Thursday, January 21, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Take: Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts "Covid-19 Special" b/w "Lockdown"

The artwork features the single's paper label with the imprint (Tip-A-Top), song title, and band name.
Tip-a-Top Records
7" vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While they closely model their sound after The Skatalites of the '64-'65 era, Swiss band Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts are no tribute act. This terrifically gifted group of musicians write their own tunes and have no agenda other than getting people on their feet to dance. Following The Skatalites' lead in titling their instrumentals after newsworthy people (Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X, Christine Keeler) and current events ("Independence Anniversary Ska" celebrates Jamaica securing its independence from the UK, while "Sudden Attack" conveyed Cold War anxiety of nuclear war), the brilliant instrumentals on Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts' new single acknowledge the grim reality that everyone has been enduring over the past year. "Covid-19 Special" is a majestic, if not somewhat muted, track with an irresistibly propulsive rhythm and memorable and slightly mournful horn lines. It's definitely danceable, but there's an undercurrent of dread and danger (who will the virus strike down next?). "Lockdown" is a much brighter, almost manic affair, as if the band is endeavoring to keep our collective spirits up as we hunker down in isolation until the horrific rates of new infections and deaths subside, and the public health authorities can get those shots in our arms. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Various Artists: "Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3"

The cover features cartoon versions of a rude boy, punk, and skinhead reading issues of "Do the Dog Skazine"
Do the Dog Music

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Since Kevin Flowerdew's essential Do the Dog Skazine is so thorough in its coverage of the global ska scene--far beyond what I'm able to digest and review each year for The Duff Guide to Ska--it only follows that I've only heard around half of the bands/songs on his fantastic new compilation Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3. This compilation features an extremely generous 47 tracks (!) of ska varying in style from traditional to 2 Tone to ska-punk from acts all over the world (some of them singing in languages other than English). Come for some of the better-known bands on Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3 like The Planet Smashers, Maroon Town, Cartoon Violence, The Bionic Rats, The Bruce Lee Band, Erin Bardwell, Crazy Baldhead, King Kong 4, The Co-operators & Friends, The Pomps, Detroit Riddim Crew, Catbite, The Skapones, Zen Baseballbat, Barbicide, The Abruptors,  Stop the Presses, The Players Band, Bad Operation, Some Ska Band, The Simmertones, Flowerdew's own Bakesys, and you'll walk away with many new faves, including acts like T-Killas, The Kubricks, RudeSix, GoGo 13, Los Fastidios & Elisa Dixan, and more. All participating acts contributed their music to help Kevin keep on publishing future issues of Do the Dog Skazine, which--in old school zine fashion--is only available in its print version from the man himself

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: "Reggae Dynamite, Volume 2" EP w/Melbourne Douglas, The Regulators, and King Deadly

A collage of pictures features male and female anti-racist skinheads, as well as Black, Jamaican sound system operators and deejays.
Original Gravity
7" vinyl picture sleeve EP/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Anyone looking to satisfy a craving for late '60s/early '70s skinhead reggae sounds--Symarip/Pyramids, Harry J Allstars, Dave and Ansel Collins, The Upsetters, and countless others--need look no further than Original Gravity's brilliant Reggae Dynamite, Volume 2. Written, performed, and produced by Neil Anderson plus an ace collective of musicians and singers, this EP sports two fantastic vocal cuts by JA-based Melbourne Douglas, as well as killer instrumentals by The Regulators and King Deadly. At the start of "Rudy Skankin' on the Moon" (shades of "Moon Hop"/"Moonstomp" in theme and sound), Douglas exclaims, "Kingston, we have a problem!" and recounts the hilarious tale of a rude boy accidentally left behind after a moon landing who just has to "keep on moon stompin'' until the next scheduled moon shot can collect him (in three years!). As its title suggests, Douglas' "Rude Boy Don't Fight Tonight" is a mid-tempo, anti-violence plea "to be cool when you go downtown tonight" and features soothing hammond and trombone solos. The Regulators "Caymanas Park Rocket" (Caymanas Park is a racetrack in Portmore, JA, just outside of Kingston) is a spirited instrumental keyboard tribute to a (hopefully) speedy steed, while King Deadly's extraordinary "Joshua A Mek Riddim Run" could be a long-lost Sound Dimension cut--it's one of the best new instrumentals in this vein that I've heard in recent memory. 

