One of Chattanooga’s best bands returns with a fantastic new album
Ah, the Iscariots. If I had a nickel for every word I ever wrote about the Iscariots…wait, I do. Well, time for more nickels I suppose as one of Chattanooga’s more prolific recording acts has an all new album ready for human consumption. Backwards Country is the name of the album and it just may be their most important recording to date.
In the first place, if you haven’t heard the Iscariots, know that they self-describe as both ska and reggae. This is an important distinction, particularly since all too many folks have a stunted, frat-boy idea of reggae music, “It’s that music with the weird beat that Bob Marley invented and it’s all about smoking pot!”
In truth, reggae has almost always been political music at its heart and this is the most political album I’ve heard from this group. In fact, the timeliness and relevance of the politically driven material on the album makes this one of the most authentically reggae projects I’ve heard in years.
It isn’t all politics though, and that’s where the ska comes in to play. I have to plead ignorance when it comes to original, first wave ska, but 2-Tone and third wave are readily accessible and the Iscariots excel in their representation of the genre. Ska, generally speaking, is “fun” or at least less-concerned with burning issues of the day and herein lies the genius of the album.
Although I can rightfully call it their most political album to date, the boys in the band have been careful not to club the listener over the head with it, choosing instead to make the collection an even-handed balance between ska and reggae, a mix of light-hearted and serious. I should note that there is at least a minor appearance of a third style I suspect is entirely the invention of the Iscariots that we’ll call “Caribbean Psychedelic.” The tracks “Murder Dub” and “Officer” come to mind.
“Backwards Country,” “Slave Race,” and “Election Night” are three outstanding examples of the Iscariots’ socially relevant commentary on this disc. Although it is my habit to dissect a new album tune by tune, I don’t want to spoil the experience of hearing these for the first time.
What I will say is that in an election year, in what is proving to be one of the most passionate and, frankly, bizarre election years of my life, here are three songs that speak directly not only to youth culture, but to the dispossessed and disenfranchised of all ages.
There are bold statements here and I admire them for the courage of their conviction. Not everyone likes political themes in their music, but then I don’t think the Iscariots are the kind of group that makes trying to please everyone a particularly high priority. Musically, it’s excellent, and thematically, it’s going to resonate with far more people than not.
On the other side of the fence, “Sucking So Bad” is significantly lighter-hearted, though still poignant, fare. If you’ve ever found yourself in a one-sided relationship that you were loath to quit, the theme (and undoubtedly some of the phrasing) of “Sucking So Bad” is going to be very familiar. I don’t know if we’ve all been there, but I certainly have (don’t worry, life got infinitely better) and I had to laugh out loud when the chorus came around for the first time.
Beginning to end, the album is a trove of interesting, thought-provoking and highly enjoyable music from a band that has a reputation for all three qualities. The album exudes a greater depth and maturity than earlier works which speaks to the growth and longevity of the band. Backwards Country also features a larger assortment of guest artists than any previous Iscariots work.
Besides the Iscariots themselves (Jesse Jungkurth on vocals, guitar, harmonica and keys, Adrian Lajas on bass, vocals, keys and percussion, Ivan Garcia on drums, vocals and keys, Oneal Dover on guitars and keys and Brett Nolan on keys) the album includes the talents of Swayyvo on sax, Jonathan Susman on drums, Adam Brown on drums and engineering, Jon Wimpee on guitar and vocals, Allison “Lowell” Waller on trombone and vocals and John Boulware on mandolin.
Provided I can make it to the studio before the final mastering, I have offered my own prodigious cowbell talents as well.
The album’s release party will be held at Dumpy’s on June 18th.