I think all of us have heard the old adage that you have your whole life to write your debut album, and it is the second one where it gets rough because now you have to write a whole bunch of new songs in a short amount of time. Now, imagine being a group of teenagers comprised of 3 brothers (Brandon Phillips (guitar/ vocals), Adam Phillips (drums/ percussion/ vocals), and Zach Phillips (bass/ vocals)) along with Heidi Blobaum (keys/ backing vocals) who have self-released a debut album and find themselves a year later signed to Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat Records at the label’s launch alongside other great bands like the Slackers, Dropkick Murphys, the Pietasters, Hepcat, and others. That second album becomes an even bigger challenge because Armstrong wants all new material for the album. That was the task the Gadjits were presented with when this album was released in 1997. Hellcat Records launched with Volume 1 of the ‘Give ‘Em the Boot’ compilation series which is outstanding from top to bottom, and ‘Beautiful Girl’ by the Gadjits was a song that I constantly had on repeat. By the time ‘At Ease’ was released, my anticipation was at a fever pitch.
This CD became one of my favorites of 1997 and rests comfortably in my favorite albums of all time with its combination of influences and originality striking a unique chord. ‘Bullet in the Mattress’ walks a delicate balance between a playful musical beat and some vocal skat with the story of someone getting killed. This has been one of the songs I will use to turn people onto the Gadjits. There is a ska influence in the beat but also combines with some traditional rock influences to create something unique. The guitar work stands out with some subtle touches. The band go from one strength to another with ‘Sh’Bop’ sounding a bit like Elvis Costello falling into some ska with some old 60’s soul influence through the band’s own musical lens. The quiet start to ‘Seat 6’ gives way to an addictive rhythm that will pulsate through your body. The way the song builds is magical, and I have always loved the line ‘subtlety is the best lesson I ever learned in school.’ Zach’s bass also stands out in the mix here.
‘Tell Yourself’ springs to life quickly with the rhythm again inducing movement in the listener. Adam’s work on the drums is stellar across the entire album with this just being one of fifteen brilliant moments. There is a slight breakdown in the song that really gives it an extra dynamic before the addictive chorus ends the song. One of the songs that gives away the band’s youth is ‘Traffic Tickets’ with the lyrics addressing the annoyance of being pulled over by the police. I love the ska influence in the music here as the band is extremely tight. I can overlook the lyrics and focus on the music. The slower beat of ‘California’ finds the band further expanding their sound with some excellent sax added to the mix.
One song was revisited from the band’s debut with the instrumental ‘Corpse I Fell in Love With’ coming in the middle half of the album. I always thought the bass and beat in the intro could have came from a spy movie before the band brings a heavy ska influence into it while working back in that spy movie motif a few times. The guitar work from Brandon is excellent. ‘Trusted’ has a slightly darker feel musically which corresponds perfectly with the lyrics. When it comes to relationship issues in music, the lyrics here may have been written by a teenager but still resonate with experiences most of us have experienced. Heidi’s work on the keys here also shines in the mix. The up tempo ‘Party Girl’ is again the band refusing to be pigeon-holed with the ska again meeting an Elvis Costello feeling with the lyrics here again perhaps lacking nuance but full of intent.
‘Back Up’ resonates on every musical level for me with the excellent groove combined with the cocky lyrics being one of the songs that would help me when I was feeling down after this album was released. Singing along to it can be like a shot of self-confidence with the vocal hook in the song being extremely catchy. Again, there is a subtlety to the guitar here where it gives the song perfectly what it needs without overdoing it. The band continue to channel musical excellence with ‘Holes in my Shoes’ by continuing to expertly blend ska, a punk attitude, and classic rock. One of two covers, ‘Skinhead Girl’ works perfectly with the sound on this album. For a 23 year-old like me at the time, it was definitely not an obvious song as I was unaware of the original way back then.
As we reach the final trio of songs, we start with the rock n roll infused ‘Need Yo’ Luv’ which is another song I used to introduce people to the Gadjits. Vocally, everything is stellar across the album, but I definitely want to highlight it here. This song feels a bit like going back in time to a room where the condensation is dripping down the walls while the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis tear the roof off the place. The other cover on the album is a bit unfortunate in retrospect, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined the connotations that come with ‘Mustang Sally’ all these years later. I will add though that the band is on fire here both musically and vocally so shove all those karaoke versions and such out of your head to try and hear the song in a fresh manner. The band close out the record with the superb ‘Beautiful Girl’ almost serving as an afterthought on the album. It definitely reflects how awesome the record is and is one of my lyrical favorites.
The Gadjits continued to flesh out their sound in the years to come. Their Hellcat Records follow up ‘Wish We Never Met’ has never connected with me in the same way ‘At Ease’ has. The band would then move over to Thick Records for ‘Today is My Day’ which is an album that constantly grows on me with the band having more of its rock and soul influence coming through. If you have not spent time with ‘At Ease,’ I highly recommend you change that immediately. I would suggest following it up with ‘Today is My Day’ and then checking out what else Brandon Phillips has done over the years in the Architects, Brandon Phillips & the Condition, and Mensa Deathsquad.
Pick up ‘At Ease’ Here
Author: Gerald Stansbury
*Interview coming next week*