(Keep close tabs on the Original Gravity label--they're releasing all sorts of great new ska, soul, funk, and R&B singles as of late. Ska fans should definitely check out Prince Alphonso & The Fever's "Tune Up Ska" single, as well as the other sides available from The Regulators!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Boomtown United "Tuffer Than I"

The band's name is surrounded by leaves of laurels.
Digital, self-released, 2020
LP/CD/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Tuffer Than I is the first full-length from St. Louis, MO's fantastic Boomtown United (I reviewed their debut EP back in 2018). Top to bottom, this is one terrific album, filled with hook-laden, 2 Tone-influenced songs about love and navigating life's struggles. 

Actually, this record covers a whole lotta love. The Chuck Berry-ish "How I Feel" is full of declarations of love (and great sax and trumpet solos): "I wanna be the music that you choose in your darkest of times/A rest, a treble clef, the rhythm and rhyme." The rocksteady scooterist love song "Ride or Die" pledges fidelity forever, no matter what awaits them down the road, while the sweet "Back for You" (and its dub) promises that he'll return from wherever he's being forced to go (jail?). The minor-key "Feels So Nice" conveys some real urgency--even a bit of menace--in its physical longing and lust (which she wants consummated over and over in "Volcano"); "Love You Down" is its more innocent twin--the singer is head-over-heels and can't get her out of his head after she asked him to dance (you'll have trouble getting this song out of your brain, too). The calypso-y "The Only One" lightheartedly tells the tale of two guys who don't know they're in a love triangle ("They’re falling in love while she’s having fun").

A few cuts stray from the subject of sex and romance. "Wayside" urges the listener to cast aside any fears and distractions to prevent them from bogging you down ("Driftaway" seems to be a warning as to what happens when you don't). The super-catchy "Harder Than You Know" is an anthem for people struggling with addiction:

There’s a scent in the air takes me back somewhere
Somewhere I never should have been
And there’s a taste in my mouth, no I can’t get it out
Reminding me of when I was at the edge
I’m at the end of my wits with the shakes and the fits
I desperately need this change
I’ve got to be stronger, hold on them a little longer, and maybe this feeling will fade…

The singer in the spectacular Western ska "Tuffer Than I" features over-the-top, Prince Buster-level rude boy/outlaw boasting as the singer mows down wave after wave of his approaching foes: 

5 by 5, it’s still suicide
We’ve got the coffins in the back
6 by 6, we stack 'em like bricks
We only speak facts
7 by 7, none of them go to heaven
They all go to hell
8 by 8, they accumulate
And you’ll get used to the smell

And, as if to prove their 2 Tone bona fides, Boomtown United includes their scorching version of The Specials' dystopian love song "(Dawning of a) New Era," which they also contributed to the Specialized Records/Jump Up Records Check One-2: Spirit of '79 comp (which I reviewed back in 2019).

If you claim to like 2 Tone ska, Boomtown United's Tuffer Than I is a must get.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Duff Review: The Co-operators & Friends: "Beating the Doldrums"

The pencil drawing features a figure hunched over playing a melodica in a recording studio with instruments and gear strewn about, and plants growing everywhere.
Waggle Dance Records
Digital, 2020
LP, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As I sit here typing out my review of The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums, I worry that I won't do this phenomenal and beautifully crafted album justice. Not only have ace musician/producer Eeyun Purkins and his crew of exceptional collaborating singers and players created a collection of stellar ska and roots reggae songs, they've managed to adroitly articulate all of the injustice, absurdity, violence, oppression, suffering, and dread that many people experience while simply trying to get by in this day and age. The Co-operators & Friends' Beating the Doldrums delivers relatable glimpses into everyday lives that are sharply and unfussily portrayed--and, at times, are almost poetic in their imagery. And the music is highly melodic, always memorable, and absolutely magnificent. 

A common thread in many of these songs is the challenge of trying to survive in the big city. The majestic reggae track "Gentrification" is both celebration of the vibrant multicultural communities that thrive in less-wealthy urban neighborhoods (expressed through the fantastic diversity of food, like Joe Stummer's "Bhindi Bhagee") and staunch defense against greedy real estate developers intent on destroying it all just to line their pockets. (It's so catchy that I woke up this morning with this track running though my head.)

Down on the city’s street
I can hear the distant beat
Of the soundsystem
Rocking the bass and drum

Cramped from the tower blocks
Down to the squats and shops
Buy Ackee caliloo
Bhaji, Dahl and samosa, too

Rich in culture and community
Next door neighbours like family
And I loved it that way
Before the money men came to play

Gentrification (Invasion, invasion)
Gentrification (Invasion invasion)

You talk with scorn uptown
About how things are going down
You talk about our streets in fear
Dangerous 'cos you're not welcome here

You come to take life blood
From the place you call the hood
You're sending in the law
Looking for papers, drugs and more

Joe Yorke's transcendent falsetto on this tracks and others is something to behold and, as I've previously noted in another review, similar in calibre to The Congos and Junior Murvin. 

