Grim Luck - Alexandra Volume II: The Dread (Cover Artwork)

Grim Luck

Alexandra Volume II: The Dread (2011)


Grim Luck formed in San Diego, Calif. sometime between 2004 and 2006; legends and internet rumors vary. Standing head and shoulders above the rest, Grim Luck has led the San Diego ska scene for several years with their unique sound that blends dark, minor-tonality ska with folk, hardcore and anything else they can mesh together using their markedly varied instrumentation. On their first three albums, Grim Luck wrote songs that pushed the boundaries of third wave ska, albeit in the dark-sounding and calculatingly paced direction that Streetlight Manifesto pioneered. However, with Alexandra Volume II: The Dread, Grim Luck breaks nearly all of their ties to the bright, crisp melodies of the '90s and forges their own identity without losing any of their hectic energy, unique songwriting and fiercely underground ethos.

In place of bright, clean and simple riffs and melodies à la '90s third wave ska, Grim Luck crafts dark, hectic (always on the verge of sloppy) and layered-sounding ska blended with folk and hardcore. The horn section usually carries the melody and engages the listener with interesting variations, both new and familiar. Unique instrumentation (cello, accordion and banjo) add depth and variety to songs but sometimes verge on gimmickry. Grim Luck hits their stride when their massive horn section pumps out brooding melodies through songs like "Odessa!!" and "Monarchs Can't Dance!!". Vocally, Rob and Erich bare their souls belting out authentically inane lyrics oddly focused on vintage nautical imagery. Wisely, they keep their lyrics out of the overly "zany" and "wacky" territory of the third wave, though. Volume II has a much tighter and more together sound than the often loose and sloppy Vol. 1. This strips away some of Grim Luck's "small-time" charm, but, ultimately, greatly improves the band's sound overall.

Grim Luck's maturation as a band and movement away from the formulaic sound of third wave ska does come at a price, however. The increased presence of the horn section largely eliminates the catchy choruses of yore, to the album's detriment. Only "The Dread..." evokes the sing-along choruses of "Bouquet of Lillies" and "College/Going to Santa Barbara". Also, the band's massive ensemble leads to a lot of instruments doubling up on parts. The bari sax, cello and bass often follow the same bassline (and occasionally needlessly clutter it) while the horns almost always play in unison on the melody. A more layered approach that has the horns playing off of and against each other (polyphony) would really step things up an notch. Borrowing some plays from Keasbey Nights would be a great start.

If Reel Big Fish is "Green Day with horns," then (very approximately) Grim Luck is Gogol Bordello with horns–plus a cello, accordion and banjo. At times, the sheer size of Grim Luck's ensemble seems paradoxically cluttered and minimalist, while pushing aside the infectious choruses of older albums. However, Grim Luck manages to craft a truly unique and engaging sound from a largely stagnant genre with impressive results. They have quite possibly created the most unique recording to ever have the words "punk" or "ska" attached. Anyone looking for a wonderfully original and truly engaging sound will love Alexandra Volume II: The Dread.

[Originally reviewed at man vs. ape]