This was supposed to be the first post of 2017, but the more I listened to The Frightnrs, the more I realized how special they were. Initially, I was just going to post the first single of theirs that I heard. Instead, I really sunk my teeth into the album as a whole. All of my posts to date have either been reggae, dancehall, dub, or ska related, with some random stuff sprinkled in (like Maverick Sabre or Too Many Zooz). This will be my first post featuring rocksteady tracks. What is rocksteady? I’m glad you asked. Rocksteady as a genre only flourished for a very brief period of time in late 1960’s Jamaica. As the successor of ska and the predecessor of reggae, it served as the bridge between the two. If we were talking about human evolution, rocksteady would be the equivalent of the colloquial “missing link”. For the most part, no one has any trouble telling the difference between a ska track and a reggae track. Ska sounds very jazzy and uptempo, while reggae has a much slower and deliberate pace, with both sharing the same characteristic trait of accenting the offbeat that has become synonymous with Jamaican music. Rocksteady slowed down the pace of ska music, but shared its simple walking bass lines. Rocksteady also mostly did away with the brash horn sections used in ska. A disproportionate amount of rocksteady tracks seemed to be love songs, but they sometimes touched on other less serious topics. Rocksteady was heavily influenced by the Motown sound, just as ska before it was inspired by jazz. As such, it was very rare for singers to use their native Jamaican accents when singing rocksteady. For the most part, they wanted it to sound more “American”, as the thinking at the time was that this would make the music more popular and marketable. Musically, reggae inherited its pace from rocksteady, but then added much more complex, syncopated bass lines. Thematically, unlike the genres that preceded it, reggae was revolution music and unabashedly Jamaican at its core.
I know the points above are fairly nuanced, so I hope I didn’t lose anyone with the seemingly unnecessary definition of rocksteady. The reason I digressed was that understanding exactly what rocksteady is, and it’s place in the musical continuum is important to appreciate what The Frightnrs accomplished with this album. They managed to capture the quintessential sound of late 1960’s Jamaica flawlessly. If you close your eyes, it’s very easy to imagine the greats from that era like Alton Ellis or Horace Andy having sung these tunes. In fact, these songs sounded so authentic that I was surprised to learn that only two of the songs from the album were covers.
The first track is called “All My Tears” and it’s a great intro for the album as it really sets the tone for what is to follow. It’s hard not to be moved by the lyrics and the voice of lead singer Dan Klein. His unique, almost feminine voice manages to convey the depth of the heartbreak he is singing about. It’s somewhat of a theme throughout the album, and it’s hard to imagine writing these songs if you haven’t experienced some serious heartache. Fair warning though, if you don’t like this first track, you may as well pull the chute because many of the tracks that follow are stylistically similar.
The title track “Nothing More To Say” is next, and it’s another stellar tune. So often, the second track of an album can be such a let down, but the quality and authenticity remain top notch here. When it comes to television, I’m a sucker for period dramas. And I think that’s what this album starts to feel like. A brilliantly executed sonic period piece.
The third track is one of the two covers on the album, and the only one I was actually able to guess was a cover. The lyrics seemed a bit out of place, which was the giveaway for me, but I don’t ever recall hearing the original song before. It turns out the original is a soul track from the late 60’s by Bob and Gene, but was only released recently on Daptone records (same label as The Frightnrs). The Daptone label is Brooklyn based, and they have a stable of artists who specialize in revitalizing genres like soul, funk and afrobeat with a modern twist (which made the marriage between Daptone and The Frightnrs a fitting one). You can check out the original track below, but to be honest, I think the cover from The Frightnrs beats this one hands down.
