Those of you familiar with the Brummie ska scene probably won’t require much of an introduction, but to the ignorant 1% out there – of which I formed an intrinsic part up until today – I’ll keep this part brief.
Their bio states that they’re a six-piece, multi-racial, multi-generational band that fuses pop with reggae, rock, ska, indie, Motown, and folk. It also informs us that their songs are their reaction to social and political unrest, as well as ‘matters of the heart’, so if that’s anything to go by, think of them as 1 part Rage Against the Machine, 1 part iconic pop group, topped-off with a generous measure of Malibu*.
I think this is the place for me to point out that I absolutely hate reggae. Vehemently. There’s literally no other style of music by which I cannot abide. I’d rather gut myself with a broken beer bottle than listen to No Woman No Cry or Buffalo Soldier. No offense to all you dreadlocked Marxists out there who think it’ll change the world.
Maybe I’m not the right person to be reviewing this, I thought when the assignment popped-up in my inbox. But we’re in this together, XOVA, we’re in this together. I cracked-open a bottle of Molson Canadian or two and braced myself for some massive piss-taking… so much for putting my best foot forward in my first article.
I plugged in my headphones and set-off on my due diligence. If I was going to get into bed with a 6 man pop/ska band, I’d want to know exactly what they were packing. I read testimonials from BBC Radio DJs and this person and that telling me about XOVA: the best live thing since Bob Geldof book (that’s the past tense of bake, by the way) himself into a giant potato on stage and fed all of Africa in 1985. It’s a lot of hype to live up to and building them up was doing them no favours with my skepticism. But you can’t argue with their achievements so far, can you? Can I?
The first single that was thrust upon me went by the name of Nine Lives and it shook me to my gooey alcohol-y centre. I fucking knew it… But then, something happened – the synth kicked-in. A crafty snake of a synth line transformed the song utterly from first appearance of its head. It was more reminiscent of some early Stevie Wonder than I Shot the Sheriff and I was knocked off-balance without a clue of what to do. A split second after absorbing it and eating the words I’d been saving up in my lunchbox, the vocal kicked in, and what a vocal, too. I found myself believing the hype and I fell right the way back in my comfy chair. It struck me as farther toward the indie/pop end of the spectrum than purist reggae, but more importantly than any genre classification, I didn’t feel like jamming my empty bottles through my sternum. You could even go as far as saying I liked it, but anyone quoting me on that will be called a liar and a swine. It’s catchy, and it pains me to use the phrase bouncy, but it’s got a slight shoulder-pop of attitude from the get-go. The guitar overdubs in the pre-chorus gel nicely with the vocal melody and the brass arrangement kicks in at all the right times. The crescendo is especially strong, although I’d like to have heard Wayne smash one final high-note toward the end, just to put a nail in it – but that’s just me. It’s a strong showing so far. Now for song number two.
Tears shows XOVA’s versatility and their eponymous gift for genre crossovers. Sorry, I’ll do over, that sounded way too much like a review. Tears opens up with the type of looming synth intro you’d expect to lead-in to a post-apocalyptic, electronic horror-show. I guess it’s there to set the tone for the rest of the song, given its fairly clear politicality. It’s far closer to the reggae brush the band’s been tagged with, but it’s still not that simple. There’s a bona fide minimalist drop in there, harmonies that wouldn’t be out of place in a boyband chorus, some ambient reverbing guitar, and a looping brass section the Specials would be proud of. Don’t take this cacophony as a negative, though. This song could have been an absolute disaster, but the guys haven’t just pulled it off, they’ve made it all marry as naturally as two men in Vermont. It’s not over-produced or over-cluttered, despite the musical depth to it and that speaks volumes to XOVA’s instincts, which I can’t fault at all.
I took-in the studio version and quickly tracked down a live recording of Tears from the Rainbow, Birmingham, just to see if their live reputation was all it was cracked up to be. In two words, it is. With a brass section tighter than a nun’s legs and harmonies tidier than Ron Burgundy’s hair, I can see why they’ve been given so much praise as a live act. For the record, the whole band deserves an honourable mention for live showings like this; there are very few people who can rap that quickly and accurately in a live setting and as a unit, XOVA are faultless from bass to alto. It’s no surprise that they beat out over 3,000 other unsigned bands to garner themselves at slot at the 2013 Isle of Wight Festival.
Okay, maybe that’s not what you expected when you heard the words ska and British in the same sentence. Expecting Madness, were we? If so, then shame on you, or us, I don’t know. It’s not so much Baggy Trousers as Baggy Corrupt Political System Leading to Stagnation in our Inner City Ghost Town Opposed by Eclectic, Multi-Genre Powerhouse.
With a new album, Synchronise Your Leaders, due out soon on Bournemouth label ‘Streets Music’, and a video for their new single ‘Lullaby’ to follow, 2015 is set to be a busy year. Not to mention a tour kicking-off in the near future. Check XOVA out, I have a feeling you’ll be impressed. If not, you’re probably a pretentious arsehole like me, but not as interesting.
I didn’t even have to mention their bassist is Omar from the Wire… sheeeeeeeeit.
*Other Caribbean rum drinks are available