Words by James Farrell
When Sublime was still without Rome, behind the leadership of late frontman Bradley Nowell, the band masterfully paired an instinct to party with an instinct to subvert. Grungy reggae upbeats, techno effects, and contagious melodies about drug wars and dog shit made Sublime’s music malleable; to this day, it travels with equal ease through tequila-soaked bars and the dorm rooms of social misfits.
In Sirens, Sublime with Rome’s latest album, the band definitely embraces its party instincts. The guitars chunking out reggae chords sound bigger than ever before, the vocals are polished with filters and dashes of autotune, and synth patches lace climactic builds to hedonistic hooks (“It’s a motherfuckin’ house party”). While Sirens may appear more conventional, even shallower, than the original Sublime’s best offerings, the album is saved by its subtle sophistication — complex rhythms, clever lyricism, and influence from genres like punk and dubstep allow Sublime with Rome to push its reggae-tinged sound to new limits. The result is a satisfying and eclectic collection of party songs that balances aural gratification with intelligent musicality.
Sirens is readily divided into two halves, and the first half highlights the album’s voluptuous streak. “Wherever You Go,” the second track and single off the album, provides a catchy melody over a danceable reggae beat with an infectious hook (“Wherever you go, I wanna know, don’t let me go, don’t let me wander out your sight”). It’s indeed a perfect single, especially for a market that just saw Magic’s reggae hit “Rude” smash the charts.
However, by the end of the first half, a monotonic trance kicks in. A slew of creative flashes (the fitting car alarm effects droning through “Sirens” and the sudden minor to major tonal shifts in “Brazillia”) become buried under formulas that work, but grow threadbare. With the fifth track, “Been Losing Sleep,” the reggae upbeats threaten to grow tiresome, and the unrelenting party mindset best embodied in the builds, drops, and lyrics of “House Party” (“It’s a motherfuckin’ house party, so won’t you come and dance on me”) border on banality.
But Sirens gains new life, and is at its best, in its experimental second half. “Promise Land Dubb” is Sirens’ most ambitious track, combining the tradition of roots reggae singers like Dennis Brown with the modern ingenuity of electronically inspired jam bands like Dopapod. Its slow reggae beat is refreshed with the disorienting ambience of synth patches and sound effects and the drum work of John Freese. Freese’s energetic drumming may be Sirens’ greatest strength. Without question, it is “Promise Land’s” masterstroke, coming in short bursts of jarring syncopation with the force of helicopter propellers. Sublime with Rome further uses the second half to take rejuvenating departures from reggae. It channels the punk tradition of Bad Brains with “Run and Hide” —a frantic number that oozes angst and discordant guitars—while “Put Down Your Weapon” bolsters slow, bluesy riffs with dubstep wobbles.
The last two songs, “Skankin’” and “Gasoline,” channel the uptempo ska feel of Sublime classics like “The Wrong Way.” The brighter guitar tone of these last two songs, which stand in unique opposition to the overarching heavier tones of Sirens, bring the album into loose sonic accord with Sublime’s earliest hits. And while Sublime with Rome may never reach the same level of creative lyricism as Nowell’s Sublime, they can be clever. In “Gasoline,” for instance, Rome Ramirez sings, “Girl you flaunt it / like you were born inside a Tiffany’s / but you like the losers baby /so I know you’re always stayin’ with me.”
“Skankin’” actually has a special place in Sublime lore. Originally written by the band Fishbone, the song was a popular cover for the original Sublime lineup. Rome Ramirez understands that the band’s current form is a new enterprise. “We’re covering Sublime covering Fishbone!” he has said of “Skankin’.” And indeed, while its presence on Sirens may remind fans that Sublime with Rome’s experimental party music is part of a longer lineage, it only calls attention to how drastically different the band has become. Beyond its namesake, Sublime with Rome largely blazes its own trails, and it certainly does so with gusto.
© July 17th, 2015
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