Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad | In These Times
album review by John Powell
Fans of this Rochester, NY reggae group have this to say: About freaking time. It’s amazing that a band can play hundreds of shows a year, attend multiple summer festivals, go through major line-up changes, gain a strong following- and with only one album under their belt, (Slow Down, for those wondering)!
Well, that’s not entirely true. They have a number of live bootlegs and Live Up!, a live album from a couple of years back. Still, In These Times is well worth the wait. Many of the songs have been played live for years. In fact, GPGDS has made themselves into a live band artillery, begging one to wonder how these songs will sound canonized in digital recording.
Basically, their songcraft is wonderful. Even when lyrics get cheesy (“Love You More”), they are done with sincerity and backed by delicious reggae grooves, stimulating keys, guitar riffs, bass lines, and one drops. The whole package is two thumbs up. This is mainly in part because everyone sings and more than half write songs. Harmonies run rampant, a Beach Boys sense of togetherness that makes them stand apart from other contemporary reggae bands out there.
“Change You” includes harmonica, a low-end riff that satisfies, and classic reggae riddim, perpetuated with a catchy melody. While it’s important to have a catchy chorus, Giant Panda also has catchy verses. This is a Dylan Savage tune. “You’re burning every bridge that can save you,” he sings over the bounce. “Times gon’ to save you/don’t just be a setting sun.” They revel in the groove, allowing it to simmer over low heat for four minutes while Aaron Lipp punctuates the fact with killer (I mean killer!) keys.
Dylan comes back for two in a row. “All Night Music” speaks on playing for your supper, but how that’s really an all right thing to be doing. “Jammin’ ‘til the sun come up,” he sings over an easy skank.
There’s a clear differentiation between the songwriting. Dylan has pop sensibility, cruising through repeated, short verses. On tracks like “World War”, bassist and singer James Searl enjoys long phrases, tongue twisters, and indulges in an almost 60’s hippie vibe of jamming out. “People’s love will always be much greater,” as he puts it.
Dan Keller’s songs are as unique as James’ are from Dylan’s. On “Far Away” he manages to create a quintessential love song about being on the road. The music is easy going, with few frills. “I would like it if you said to me/ 'It doesn’t matter where you want to be/ Go where you want to go.'”
The whole album touches on two things: life on the road, (remember, these guys tour so much they can’t sit still long enough to record an album), and it has a political vibe. It’s nothing overbearing, and no downright Springsteen-esque accusations of policies, but “Pockets” declares “Educated fools/from uneducated schools” and “Next Best Explosion” (a highlight!) dares, “Get rich/or get wealthy/This aggravational time is wearing me thin.”
Dylan really sums it up in the title track, a glorious reggae romp: “Please don’t trouble me/ I never trouble you.” While GPGDS chose reggae as their medium, they have a love of folk, rock, and the weird, and they extract the best parts, tossing them in to some of the rootsiest reggae this side of 2012.
John Brown’s Body’s horn section appears on “Next Best Explosion” and “Healing”, and members of The Green are on “All Night Music”. Joel Scanlon provides a healthy dose of dub. They break the song writing formula and stretch the meaning of roots reggae, bolstering a sense of psychodelia, nestled in a forest of thoughtfulness. After all, these songs we recorded only after having been played a thousand and one times live.
Bottom line: Awesome. Awesome. Awesome reggae.