When I last visited British ska-punk collective Zen Baseballbat this past January, I wrote about their brilliant album Rations, which I described as wild, zany, fun, and as thoroughly eclectic as any record could possibly be (you can read my review here). Now they’re back with a delightful new album, which they’ve cheekily titled Better Ways To Love & Offend, calling it “a slap in the face, a wake-up call to rip us from the stasis we’ve ghosted into since recession and Brexit took hold. Can’t go forward, can’t go back, so we might as well just sit and watch the bombs fall.” They deliver their message with hilarious yet biting lyrics and a delicious blend of ska (itself an eclectic mash-up of Caribbean mento and calypso, American jazz and R&B), electro, punk, new wave, reggae, zydeco and dub.
Based in Widnes, England, a mid-sized city bookended by Liverpool and Manchester, Zen Baseballbat was originally formed in the early 1990s by twin brothers Gary and Carl Gleavey, along with several other musicians. Over the next 10 years or so, they released an EP and two albums, but eventually disbanded in the late 2000s. Fast forward another 10 years, the Gleavey twins reformed the band with a new lineup and a newfound burst of creativity. Zen Baseballbat now includes Gary G. on guitar & vocals, Carl G. on bass & backing vocals, Jordan Donaldson on keyboards & backing vocals, Mike Wilkinson on drums, Jonathan ‘Jogga’ Parker on guitar & backing vocals, as well as Anoushka Wittram-Gleavey and Colin Mackay, who produced Better Ways To Love & Offend. Additionally, several other vocalists and musicians contributed to the album, including Jane Anderson, Ayshea Elfer, Jessica Wilkinson, Isabelle Wilkinson and Tony Nipper.
All 14 tracks are solid, but I’ll touch on my favorites, as well as those I feel are integral to the album’s overall narrative. The album opens with a man speaking the words “We don’t want to do anything to scare your children. We don’t want to scare anybody“, but then the band quickly informs us “There’s gonna be trouble“, which they repeatedly affirm throughout the bouncy reggae tune simply titled “Trouble“. Now that we’re suitably alarmed, they launch into “Retaliation” a terrific ska number with bits of punk, psychedelic and new wave, giving it a sort of lively B-52s vibe. The lyrics speak to standing up, speaking out, and fighting back against oppression and injustice: “This ain’t no place for sweet-tempered voices. Don’t hold back, don’t go with the punches. After a good old kick in the feelings, my heart still beats like a militant drum. Give a little bit of retaliation.”
Zen Baseballbat’s skill for using all sorts of fascinating instruments, textures and sounds is showcased on the cool, psychedelia-tinged gem “Over The Wall“. I love the skittering beat, exotic Caribbean sounds and delightful female vocal trills, punctuated with some marvelous guitar work. The lyrics seem to address income inequality: “Parties of the rich over the wall. The world won’t give me back my ball. Unsympathetic wealth is stinging. Despite Rock’n’roll right-wingers are singing.”
They also have a penchant for combining fun, upbeat melodies with darker lyrics. On “A Place Like This“, they rattle off a litany of bad behavioral choices to a lively zydeco soundtrack. And on “You Won’t Get Paid“, the bouncy ska groove contrasts with the caustic lyrics addressing the drudgery of dead-end jobs with little pay: “I’ve been shovelling shit for far too long. My body aches but my head is strong. I haven’t got a pot to piss in, yet you want me for next to nothing. You won’t get paid no, you won’t get paid.”
“Rumble” is a fascinating reggae track with soulful and jazzy cinematic overtones, thanks to a colorful mix of brassy horns, flutes, organ, and funky bass. In spots, the melody sounds like a slowed-down version of the 70s disco hit “T.S.O.P.” by MFSB, which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs. The song’s only lyric, which is sporadically repeated throughout the track, is “I zigged when I shoulda zagged.” The delicious ska tune “Quivering On A Rope” seems to touch on the soul-crushing aspects of casual sex and one-night stands: “Rummaging for love on a Tuesday night. On the shirttails of bachelors putting up a fight. Fannies flashing like neon signs, a stained glass view of their behinds. Quivering on a rope between the beginning and the end. Forgive me my lost soul rendition. My heart sings at any proposition. Are there better ways to love and offend? Basic desires start to bend.“
On “Reasons” the band takes on the political establishment and incompetent leaders who dither while the public suffers: “We have reason to believe that you have been living. We have several pictures to prove it. The mistakes you made were beautiful. Disguising your man for the television. We know who you are. We know where you’ve been.” “Don’t Oppress Me, Love” is a cheeky punk song about the perils of being romantically involved with a woman employed as an ‘adult’ entertainer – i.e. a stripper.
A stylistic departure for Zen Baseballbat, the atmospheric and contemplative “Elsa Dorfman” is a kind of ode to the American portrait photographer, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 83. The lyrics speak of seeking solace from life’s unpleasantries through her camera lens: “Tomorrow I’ll stick the job up its arse. A working-class kid will fly to Mars. Place me in front of the open lens Of Elsa Dorfman.” The album comes full circle with “Double Trouble“, a brief reprise of the opening track, this time sung by Jessica and Isabelle, daughters of band drummer Mike Wilkinson. The song’s whimsical feel gently reassures us that things really aren’t all that horrible after all.
Better Ways To Love & Offend is another fine and immensely enjoyable offering by Zen Baseballbat. Anyone who likes reggae and ska music, combined with humorous, witty and thought-provoking lyricism, will enjoy this album.
Purchase on Bandcamp