The fourth entry on the album “What Have I Done” is another story of heartbreak narrated by the poetry of Dan Klein. The line “I’ve got to learn how to do all the things we used to do together” is a clever way to express how lost he is without his love, and yet, keep the track a bit more positive despite the topic. The song also features a great organ solo by keyboardist Chuck Patel. I was a bit shocked to discover that The Frightnrs features not one, but TWO people of Indian origin. Chuck’s brother Preet is also a member of the band and he plays the bass. You don’t see very many Indian kids in reggae bands (in fact, I can’t think of any), so this was kind of cool to see. Also, I would be remiss to not mention that the band is rounded out by a fourth member, Rich Terrana on drums.
The next song is called “Purple” and it’s a bit of an odd duck, but it does tend to grow on you. It nicely features Dan Klein’s signature vibrato. It also has one of my favorite lines in the whole album (“Saving all my nickels, spending all my dimes”) which I think is another clever metaphor. It immediately reminded me of that line from Buju Banton’s “Untold Stories” where he sings “It’s a competitive world for low budget people. Spending a dime, while earning a nickel.”
After this track is the cheeky “Trouble In Here” with a nod to the rudeboys of the ska era. It’s followed by “Till Then” which is yet another killer combo of great lyrics and harmonies. It’s a story of unrequited love, but with a decidedly dark tone (as opposed to say, something like the more hopeful sounding “Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley). One line in particular really struck a chord with me both because of the lyrics and Klein’s chilling delivery: “Pretending that I’m fine, I’m only lying all the time. I’ve crossed the line from melancholy into madness.” It also ends up taking on a more ominous meaning as there is a real story of tragedy associated with The Frightnrs which I will touch on at the end of the post.
The track “Lookin For My Love” does a great job of highlighting Dan Klein’s piercing falsetto. After that is a tune called “Hey Brother” which is probably the most positive track on the album, but it’s also my least favorite. I don’t know why exactly, but I often ending up hitting skip on this track. Luckily, this blip is very soon forgotten because the track following it (“Gonna Make Time”) is a real gem. This is the second cover on the album, and it’s another one from the Daptone catalog. It’s a cover of a soulful song with super silky vocals by Saun & Starr. You can check that one out below:
For the grand finale, titled “Dispute”, The Frightnrs have truly saved the best for last. This track is so raw, you can tell right from the opening piano riff that it’s going to be a stone cold killer. The ever so subtle, yet haunting echo effects give the track a whole other dimension. This song absolutely begs for a dub treatment, and Daptone producer extraordinaire, Victor Axelrod (a.k.a. Ticklah) delivers. “Dispute” was initially released as a single, and a super heavy dub was put on the B-side (it’s unfortunately not on the album, so I will have to provide that link separately).
In a way, many of the tracks on this album feel “older” than they actually are. Apart from the fact the genre itself is old, I think a big part of that feeling is the brilliant production by Axelrod. The combined use of effects and recording techniques (it was apparently recorded in mono) throughout the album imbue it with an ethereal quality, and somehow make it sound more analog. The whole thing is really a treat to behold, so without further ado, here is the full album for your listening pleasure:
Also, for those interested in the dub version of the final track, you can find it below:
Now, while an album of this calibre would normally herald great things to come for the band in question, that is not the case with The Frightnrs. This time machine of an album, which seamlessly transports you 50 years into the past, is also going to be the last from The Frightnrs. During the early recording sessions, Klein often complained of tiredness; it got to the point where walking became a chore, and even his voice seemed to be abandoning him at the worst possible time. He then received the shocking diagnosis that he was suffering from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was literally dying while recording this album. Some tracks could not even be finished in the studio because his health had deteriorated so rapidly, leaving the producer with no choice but to take vocals from the best available demos. Knowing that he didn’t have much time left, the band and label raced to finish the album which would be Dan Klein’s lasting legacy. Sadly, the title of the album “Nothing More To Say” became a reality, as Dan Klein passed away in his sleep about 3 months before its release date.
The band has said they may carry on as The Frightnrs with occasional guest vocalists, but the part of his soul that Dan Klein poured into the album will never be heard live again. I am thankful however for this masterpiece he left behind, and I am eternally hopeful that The Frightnrs will be able to soldier on through this tragedy to create another one someday.