“Sometimes I feel like I’m the enemy,” James Searl starts off the title track of Make It Better (2016), and it’s as if he’s owning up to the rebellious persona Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad has adopted for their sixth studio record- their first using the Rootfire Cooperative record label. Rochester, New York’s mainstay decided to remove any hesitation and just say what they were feeling.
In this way, it’s a bit different from 2014’s Steady, which was rich with political cognition (e.g., “Wolf At Your Door”, “World War”, “.45”). Yet nearing two decades in, GPGDS has one of the most distinct sounds in contemporary reggae. Their songs vibe with intensity, without any glitz ever, and all with a tinge of Grateful Dead and The Beatles. Because of that, Make It Better is original and classic, folky and roots. It’s what Panda has always done, but it’s a notably unique record.
So, highlights? Well, it’s hard to choose. They’re all damn good. Dylan Savage’s “Live and Travel” is catchy, rustic, and probably his best song on the record. James Searl’s “Greatest of Days” is one of the sincerest and most emotive songs he’s ever recorded. Each song revolves around layered guitars, but Chris O’Brian has become one of the most distinguishable drummers in reggae, and Tony Gallicchio makes his full album premier. Panda’s greatest asset has always been that they have three songwriters and sometimes four-part harmonies. This pool of vocal nuances often develops into weaving, gorgeous melodies. Dylan fronts four of the ten tracks, James six. The missing member here is multi-instrumentalist Dan Keller. Dan has a great cameo on the bridge of “Signs”, but he’s a stellar songwriter, so I hope he gets some space for a few songs on the next one, even if his horn playing, backing vocals, and guitar work is all over MIB.
While GPGDS has always boasted and maintained deep dub-styles, MIB has tons of horns, adding a layer to the instrumentation, which is simultaneously complex and repetitive, making for both a reggae groove and folk/pop hooks. Dylan and James write vastly different songs, as anyone who has followed them since In These Times (Controlled Substance Sound Labs, 2012) knows.
However, In These Times and 2014’s Steady (Easy Star Records) felt pregnant with music, whereas MIB rolls in under 40 minutes. In other words: Tight! The band is really good at jamming, both on record and especially live, but they decided there was no time for that now. If you like Giant Panda, you’ll love Make It Better, unless what you love is their experimental grooving. This record is honed-in, stylized, focused work. It’s good reggae, but in all honesty, it’s just good music. Their use of rock, pop, dub, jam, and folk is subtle but effective.
“You know, I can’t understand ya,” Dylan offers on “Really True” (with guest backing vocals from Elliot Martin of John Brown’s Body); “This time we have to make a connection/ and we’re going to build it right.” This attitude is both character-driven and the band’s social change modality. On “Trouble Deep” Dylan adds, “Every day we workin’ harder,” and it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him. Giant Panda might not tour as hard as they did behind the now canonized Slow Down (self-released, 2006). Rarely has an album as intentional and studio-focused as Make It Better come off also feeling loose and playful. Rarely has one band found their niche without getting stale.