Point is, ska is not going away and the genre continues to be as daring and innovative as it was back in the 60s and 70s. The Internet’s made it easier than ever for ska musicians to meet – even as Twitter dies, “ska Twitter” continues to thrive – so the genre continues to grow. Sure, there are still plenty of haters who think ska is nothing more than “what plays in a thirteen year old’s head when he gets extra mozzarella sticks,” but real ones know that the genre has always been a celebration of togetherness in the face of adversity. …and about how cool trombone solos are.
Enter Atlas & Oracle, a self-described ska-pop collective. Bandleader Atlas O’Clare yearned to make ska music, but at the time of their first record, the group didn’t have a guitar player. So instead of pushing their passion to the side, they opted to make ska centered around synths instead, spawning a whole new subgenre of ska they dub “synth-ska” where synths replace the guitar on the off beats.
But things have changed since their debut Jubilee. For one, the group knows more guitarists now. In the past year or so, A&O has linked up with a ton of ska musicians online thanks to the wonders of Ska Twitter. And using these newfound connections, they’ve released an entire album of collaborations with Sad Songs With Happy Endings. Each track features an additional artist riffing on a different genre – Yours Sincerely and chiptune, Hexadecibel and reggae, Flying Raccoon Suit and pop-jazz, and so on.
True to the album’s title, each song tackles depression, alcoholism, political turmoil, and other not-so-happy topics, but with a jaunty hopefulness that always ends on a positive note. “Goodness Gracious” is a particularly energizing track, with O’Clare and guest vocalist Jessica Jeansonne trading verses about their struggle to rediscover their self-assuredness and self-worth.
It’s cheeky and clever – the two joke about looking behind the couch to find their lost confidence – but the best part is how the track shows that no one is alone in losing their spark. Not only is this achieved by having two singers describe their experiences, but there’s also a bit about “calling up friends of old” only to find that they’re all in a slump, too.
It’s really warm and comforting to hear how common that feeling is. As I get older, it feels like I’m constantly learning new things to be self-conscious about. It’s something I really struggle with, so it felt great to hear that I’m not alone in those feelings – and to hear a nice brass section back that revelation up.
That’s ultimately what the album is about – we might all be sad, but hey, at least we have each other, so we might as well dance. It’s no secret that music is often used to bring others together and squash loneliness, and Sad Songs With Happy Endings is especially good at this. There’s an answer to every problem O’Clare sings about, whether it’s Common Sense Kid rapping a response to O’Clare’s self-medication on “Fade Away” or Yours Sincerely agreeing that we all need to remember our resilience and history to fight against hatred on “Violins For Violence.” How can you feel lonely when a rotating roster of ska stars are all playing off of one another with such fantastic chemistry?
And it’s not just the spirit of ska and collaboration alive in Atlas & Oracle’s recent releases, but the spirit of innovative genre-blending as well. Time Machine serves as a companion album to Sad Songs with Happy Endings, covering one song per decade in the style of synth-ska.
By covering tracks like The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” all the way up to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” the band demonstrates just how flexible ska (and synths!) can be. Often, these huge pop songs are stripped down, creating a comparatively understated yet incredibly dynamic cover. Subtle synths dip in and out on covers of “Friday I’m In Love” and “I Won’t Back Down,” providing a pulsating bedrock to the tracks and adding a sort of shimmeriness to them.
Atlas & Oracle’s Bandcamp bio reads, “Do you believe that ska can change the world?” And honestly, after listening to reinvigorating tracks like “Violins for Violence” or a cover of “I Won’t Back Down,” you start to believe that the answer might be, “yes, yes it can.”