The urgent ska cut "Sleepwalkers" conveys how urban life can be bleak and soul-crushing (and suggests that escaping to the country may be the only salvation); Kitma delicately sings, "Even when the sun shines, it's raining/So we stay here in the cage, and fire, dazing/And the smoke clouds up my face/I'll sleepwalk back to bed/And dream about the right way/I've got to out of this place." In the mournful "Agony," Lintang sings about how she is left despondent and almost paralyzed by how our system of living has failed so many people in myriad ways: "Agony, agony got me front, left, and sideways...everything seems broken." "Concrete, Steel and Stone" (released as a single on Happy People Records--read my review of it) features Perkie's gorgeous vocals (delivered quite gently, as she's bearing bad tidings that we know in our hearts are true), which float over a brisk ska beat and express profound sorrow and regret that we live the way we do--out of synch with nature and the world around us, in a prison of our own making (that may be turning into a tomb): "Cars cross fibres, thread veins, sew layers, vessels of busy brains/We don't always notice our chains/So, we don't make change/We stick to the root we feel most comfortable in/But is this your skin?" Lives are off-kilter or becoming increasingly untenable.

But not all is unbearable. 

The bright Spanish-language "Florecer" (to thrive or flourish) sung by Elio AM sounds like something that could have come off The Clash's Sandinista (which I've been listening to a lot, since it was just the 40th anniversary of its release), and the sprightly ska of "Pocket Change" (are you down on your luck and asking for some or is it all you have to get by on?) features some great guitar and keyboard solos. And there's the righteous reggae cut "The Thief & The Liar," about a reckoning for corrupt politicians, who ignore their responsibility to serving the public good at their own peril. Perkie's delivery is fantastically laid-back and confident--world-weary, but determined to set things right.

We could spend our time waiting for them to save us
It's like wasting your days waiting for the bus
The first one doesn't come, and the second one's too late
So, it's best to walk your own way and seal your own fate...

...Bring another log for the fire
And throw on the Thief and the Liar

Can you feel the flames burning?
Bet you wish you weren't a politician
You call us criminals, but you're the crooks that throw the book for all the liberties that you took
You dig your own grave, hard and dogged Thief
The wolves are hungry, looking for something to eat
And they're coming for you, live or dead
It's all on your own head, you made your own bed...

Joe Yorke sings about the casual violence encountered on nighttime transport after the pubs close down is given--in a gently parodic fashion--Homeric epic poem status in the delightful "War on the Nightbus" (shades of "War ina Babylon"):

It was night then and the moon was low
Im was on the night bus moving so slow
Packed in like sardines, tight we were tight
Somebody tell me please did the city sleep that night?

Down in St Paul’s they were dancing til the morning
But on the top deck they started warring
They a shout and they push and push come to shove
Down the stairs he fell, crashing down from above

War, war, war on the night bus
Ism and schism, they fight and they fuss

He was loud and his mouth ran so fast
He stayed on the bus and I saw it sprint past
But he didn’t stay long, the eviction came firm
After he tumbled down the stairs he landed on the curb
I saw a look of shock glimmer in his eyes
As the fists and the kicks silenced his cries
He had it coming I have to say
But I just can’t take the conflict these days

It's brilliant.

For all the longing to flee the concrete jungle, life in the country is not necessarily idyllic. In the gorgeous "High on the Mountain," Beanie sings about someone who couldn't make the escape with her--the loss she feels even in such an awe-inspiring place: "Oh, I wonder if you ever think of me/Or if time's blown your memory/As I listen to the breeze blow gently through the trees..." In the beautiful, dream-like track "Turnpike Town" with vocals by Joe Yorke, this hidden, semi-mythical spot in the countryside may not be the hoped for Zion: "You might get chased by a pack of dogs/Or you might just be fine, who knows?...You could say that it's a refuge from Babylon's cruel embrace/But we all know liberty lives in a long forgotten place." Perhaps it's best to seek a balance between city and country life?

There are no answers offered in Beating the Doldrums. Yet the emotions and many of the experiences expressed in these songs are shared by everyone--and The Co-operators & Friends' music that expresses all of these hopes, fears, and blues, is in a language that unites us, can be a companion that sustains us in our darkest hours, and has the potential to save us from ourselves. 

