Sometimes to be really good, it helps to throw a touch of evil into what you do. That's what ska folks The Agents do on their Radical Records debut, For All the Massive. Comprised of seven guys and a gal from Providence, RI, the group isn't afraid to explore the not-so-sunny side of reggae, swing beats and old-school ska in their tunes, which slither just when you expect them to slide. Meanwhile, besides the usual love story, the songs' themes unfold as little tales of intrigue, like the soundtrack of a Caribbean murder mystery.
The opening cut, "Superhero," is a good example, where the smooth horns are wrapped around a big ball of grit, while the drums walk like anxious steps on a sidewalk. Next, "Hello" is no Lionel Richie cover, as singer Jason DaLomba's expressive vocals mix melancholy introspection with urgent impatience. Not that there isn't plenty of happy hooks, like on "Gratidao," while "Fall River" is an explorative ska jam.
If not for the tense urban tones, you'd never guess that the island the Agents hail from is Rhode Island.
It makes sense that the Agents take their name from vocalist/guitarist Jason DaLombo's father's '60s surf rock-meets-soul outfit, given that the '90s version of the group specializes in retro ska flavors. The crisp horn lines, welcoming big band and swing touches, and deep reggae grooves employed by this Providence, Rhode Island, octet allow the group to effortlessly transcend both generational and stylistic gaps. Nary a trace of punk's influence emerges here, but the Agent's loose, organic style is far from lacking in punch or verve, easily maintaining a reverent old school skanking stance while at the same time it's presenting a distinctly upbeat, modern sound.
The Agents 401 (Radical) by Bill Holmes PopMatters Music Critic
.....On the Agents' new release from Radical Records, they lace their ska-reggae with more swing band style and less punk with effective results. Jason Dalomba's amphetamine vocals are ably backed by the stellar rhythm punch of Kris Branco and Jay Medieros, but it's the horn section (especially the interplay of Frank Moniz's tenor sax and Dawn Hamel's staccato trumpet) that gives The Agents their punch. Hard to sit still when this baby is cranking.
.....Basically, you either like this stuff or you don't. The Agents are one of the better practitioners of the art, always funky, danceable and über-rhythmic, but if a record full of ska starts to sound the same to you after 10 minutes, this probably won't change your mind. But if you are tired of skateboard punk bands trying to sound rasta, give 401 a try before giving up on the genre.