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Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad | Country

album review by John Powell

Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad | Country

If you have preconceived notions about Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad releasing a “country album”, let them go. This is something really unique and fun, without fluff. Any fan of the New York State reggae outfit will recall that their previous album, Slow Down, came out six years ago and featured more members in the band. It’s about time the hard-touring roots-lovers gave fans new studio stuff, but Country is Americana versions of their songs, plus a Dead tune, that retain much of the reggae vibe- uptempo with reggae guitar and bass sprinkled in. Many of the songs have been performed live for years, but appear now unlike they ever were live- banjo, slide guitar, and Chris O’Brian drumming with brushes. But if you’re a real Giant Panda purist, fear not. This album is excellent.

With the release of Country, their PR states that a new roots reggae album is just months away, meaning that Country, although totally legitimate, is kind of like a bonus. The quintet, (Dan Keller has been with them about a year at this point), have always had a love for roots Americana. The songs sound utterly natural in this style. Their vocal harmonies are perfectly in line with this notion, as are the acoustic piano and Aaron Lipp sometimes trading in his keyboard for slide guitar. He smokes at slide, by the way. He steals the show.

The album begins with banjo. “Sunshine” also has fiddle grazing in the background. The mix of reggae and acoustic produces a somewhat Malian Afrobeatiness. “I’m swimming through your boarders,” they sing. “There’s too many colors.” The lyrics are simple and true, honest and heartfelt. These are characteristics of both reggae and folk music, as well as lyrics about nature, Home, and staying true to yourself. It just works. Period.

“Far Away” transforms from a highly crafted reggae groove into a honkytonk lovelorn track. Dan Keller takes lead vocals. The lyrics translate excellently into the style, and the song falls into a sweet serenade. “I don’t got no way to see you,” he sings in the chorus, and while this album is all in fun, the sincerity is clear. If you didn’t know Giant Panda had a knack for amazing reggae sounds, you’d swear this was their calling.

One of the most reggae’d out country tracks is “In These Times”, which is reggae all acoustic. The one drop beat is light in the mix and there’s banjo to keep things friendly, but for anyone familiar with the original version the transcription will make you grin with glee.

The album ends with “All Night Music”, a favorite new GPGDS tune. It’s beautifully written. “Jammin’ ‘til the sun come up,” it goes. They have found their talent in harmonies, as well as taking enough time to ensure their verses and choruses are as catchy and easy to remember as one another. They return to hooks often. Hitting a new stride, it’s great to see them staying loose and having a good time.

Yet the most fascinating aspect of Giant Panda’s new set and Country as an album is that the band produced timeless songs. In the same way that Woody Guthrie’s protest songs can be revived today with relevance and integrity, or how no one can complain that “Cheek to Cheek” is a perfectly acceptable standard for any occasion, Aaron, Dylan, Chris, James, and Dan’s songs are so well defined that performed in any genre they can be successful. I know I ought to air on the side of caution when bringing up The Beatles, but everyone in GPGDS writes, sings, and plays, much like the Fab Four. It’s that sort of coherence that makes long lasting songs. Maybe this is Giant Panda’s Sgt. Pepper phase.

Bottom line: Reggae outfit strips their tunes into Americana and folk versions with surprising and beautiful results.


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