Third-wave ska heros The Slackers still going strong after a dozen albums

Each wave of ska has had its flagship act. In the ’60s, it was the Skatalites, the group of ace instrumentalists who more or less invented Jamaica’s first indigenous form of pop. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, English septet the Specials ushered in the 2 Tone era, drawing on the angst and energy of British punk.

If any band can lay claim to ska’s third wave — a period that began in the mid-’80s, reached a commercial peak the following decade, and continues, arguably, to this day — it’s the Slackers. On its 12th album, “The Great Rocksteady Swindle” (Hellcat), the New York City sextet continues to use the genre as a midpoint, not an endpoint, incorporating sounds that both informed (’50s rock ‘n’ roll, ’60s R&B) and grew from (rocksteady, reggae and dub) traditional Jamaican ska.

The Slackers boast a musical diversity and depth of songwriting well beyond that of the Toasters or Mighty Mighty Bosstones, other enduring third-wave outfits. If “Swindle” offers little in the way of surprises, it’s as inspired a record as any the group has released this decade.

As on past albums, each Slacker contributes at least one song, most of which are sung by Vic Ruggiero, the rumpled, streetwise troubadour who, since 1991, has been the band’s heart and soul. With his heavy Brooklyn accent, Ruggiero almost can’t help but sound like a droopy-faced underdog. That’s true whether he’s lovesick, as on the deceptively buoyant ska opener “How It Feels,” or sickened by the actions of his government, as on the choppy reggae cut “Tool Shed.”

Although they’re best known for recreating ’60s sounds — abundant, as always, on this collection — the Slackers go 2 Tone on the disc’s standout, “Mr. Tragedy,” an homage to such Specials tunes as “Ghost Town” and “Rat Race.” Ruggiero sings in the second person, addressing a chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling shut-in whose life is a series of calamities. “Mr. Tragedy, open up your eyes,” the chorus goes, “or this whole world will pass you by.” It’s less a song about hopefulness than taking responsibility for one’s own situation — a recurrent them in the Slackers’ catalog. Ruggiero takes his knocks, but he rarely plays the victim.

— Text by Kenneth Partridge, photo by Joelle Andres

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