The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums is, hands down, one of the best records I've heard in recent memory.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Kitma "Runnin'" b/w "Runnin' Dub" and The Soul Sauce meets Kim Yulhee (featuring Yun Seok Cheol) "East Sea"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

  • The vinyl single paper label lists the performer, song title, and imprint (Happy People Records)
    While I'm still in the process of digesting musician and producer Eeyun Purkins' brilliant new album Beating the Doldrums by The Co-operators and Friends, he and Kitma--one of the wonderful singers in his musical orbit--have issued a new heavyweight (in every sense of the word) single "Runnin'" b/w "Runnin' Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020). The alluring and hypnotic reggae cut "Runnin'" is a journey through a series of surreal nighttime visions (chasing whiskers blowing about; crawling through walls): "I'm in a lucid dream...Where the lights go out and the people can't sleep/Nothing but heels gonna follow my feet...I'm on the run again." The odd goings-on are subtly reinforced by the slightly off-rhythm thumb-piano sounds tinkling in the background in the left speaker/headphone. And its dub version is even trippier with a heavy dose of menace in the mix (a brash pipe organ-like horn blares out the melody in parts). This is the business!
  • The vinyl single paper label features the artists and song title, and the sleeve features a stylized drawing of a tree.
    The latest single from The Soul Sauce "East Sea" (7" vinyl single/digital, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2021) continues their collaboration with pansori singer Kim Yulhee as they reimagine traditional Korean folk music in ska and reggae settings (see my review of their "Swallow Knows" single from earlier this year). For South Koreans, the East Sea holds considerable spiritual, cultural, and historical significance (and there has been a long-standing dispute with Japan over its name that is particularly loaded, as it relates to Japan's brutal annexation of Korea from 1905-1945), and this type of Korean folk song--a Minyo--expresses the emotions of everyday people through songs of struggle, heartbreak, and despair. From what I can tell (and if Google Translate is accurate enough), the song is about someone traveling at sea (or they have already reached their destination), separated from the one they love: "At the pier where I left, only my heart embraced me/Are you carelessly leaving me?/When will you come?/When you leave, I'm waiting for that day to come...Even tonight, only the lighthouse lights flicker so lonely/Ulleungdora [a volcanic island] towering over the East Sea." Despite these downbeat lyrics, the music is brisk and cheery top-notch traditional ska, and Kim Yulhee's singing is rousing and vigorous (as opposed to mournful and defeated). It's different from the standard ska fare--but really amazing!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Dr. Ring Ding "The Remedy" and Flying Vipers "Dub Fader Cuts"

The cover illustration features a cartoony bottle of rum floating in the ocean with a small island with palm trees in the background.
(Good through 2021, at least.)
(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • Given Dr. Ring Ding's considerable talents and history of releasing consistently great albums, a review of his latest, The Remedy (LP, Jump Up Records, 2020), could probably be summed up in just a few words: You know it's incredible, so go buy it! But since my humble lot in life is to write about ska music--even if I'm usually too verbose in doing so--I've going to delve a bit into why The Remedy is one of the best ska, reggae, and dancehall albums you'll find this year. 
According to Dr. Ring Ding's brief liner notes, the music on The Remedy is intended as an antidote of sorts to the awful plague year we've all endured--to both lift our spirits, as well as acknowledge all of the suffering and loss we've experienced. So, the album is split between a Sunny Side and Cloudy Side, no doubt inspired by the completely unexpected (and great!) cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" (key lyric: "I've looked at clouds from both sides now"). Just as Stranger Cole preaches "more life!" as the answer to all our ills, Dr. Ring Ding plugs "More Reggae" to inject some joy into your world ("More reggae, loving the community/More reggae, celebrate life/More reggae, together in the unity/And bring on the positive vibes"). Title track "The Remedy" is a terrific '80s computer game dancehall cut with some really charming interplay between the good Doctor and Sista Gracy: "Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Mi terrible, the pain in my limbs is unbearable/Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Distressed, and that is why I've come to your address/Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Mi horrible, want some advice, my sweet, mi adorable/Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Mi bad, I wonder what kind of remedy you have"; at the end of this consult, Sista Gracy prescribes "a quart of rum" to dull the pain (personally, I recommend Tito's and soda with a twist of lime). On the minor-key, Busters-sounding ska song "Fun," Dr. Ring Ding is simply out for a good time, but stymied in his endeavor by the overly woke: "Cracked a joke the other night/Almost got me in a fight/Stuck up buzzkill got uptight/Told me my style ain't right." The showpiece "Unity" sports a serious and driving bass-heavy groove for Dr. Ring Ding and Tippa Irie to toast over ("One love, one blood, one life, one unity/Peace and understanding inna fi we community"). If you don't dance to this...

