ALBUM REVIEW: The Selecter – Human Algebra

3.5 rating
The Selecter – Human Algebra

The 2 Tone Ska revival was short and sweet and left a long-lasting mark on the UK music scene, with the issues being tackled sadly being as relevant today as they were in the 1970s/80s. One of the loudest voices to emerge from this period was Pauline Black.

As the frontwoman of The Selecter, Black gave a voice to people of colour and women across the UK and beyond. Backed by a collection of very talented musicians, the band followed the likes of The Specials and The Beat in visually and audibly demonstrating multiculturism in the most positive way possible.

Forty-three years after The Selecter’s seminal debut album, Too Much Pressure, which still inspires and resonates today, can their sixteenth studio album, Human Algebra, claim a similar place in people’s affections? It is undoubtedly a high bar to clear.

To start the album rolling, the album’s title track throws us straight into a heavy and sadly relevant subject matter. The song portrays the aftermath of the utterly senseless death of a young man due to the increasing scourge of knife crime. There have been all too many real-life examples of this in recent times, highlighting the complex nature of human interaction in our society and the consequences which ripple out through the lives of many when lives are taken. The Selecter have clearly not left behind their socio-political roots. The chorus hook sees Black repeating the line, “Mama’s so blue”, a feeling felt by many who have lost loved ones in such tragic circumstances.

‘Big Little Lies’ follows and immediately makes me think I’m listening to a potential Bond theme. Here, the issue of fake news is dissected. And there is certainly plenty of it out there to be lyrically inspired by. The track has a polished maturity, which still sounds undeniably apparent as The Selecter. Time may pass, but quality endures.

A reggae-inspired beat underlines ‘Boxing Clever’ as Black’s unmistakable vocals bounce and waft across the catchy melody. Tackling relationship issues, particularly around control and emotional manipulation, Black’s voice becomes punchier and more triumphant as she repeats the refrain, “I’m coming out on top”, as the character breaks free.

Relationships are examined under a different lens with ‘Depends’. “I know you got your troubles/But drinking all those doubles/Won’t wash away your problems/I can help you solve them”, sings Black with an emotional wobble in her voice. Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson acts as the vocal counterpoint as the subject of strength in adversity, and drawing on your support network is highlighted. Don’t overlook the closest to you in times of difficulty. Don’t shut them out. Wise words. You expect that from this band.

‘Stop Them’ threw me a curveball. The album started well, but this track left me feeling underwhelmed. I was worried the best had been and gone. Thankfully, this was not to be the case. “Like a raisin in the sun/Our dreams go dry/The cost of justice never runs true until men die”.

We are back on track. The Selecter delve into the subject of black people dying at the hands of the police and other authorities. They have never run shy of important issues in their music. Musically, it sounds very upbeat and jolly. The lyrics really jar against this, especially when ‘Gaps’ begins to announce a list of names – all black people who have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement or other agencies. One of the names is a relative of the drummer, Charley “Aitch” Bembridge. It is good to see “Aitch” back in the lineup, as he was the original drummer in 1979. He certainly brings his talents to the forefront here.

Written before Putin invaded Ukraine, ‘War War War’ takes up the mantle of an anti-war anthem. Recent events have just made it even more appropriate. The Selecter are doing what they do best. Hendrickson takes the bulk of vocals here, with Black acting as second in command. “Everybody chasing dollar/Looking for a better offer/Never got enough ‘cos they want more, more, more” emphasises the greed that often sits behind warfare in the modern world. It sits in the sphere of “War” by Edwin Starr, and the band pay tribute to the song as the famous line, “War, what is it good for?/Absolutely nothing”, is sung by Hendrickson. It also nods towards ‘North Sea Bubble’ by Billy Bragg, where he espouses, “War, what is it good for?/It’s good for business”. Follow the money.

In 2019, the sad news broke that the fabulous Ranking Roger had died at the all-too-young age of 56. Part of fellow 2 Tone ska revivalists The Beat, he was mourned by many when he passed, Black included. To celebrate his life and his contribution to music, Black, Hendrickson and Neil Pyzer (also the album’s producer) penned ‘Parade The Crown’. 2 Tone ska with a sprinkle of Caribbean calypso, the track is a fitting tribute to the late musician. “Parade The Crown/Let our heavy heads hang down/Parade The Crown/Watch him as the tears roll”. I’m not crying, you are.

When The Selecter released their first album in 1980, it wasn’t unheard of to read of corruption in the corridors of Westminster, but it was not seen as a commonplace occurrence. Roll on just over forty years later, and it feels like it is now the rule and no longer the exception in the eyes of many. ‘Scandalous’ sees Black et al. tackle this head-on. With a great skanking vibe, wonderful sax from Pyzer and a great riff from Lee Horsley on the organ, Black reminds us of how we, the masses, suffer pain so the chosen few in power can stockpile the gain. Everything about this track feels like classic Selecter.

Next in their sights is the rampant scourge of keyboard warriors. ‘Armchair Guevara’ unpacks a prevalent issue in modern society, specifically the damage such internet warriors can do. We live in a world of disinformation, partly due to such people. “Armchair Guevaras/Making us hungry/Feeding us full of lies”, sings Black, accentuating that those of us who readily digest or fail to challenge such falsehoods must take our share of the blame. It takes two to tango, after all.

‘Not In Love With Love’ takes your heart and gives it a thoroughly good kicking as Black tells us a story of a damaged relationship. You really feel angst and despair in her voice. I don’t think Black gets enough credit for her excellent and emotional vocal interpretations of songs.

The album concludes with a dig at Brexit with ‘Star Fell Out Of The Blue’. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Black highlighted how the loss of freedom of movement and change in legislation has made it much more difficult and expensive for The Selecter to tour across Europe now. And I thought it was all about creating better opportunities for everyone; nobody would be left behind—my mistake. “A star fell out of the blue/A bitter Union flag waving coup/Bubble gonna burst sometime soon/A star fell out, a star fell out of the blue” sums up her feelings nicely, I feel. It provides a suitably firm full stop to the album.

Whilst The Selecter may not reach the giddy heights they achieved in their 2 Tone heyday with this album, it would be remiss to overlook them. They are not just a touring band trotting out crowd-pleasers to live audiences who want to reminisce about their younger days. There are plenty of those already filling that brief. This band still produces original music of high quality, importance and socio-political relevance. Human Algebra ably demonstrates this.


Xsnoize Author
Iam Burn 19 Articles
Iam Burn is a photographer based in the North East of England. Fave bands: R.E.M, The Lovely Eggs, Half Man Half Biscuit, Madness, Inspiral Carpets, Billy Bragg, The Pogues, The Proclaimers, The Ukrainians, They Might Be Giants, The Chats, Matt Berry, Lead Belly, Grace Petrie, The Beautiful South, Carter USM… and many more! Favourite album: Impossible to choose but Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys is pretty awesome. Most embarrassing record still in my collection: Hole in my Shoe by Neil.

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