The New Authentic
The Robustos are one of those bands that everyone I know just fawns over, for reasons I could never understand. I saw them live a little over a year ago, and I wasn't all that impressed. So I approached their new album, The New Authentic , with more than a little skepticism, despite hearing raves about it from at least two people in the ska community whose opinions I respect.
As it turns out, the band must have been having an off-night when I saw them, because The New Authentic is a pretty good record. I'm still not as impressed as others are, but I can understand why people go nuts for this band. I love soulful ska, so the Stax/Motown-era soul feel of tracks like "My Heart & Soul," "Foolin Me," "No Strangers Here," and especially "Creepin Around" (dig that Stevie Wonder flavor, and the interplay between the male and female vocals!) were a big hit with me. The ska-jazz flavor of "Lullaby of Birdland" and the authentic blues sound of "Purse String Blues" are also big winners, and show that the boys in the band really know how to play -- Bob Birdsong's skilled keyboard work is a major highlight of the record as a whole, but he really gets a chance to shine on these tracks. I'm also duly impressed that most of the material is original, and that almost everyone in the band has something to contribute on the songwriting tip. They certainly have a way with a tune -- most of the original material is absolutely compelling.
That said, I still think the band has some growing to do before it earns the gushing praise it has been receiving -- they're good, no doubt, but there are definite areas for improvement. For example, lead singer Tonya Abernathy has an amazing voice, but she performs these gratuitously showy vocal gymnastics on almost every track she appears on. Mariah Carey does this, and it's why she's so damn annoying. Restraint is the key -- it gives the gymnastics that much more punch when they're used sparingly. More background vocals would be a plus, too -- the tracks that use them, like the doo-woppy "Don't Be Down" and the aforementioned "Foolin Me" are gems, but others, especially the cover of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," are just crying for them. Also, I don't know if the horns are intentionally restraining themselves or are just buried in the mix, but they have a tight horn section that deserves a bit more of a showcase.
In the final analysis, the Robustos are loaded with potential, and The New Authentic does a pretty good job of showing it. I think what this band really needs is a strong producer (I'd kill to see them work with Victor Rice or King Django) and a little more maturity to make it to the upper echelon of ska bands. Make no mistake, this is a band that will only get better from here, and I'll certainly be looking forward to what comes next.
Beatville Records, PO Box 42462, Washington, DC 20015, www.beatville.com