The darkest bit on The Remedy's Cloudy Side is another surprising cover--a slightly off-kilter reggae version of Radiohead's "Creep," where Dr. Ring Ding really leans into its stalker-y and narcissistic lyrics. Benny Bell's 1946 novelty song "Shaving Cream" (popularized by Dr. Demento in the 1970s)--where every vignette in each verse ends badly (literally going to shit)--feels appropriate for 2020 (and the lyrics are so calypso-like in their suggestiveness/naughtiness): "I have a sad story to tell you/It may hurt your feelings a bit/Last night when I walked into my bathroom/I stepped in a big pile of...Shaving cream/Be nice and clean/Shave everyday and you'll always look keen"). The instrumental "Toochie" sounds like a classic Skatalites cut given a brisk reading by The Scofflaws, and "Oldschool Rock" seems like it could be a long-lost Studio One Sound Dimension riddim just recovered from Coxsone's vaults. The final track on the album "Dancing in the Rain" is a beautiful, if melancholy duet with jazz singer Stephanie K that seems to be a tribute to someone who has died: "You gave us all a smile/If only for a while/We know you didn't want to stop the fun...Without your happy face/There's only empty space/It's seems the world's not round without you dear/You brightened up the day/Then you went away/We hope you know that you're forever here...Dancing in the rain/We'll never be the same/As we throw confetti/Fare thee well." So say we all. Dr. Ring Ding's The Remedy is incredible, so go buy it!
  • The cover illustration features a jungle scene with snakes in the trees, bones and skulls scattered on the ground, and a volcano in the background.
       Happy People Records continues their streak of issuing choice singles from top ska and reggae acts from all over the world. The latest is Dub Fader Cuts (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020) from Boston-area reggae masters Flying Vipers. Both tracks are versions of instrumentals from their stellar debut LP Cuttings (which I reviewed earlier this year) that were remixed by Dub Fader (aka Craig Welsch of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant). "The Gorgon Strikes Back" is a brighter and more deconstructed version of Cuttings' Bunny "Striker" Lee tribute "Flight of the Gorgon"; while "Fermented Herbs" is a sparser and dubbier take on "Gesho," the latter of which sports all sorts of fantastic keyboard bits and sound effects (gesho is a plant native to Ethiopia that is used to make a type of mead). Needless to say, both tracks are essential if you love dub and the Vipers. And to top it off, the band is donating their proceeds to the Alpha Boys School

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Lightning Round: Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards "Take You Away," Rudebeard "20-20," and Sir Jay & the Skatanauts featuring Lorraine "Joy to the World"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards' awesomely bold/crazy fever dream "Take You Away" (Digital single, self-released, 2020) is a dynamic mix of vintage ska, big band jazz, Latin, and spaghetti Western movie scores--plus the drums and percussion mimic a galloping horse throughout. The latter of which is appropriate, as the song's about swooping in to rescue, abscond with, kidnap (?) the one you love: "I’ve come a long, long way/and I’m coming to take you away/From council flats full of lead/Away from subways overhead/Out of the ranks of the dead/Where will we end up? In bed." 
  • All of the shiny pop Christmas standards trying to cheer holiday shoppers up--in the shops that are still open, that is--have felt particularly grim and bleak this year. Millions of people are struggling and suffering, and a shockingly high number have died. And everything else seems mighty tenuous at the moment (some days, it feels like we're not too far off from the days when we'll be bartering family heirlooms for a handful of sugar or coffee, if we're not hiding out in our basements). Thankfully, Scotland's Rudebeard have released a phenomenally good tune wholly appropriate for this season of our annus horribilis. "20-20" (Digital single, F&J Records, 2020) is a muzak-synthpop-ska track (sort of More Specials Dammers meets Yazoo-era Vince Clarke!) that is a brutally honest and darkly funny assessment of 2020 masquerading as a Christmas pop song (the music video for this track--lyrics included!--is a must see). And the lyrics are worth quoting at length:
"Do you remember how it used to be
When twenty-twenty used to mean
A score for seeing perfectly? (Hey, hey!)

But now it's just a cluster ruck
The whole world's locked down and up
We're stuck between the plague and Boris J.

