To properly review this CD, it'll help if I give you a brief overview of Slow Gherkin's history. The dynamic Santa Cruz combo formed in 1993, starting out playing the sort of third wave ska one might find on any compilation of the day, but with a lean more towards 2 Tone and swing, rather than ska-punk. Their 1996 debut album Double Happiness is a bit of a mixed bag, but has fine songs, horns and a fantastic energy. All of these were in much greater supply on the 1998 sophomore record, Shed Some Skin, a masterpiece of modern ska. Unique in its mix of upbeat skanking, fantastic horn parts and classic rock, it furthermore had some of the best songwriting and harmonies the genre had ever seen, and was intense, sometimes beautiful. The rock inflection became more prominent, and by their last album, Run Screaming, ska had left the sound for soulful rock'n'roll. The unit sadly disbanded the same year, but has since reformed for the Asian Man anniversary festival. Each album represents an era of their existence, and these odds and ends from their career on Death of a Ska Band largely fall into one of the three.
To me, the best tracks would be the rare ones from around the time of Shed Some Skin and Run Screaming. That sounds very subjective, as they're my favourite records from the band, but damn, these are good. "Salsipuedes" kicks off the album, and the track, a stunning mix of Stax-esque soul, indie, and punk, sang by AJ (whose voice I always thought belonged to James–some superfan I am) is absolute gold. And throughout, there are other highlights of a similar nature: the Skin-era intensity of "Tap-Dancing", the simple stomp of "Let's Be Serious" and the great lyricisms of "Good Advice" ("I feel a shiver looking for a spine"). Slow Gherkin lyrics are always good, and on these tracks we have some of the best. Also from this era is "ZKII", a fine, bluesy instrumental, which also seems to reference Fugazi (look into the title and listen to the "Waiting Room"-like bridge).
Then there are tracks from the time of Double Happiness. Some are great, some maybe not so great. "Michael Jackson" sees the band tackling pretty straight-up ska-punk, with smart-sounding lyrics (it would be nice if I could hear them and they'd included a lyric sheet). "They Wanted Earth" is a simple, fun skank about martians taking on AJ, who turns out to be quite a badass. These are fun, though the production–slightly muffled vocals and lacking, perhaps, in boldness–holds them back. "Doubting Thomas", from a live comp I purchased just because it was on there, is a fantastic little piece by Rob, with swinging piano and a great chorus. The live recording obviously gives it more guts, but again the vocals are too low in the mix. On the other hand, the other version of instrumental "Meat Dance" does little for me, and "Covert Advertising", despite its smarter-than-most anti-materialism lyrics, is made grating by its nagging, insistent horn line. And that's coming from a lover of ska-punk horns.
As these are rather low-profile releases, production is not expected to be perfect. However, I do feel the difference in production lets down the early versions of "I Only Smoke When I'm Drunk" and "Trapped like Rats in Myers Flats", despite the vocals being much clearer. They lack the energy and sheer, well, balls that the album versions have. They're still worth hearing, though, and the surf guitar in "Smoke" really does sound like early surf on this cut.
Finally, we have the covers. "Fuck Christmas", a quick seasonal ditty by Fear is entertaining, has attitude in buckets, a nice harmonics intro, and is under a minute long. If you want to listen to it more than once, though, you worry me. Better are two old ska and reggae songs from a shelved tribute to Studio One Records, which by the sound of them would have been great. "Bobby Bobylon" is great, fun rocksteady with David Hall on vocals, while "Truths and Rights" is a more sombre tune that breaks down into a long, chilled-out dub-jazz session. The former's better, but both show that the band are well cut out for Dan P and the Bricks, who feature five members of Slow Gherkin, and play straight-up ska and reggae.
I've gone on far too long with this review and of course look like a fool. Put simply, the band's fans must pick this up at all costs, for completion, and of course joy. The record's by no means perfect, but for the fan of ska at any era there'll be something nice here for them, and much to satisfy lovers of indie and straight-up rock. Indeed, others may covet "Covert Advertising" and the Fear cover. Even if it is patchy, it is after all a rarities disc, and one of the better ones.