Album review: Spiritual Rez “Setting In The West”

When Boston’s Spiritual Rez released Rising In The East (Sidehatch Entertainment Group) in 2006, punky, white-boy ska that had taken storm in the 90’s had lost its mainstream appeal, reggae was just up and coming as bands like Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad were paving the way, and the indie-production movement was in infancy. Rez mixed rock, ska, funk, and reggae, and they did their thing, touring hard, playing earth-shattering live shows, and releasing two more records.

Apocalypse Whenever (self-released, 2014) seemed to be a fresh start for Rez. The songwriting got even more personal, the song structures were more creative, and the band took many risks, but the album remained wholly indie and underground. Almost like Rez had found their true voice. While this fits Rez’s rebellious nature, clearly they wanted a bit more recognition for their efforts (certainly valid!). So the band marched off to California and teamed up with Max Collins, who some may remember from his band Eve 6. Most may have thought Eve 6 was a one-hit wonder, but I have always been an enormous fan, and followed them through four spunky, witty, heavy, and emotional records. Max Collins has a knack for blending humor with darkness, pop and gloss with middle-finger to the Man. He and Rez would end up gelling nicely. In fact, if Eve 6 became a reggae band, they would probably end up sounding a lot like Rez…

So Setting In The West (self-released) is both a nod to the fact that the record was carved out and recorded in California (west of Boston), a sendoff to the early years of the band, and a simultaneous recognition of their humble beginnings. Yet SITW sounds almost nothing like RITE. The band’s dubbed-out, groove-laden, roots and ska-founded headiness is nearly nonexistent. Instead, the band tried something new: What if they made an album that played to their other side? What would a pop Rez record sound like?

Well, it sounds like The Dirty Heads, so Duddy D’s guest verse on “Red Room” is a no-brainer. And Max’s love of punk teased out the band’s use of ska, so BIlly Kottage of Reel Big Fish bringing his distinct trombone sound to “Bad Girl” is also befitting. Also, Rez sound more Cali-reggae than ever before, so a duet with Hirie (yes, I know she’s Hawaii-based but her sound is also so very SoCal) on “Together Always” is nearly a must-have for such an experiment.

Setting In The West is very much a contemporary record. Toft Willingham croons on “Whiskey”: “Write a little music/and watch a little ‘Breaking Bad’.” The same song is ridiculously catchy, and the rock steady groove is danceable, but the lyrical message isn’t necessarily the most inspired. “You left me all alone/said you’re never coming home/sitting by the telephone” doesn’t nearly meet the same lyrical courage Toft exercised on “Don’t Be Afraid” (off of Apocalypse Whenever). but it does accentuate his ability to craft a catchy song.

Similarly, “Tidal Wave” is merely a pop song using a disjointed metaphor: “I have seen so many poor boys taken by your undertow/ I will swim against your current,” Toft bellows. The songs are less personal tighter than anything they’ve done before. SITW is about making something taught, smooth, and sexy. True to Rez form, the songs are often a bit silly while also focused social commentary, i.e., “Bad Girl”, which has the line, “This crazy bitch is kinda fun,” and also looks at an unhealthy relationship with a delicate eye. “Square Grouper” is Rez at their best. It’s the kind of song they excel at, a narrative with a catchy chorus and paunchy horns.
The album closes with “Digital Age”, which blossoms from a quiet, acoustic ballad into a sweeping R&B song… Kind of like, where did this come from, dudes? And it’s not that it’s a bad song. It’s really good! It’s just very different, highly produced, and extremely pop. So what does that mean? Is this a good Rez record? A departure? I don’t know. I love this band and enjoy whenever they experiment. Many bands take reggae and splash in many other influences. There’s no need to be confined by a genre, but with the increased attention to production, SITW is not like anything else Rez has done. There are more synth drums and “ooh ah!”-type sing-a-longs. Ten songs that are really good. Some are exceptional. But damn, you will sing along. That’s the Spiritual Rez guarantee. This isn’t Rising In The East, though, and I think that’s the point.

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