And I can't tell which one is worse
I think I'd save the virus first
If it meant that lump of gammon fat was gone

I've dug a ditch for him to die in
As in life, forever lying
I only wish I could kill him with this song...

...Now here's Rotten John turned out to be
A wee fat ginger Morrissey
Trumping his own trumpet thick and loud

Just a butter-fattened irritant
With fantasies of relevance
Mouthing off on national TV

But never mind the hyper-bollocks, John
You haven't penned one single song
Worth listening to since '93...

...The world is still a trough of swill
For pigs who'll never get their fill
For the rest, it's struggle, misery, and tears...

(Chorus:) England's dreaming of a White Christmas
Flying the flag for thatch-headed racists..."

Umm...Happy Christmas, everyone!

  • Swiss ultra-traditional ska band Sir Jay & the Skatanauts have teamed up with singer Lorraine for a stupendous, live-in-the studio Skatalites-like take on the Christmas hymn "Joy to the World" (Digital single, Tip-A-Top Records, 2020). Whether you're devout or not, you won't be able to help but feel a bit better about everything after listening to this wonderful version. It's full of so much hope and life when both seem in such short supply.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews 2020

Two rude boys with pork pie hats and sunglasses are shown wearing surgical masks.
(Apologies to John "Teflon" Sims)
Despite the fact that 2020 has been a truly awful year for humanity, one small silver lining is that it turned out to be a pretty great year for recorded ska music. As proof, I offer the links below to all of the fantastic singles, EPs, albums, books, and films I managed to review over the past year (and I still have a good number of releases still to write up, and will be adding them here over the next few weeks as they become available). Thanks to everyone who's followed The Duff Guide to Ska over the past year, and picked up a copy of my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone (I'm working on a new Duff Guide tome in 2021). I wish everyone Happy Holidays and hope we all have a better year in 2021. Stay safe out there. -- Steve Shafer 

Los Aggrios: "Alcohol" b/w "Manten La Fe" (7" vinyl single/digital, Steady Beat Recordings, 2020)

Laurel Aitken: En Español (LP reissue, Liquidator Music, 2019)

The Archives: Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (2xLP/CD, Montserrat House, 2020)

The Attractors: Love Bombs (LP/CD/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2020)

The Bakesys: "Rainy Day Dub" (Digital single, Do the Dog Music, 2020)

The Bakesys: "Rich Boy Rude Boy" (Digital single, Do the Dog Music, 2020)

Erin Bardwell: Interval (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2020)

The Bartenders: "Tańcz I Klaszcz" b/w "Cebron" (7" vinyl single, Bad Look Records, 2020)

The Big Sound: "Have Mercy" b/w "Jerk Chicken Dub" (7" vinyl single, Smack It Flat, 2020)

The Bionic Rats: Alive in Dublin (Digital, self-released, 2020)

The Blackstones and The Officinalis: "Change of Plan" b/w The Officinalis "Santantonio Special" (7" vinyl single/digital, Aloe Vera Records, 2020)

Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards: "Mercy" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards: "Take You Away" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Dennis Bovell Dub Band: "Get Up Stand Up" (featuring I-Roy) b/w "Stand Tall" and "Versatile Violin" (featuring Johnny T) b/w "Dangerous" (Digital singles, Old School, 2020)

Brixton Sounds: "Sonidos de Brixton" b/w "Me Perdi" (7" vinyl single/digital, Steady Beat Recordings, 2020)

Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16: "Love Will Tear Us Apart" b/w "Version" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

The Caroloregians: "From the Congo Square" b/w "You Got to Be a Man" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Rhoda Dakar and The Dub Pistols: "Stand Together" (7" vinyl single/digital, Sunday Best Recordings, 2020)

The Dendrites: Lunchin' with The Dendrites (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Detroit Riddim Crew: "Fight for Your Rights" b/w "Fallen Down" (7" vinyl single/digital, Abbey Productions, 2020)

Detroit Riddim Crew/The Skapones: "Do Something" b/w "The Girl Inside" (7" vinyl single/digital, 2020)

Detroit Riddim Crew and Friends: Detroit Riddim Crew and Friends (LP/digital, Abbey Productions/Jump Up Records, 2019)

Dr. Ring Ding: The Remedy (LP, Jump Up Records, 2020)

The Dreamlets: "Sunny" b/w "My Heart is Crying" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

The Equators: "Nice to Be Nice" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

The Far East: New York Is For Lovers (12" vinyl EP/digital, Names You Can Trust, 2020)

