional ska roots), SA8 has enough good material to establish itself as one of Houston's bands to watch, complete with a posse of players bidding for inclusion in the individual 2003 Press Music Awards categories. Vocalist Frith experiments with several styles on the record (perhaps in an attempt not to be pigeonholed) but falters a couple of times, slipping off-key in "Things to Come" and combining with local ska stalwarts Mark Speer and Chris Kendrick on the silly "look, we can be like Marley" reggae track "Unite." But Frith finds an interesting vocal groove on the pop-fused "Home" by purposefully muting his voice into a raspy, breathy style.
Secret Agent 8
Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th Street, Galveston
Secret Agent 8 releases Start.Action.Stop. on Saturday, December 21. Citizen Change is also on the bill. For more information, call 409-762-9199.
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Instrumentally, the band establishes such a quick tempo that some of the turnarounds or fills turn into self- indulgent showcases of speedwork. The same goes for Frith, who sometimes tries to jam too much verbiage into the tiny window that ska phrasing allows. Still, these are small missteps, and the young band has already overcome much more in the past four years as its sound has progressed into a compelling fusion of ska, R&B, jazz and rock.