Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Not to open on a down note, but the arrival of The Frightnrs' debut album, Nothing More To Say, is a bittersweet affair. The group's lead singer, Dan Klein, died from ALS earlier this summer, and much of the album was recorded after he was diagnosed last fall. His piercing, wailing tone feels all the more plaintive as a result, but even if Nothing More To Say marks a career cruelly curtailed, the album's release also represents a dream fulfilled.
The Frightnrs' sonic inspiration comes from rocksteady, the late-'60s dance craze that married American R&B melodies to Jamaican ska rhythms. The groove is languid yet irresistible; as rocksteady pioneer Alton Ellis described in the song that gave the style its name, it makes you want to "shake your shoulders, everything in time."
To perfect their sound, The Frightnrs' members teamed with Victor "Ticklah" Axelrod and Daptone Records, neither a stranger to reworking past styles for the present moment. Ticklah's had a long history with Antibalas, the Afro-funk-inspired orchestra, and Daptone is best known as the home of the retro-soul powerhouse Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings. Together, pianist Chuck Patel, his brother (and bassist) Preet and percussionist Rich Terrana pull together a simple, sparse-but-snappy set of riddims that Ticklah purposefully keeps lo-fi, as if these songs might have been discovered in a dusty Kingston studio closet.
Their first single all together came out last year: a phenomenal cover of Etta James' heartbreak classic "I'd Rather Go Blind," which somehow isn't overshadowed by its original. The full-length Nothing More To Say expands on that earlier potential with nearly a dozen more songs about tortured romances and unrequited love, including "Gotta Find A Way," "Trouble In Here" and "Nothing More To Say." One of the best in the bunch is "Looking For My Love," a dubbed-out track filled with soaring vocals and doo-wop harmonies that recalls the sweet soul touch of rocksteady giants such as The Techniques or The Paragons.
Unsurprisingly, Klein looms largest here, thanks in part to his keening voice. He wrote several songs on the album, including "Till Then," where his terminal condition is barely buried in the subtext of lines such as, "Pretending that I'm fine / I'm only lying all the time / I've crossed the line from melancholy into madness." It's impossible to enjoy The Frightnrs' opus without also imagining, "What if?" and though the group plans to stay together and possibly rotate in new vocalists, Klein's absence will undoubtedly be felt. At least the band was able to see its collective vision through on this one sublime effort.