Flying Vipers: Cuttings (LP/cassette/digital, Music A.D.D./Jump Up Records, 2020)

Flying Vipers: Dub Fader Cuts (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Flying Vipers: "Nervous Breakdub (Pandemic Version)" b/w "PMA Calling" (Digital single , Music A.D.D., 2020)

Flying Vipers: "Two Twenties Clash" (Digital single, Music ADD Records, 2020)

The Georgetown Orbits: "The Ska-Jazz Single" (Digital single, self-released 2020) 

Girls Go Ska: "Quédate" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

The Go-Go's: The Go-Go's (Documentary film, Polygram Entertainment, 2020)

Vin Gordon: Way Over Yonder (LP reissue, Studio 16, 2020)

Green Torrejas: "Green Torrejas" b/w "The Prisoners" (7" vinyl single, Canana Records, 2020)

Jah Jazz Orchestra: Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra (LP/CD/digital, Brixton Records, 2020)

The Juks: Way Back (LP/digital, J-Beat Records, 2020)

King Kong 4: Punch It! (LP, Jump Up Records, 2020)

The Lions: "The Loser" (7" vinyl single/digital, Names You Can Trust, 2020)

Madness: Before We Was We: Madness by Madness (book, Virgin Books, 2019)

The Man on the Bridge: Million Miles Away (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2020)

Mato: "Also sprach Zarathustra" b/w "Maiden Voyage" (7" vinyl single, Stix Records, 2020)

Me, Mom, and Morgentaler: "Racist Friend" b/w "Racist Friend 2020 Dubmatix Dub" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Mento Buru: East Bakersfield Christmas (Digital EP, self-released, 2020)

The New Normal Collaboration: Quarantined on Easy Street (LP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Night Owls: "Gossip" b/w "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" (7" vinyl single, F-Spot Records, 2020)

No Sports: Stay Rude, Stay Rebel (7" vinyl EP reissue, Black Butcher Classics/Mad Butcher Records, 2020)

Pama International: "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)" b/w "Feel Like Jumping" (7" heavyweight vinyl, Happy People Records, 2020)

Park Rangers: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" b/w "Summer Madness" (7" vinyl single, Parktone Records, 2020) 

Perkie and The Co-operators: "Concrete, Steel and Stone" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Lee Perry: Black Ark Days: Play On Mr. Music (CD/LP, Rock A Shacka, 2020)

The Players Band: SKAMÖRGÅSBORD (CD/LP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Prince Buster: Africa - Islam - Revolution (CD, Earth Sound Records, 2019)

Prince Buster: Roll On Charles Street (CD/2xLP, Rocka Shaka, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin: "Black Rabbit" b/w "Black Rabbit Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin: Disco Deception (7" vinyl EP/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin: "Funkin' for Jamaica (N.Y.)" (Digital single, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin and Horseman: "The Model" b/w "The Model Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

The Prizefighters: "The Prizefighter Beat" b/w "A Fistful of Credits" (Digital, self-released, 2020)

Pyrotechnist: Fire Crackers (LP, Badasonic Records, 2020)

Danny Rebel and the KGB: For Babylon's Head (Digital EP, self-released, and lathe cut single, Revolution Vintage; both 2020)

The Red Stripes: The Live Sessions (Digital, Mod Sounds Records, 2020)

The Red Stripes: Made in Hong Kong (CD/LP/digital, Mod Sound Records, 2020)

Victor Rice: Drink (LP, Easy Star Records, 2020)

Roger Rivas: "Heavier Rock" b/w "Cold Damage" (7" vinyl single, Happy People Records, 2020)

Rocker T with Maddie Ruthless/Banda Rebel: "Fiyah Pan Racism" b/w "You've Got to Learn" (7" vinyl single/digital, Channel Tubes, 2020)

Max Romeo: Revelation Time (CD/LP reissue, VP Records/17 North Parade, 2020)

Rudebeard: "20-20" (Digital single, F&J Records, 2020)

Rudebeard: As You Walk Away (Digital EP, F&J Records, 2020)

Rudebeard: Disgrace (Digital EP, F&J Records, 2020)

Rude Boy George: Lies and Alibis (Digital, self-released, 2020)

Sir Jay & the Skatanauts featuring Lorraine: "Joy to the World" (Digital single, Tip-A-Top Records, 2020)

The Ska Contenders"What Does It Take" b/w "Siempre Conmigo" (7" vinyl single, Canana Records, 2020)

