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Rocket From the Crypt

To say that this is Rocket From the Crypt's strongest outing since Paint as a Fragrance is both true and a little misleading. If you were a fan of the band's guitar-and-horn-heavy rave-ups from the mid-'90s, and felt a little disappointed by 1998's RFTC, which was a slower and softer outing, welcome back. It's not that RFTC was a bad record, really, it's just that the group has always thrived best in the aggro-punk mode. Its last two All Systems Go releases, collecting previously released and b-side tracks, similarly felt like a spinning of the wheels.

But give the devils their due. Rocket From the Crypt's Interscope signing, which birthed RFTC, was a messy affair at best, and far too complicated to go into here. The band eventually pulled themselves out of it, though, and Group Sounds reflects more joy and creative control than they've displayed in quite a while.

Like f'rinstance, the 7/4 time signature of "Carne Voodoo" and the fast, catchy hooks on "This Bad Check is Gonna Stick" reaffirm the faith of anyone who ever thought of Rocket From the Crypt as smarter-than-the-average-kinda-not-really-ska-punks. The opening track, "Straight American Slave," comes in swinging, and the pace doesn't really let up throughout the album's remaining half-hour, even on the comparatively moody closer "Ghost Shark." Plus which the cover graphics recall Scream, Dracula, Scream!, another pretty fine moment in the band's career, thus reminding us of what the initiated might refer to as the group's glory days. All in all, the first moments of this album signal an experience that I might not call "a triumphant return to form" if the phrase didn't apply itself so readily.

Rocket From the Crypt also engages in a bit of member shuffling here. Founding drummer Atom split the group a while back, and new drummer "Ruby Mars" (Mario Rubalcaba) came late to the scene; Superchunk's Jon Wurster provides most of the percussion on Group Sounds, a title which seems to celebrate the reforming of like-minded pounders. But the shifting roster doesn't result in a fractured listen. Every track on Group Sounds follows from the last, in perfect sequence. Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson (Big Star etc.) lends piano on "Ghost Shark" -- parts of the album were recorded in Memphis, in fact -- and on the whole it seems the logical way to end an album that sounds familiar and recognizable throughout. The record as a whole proves Rocket From the Crypt hasn't lost its chops or its soul, while the atmospheric ride-out track suggests that the band still has a few surprises left in its arsenal.