Little Pieces: 1993-1995
Agent 99 were a seminal but short-lived New York ska band built around a core of artists who have all gone on to other high-profile projects since their sudden implosion in 1995. Agent Jay Nugent is best known as the guitarist for the Stubborn All-Stars, vocalist Dunia Best worked on the Dunia and the Stableboys project before moving on to the acid jazz/ska combo Brave New Girl, and drummer Ara Babajian has gone on to Ruder Than You. In the course of their short yet influential career, Agent 99 never released an album, just a handful of 7-inches and a 6-song demo tape. Shanachie has taken all that material, plus a few live tracks and some unreleased material to compile Little Pieces, a long overdue retrospective.
Stylistically, Agent 99 were all over the map, and Little Pieces gives you a good look at the variety the band was capable of. The disc starts out strong with the peppy, danceable "Get a Grip," which features one of the most charming opening lyrics I've ever heard, "You're dunking milk on my Oreos." It's a sound not unlike that of the Selecter, only funkier. From there the band goes into the beautiful, melancholy "Walk," followed up by "Words," a track that almost sounds like Magadog working with another vocalist. Other winning tracks include the soulful, reggae influenced title track (complete with stunning flute solo), the sweet, poppy, and romantic "You Already Know," the compelling soul and smooth guitar of "Kingston on My Mind," the Minutemen-influenced punk ska of "Little Rude Ridinghood," and the New Wave/reggae flavor of "Happy?." My favorite track, though, is the jazzy, torchy "Elektra," which, to my ears, sounds like a lost track from the late, lamented Tampa band Clang, set to a ska beat. Absolutely brilliant.
The most surprising factor here is that the band was able to play the many diverse musical styles well, and still maintained a consistent ska feel. The live tracks (recorded at CBGB's in 1994) show that the band was able to duplicate this virtuosity on stage -- and indeed, as the medley "Alzheimer's Ska/Get a Grip" shows, without even a pause between stylistic changes -- and even have a little fun covering other material (they do a rave up all over the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams"). Beyond that, Dunia Best's voice is a revelation on every track on the album -- she goes from strong to vulnerable, from soulful to sweet, from breakneck pace to languid and lovely, and yet, she never seems to be out of her element. Each track sounds like the singer spent her entire career training to sing exclusively in that style, but then the next track hits, and she knocks your socks off in a completely different way.
Little Pieces is an amazing snapshot of a band that had nowhere to go but up, and that surely would have been huge if they hadn't blown up. The liner notes include thoughts on the band's rise and fall from the three core members, as well as thoughts on each track from Best and Babajian. Shanachie has been widely slammed in the press for releasing what many see as quickie comps to turn a fast buck on ska's popularity, but if they continue to release high-quality, loving retrospectives of this caliber, they're bound to earn some much-needed street cred. Little Pieces is absolutely essential. Shanachie Records, 13 Laight St., New York, NY 10013; http://www.shanachie.com