Ska Jazz Messengers: Introspección (LP/digital, Liquidator Music, 2020)

The Skapones: "Rude Boy Rude Girl" b/w "Skapones A Go Go (Live)" (7" vinyl single/CD single/digital, Cosa Nostra Records, 2020)

Smiley and The Underclass: The Way to the Bomb (Vinyl EP/digital, Timeless Records, 2020)

Some Ska Band: "American Dublines" b/w "Forty Dubs" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

The Soul Sauce meets Kim Yulhee: "(Who Knows) Swallow Knows" b/w "Swallow Dub" (Digital single, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2020)

The Specials: "Gangsters ('Clangsters' Dub)" b/w "Too Much Too Young (Piano Instrumental)" and "Why (Dub)" (10" vinyl EP, 2 Tone/Chrysalis Records, 2020)

Steady Social Club: Take One (LP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Stop the Presses: "Dub the Presses" b/w "Hugo Dub" (Digital, self-released and lathe cut single, Revolution Vintage; both 2020)

Carroll Thompson: "Feel the Magic" b/w "Feel the Magic Instrumental" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra: Skapara's Intro (LP reissue, Great Tracks/Sony Music Direct, 2019)

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan: Spread Love (LP, Liquidator Music, 2020)

The Upsetters featuring Vin Gordon: Musical Bones (LP reissue, Studio 16, 2020)

The Uptones: Get Out of My Way (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020)

Various Artists: 007 Licensed to Ska: James Bond and Other Film Soundtracks and TV Themes (5x7" vinyl single box set, Soul Jazz Records, 2020)

Various Artists: 2 Tone: The Albums (8xCD box set, 2 Tone/Chrysalis Records, 2020)

Various Artists: 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020)

Various Artists: Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album (LP, Blue Beat Records, 2020)

Various Artists: Mashin' Up the Nation (LP, Razorbeat Records/Harvard Square Records, 1989)

Various Artists: Scorcha! Skins, Suedes and Styles from the Street, 1967-1973 (10x7" singles, Trojan Records/BMG, 2020)

Various Artists: Ska Against Racism (2xLP/digital, Bad Time Records, 2020)

Various Artists: This Is Jamaica Ska (LP/CD reissue, Rock A Shacka/Studio One, 2020)

Western Standard Time Orchestra: "Bedouin Ska" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Western Standard Time Orchestra: "Tunnel Vision" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Joe Yorke and The Eastonian Singers/Eeyun Perkins: "Judgement Tree" b/w "Drayman's Special" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Kim Yul-hee and The Soul Sauce: "(Who Knows) Swallow Knows" b/w "Swallow Dub" (Digital single, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2020)

Zen Baseballbat: You Won't Get Paid (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020); "Place Like This" (digital single, self-released, 2020)

Monday, December 21, 2020

Duff Review: The Archives "Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson"

The cover features a Rhodes keyboard viewed from above, with a flute and handwritten lyrics on pieces of paper resting on it, and a pair of hands on the keys.
Montserrat House
2 x LP/CD

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The idea for Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson came about when Darryl "Trane" Burke, the keyboardist for the superb Washington, DC reggae band The Archives, learned that Gil Scott-Heron's father was Jamaican, and he realized that he had never heard any reggae covers of Scott-Heron's songs. Gill Scott-Heron was, of course, the extraordinary and highly-influential Black American poet, author, and jazz-influenced soul and funk musician who was most active in the 1970s and '80s, and whose songs addressed systemic racism, social and political injustice, and promoted Black pride. Burke then enlisted the help of Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, who agreed to co-produce the album with Burke and release it on his label (Hilton had issued The Archives debut album in 2012 on his ESL Music label); and legendary reggae percussionist Larry McDonald (Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh), who was a member of Scott-Heron’s band Amnesia Express back in the '80s and '90s. McDonald, of course, knew long-time Scott-Heron collaborator Brian Jackson (he and Scott-Heron recorded seven albums together in the 1970s), who was intrigued by the project and agreed to perform on several tracks. 

The results of this collaborative effort are spectacular. Carry Me Home is a triumphant reimagining of Scott-Heron and Jackson's indelible and indispensable songs (beautiful Trojan Horse-like music delivering devastatingly pointed lyrics into listeners' minds) as soulful reggae cuts in the vein of The Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Black Uhuru. The album is essentially bookended by two of their most powerful and--yes--still disturbingly relevant songs, Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" and Scott-Heron and Jackson's "Winter in America." A metaphor for a dysfunctional and cruel society (America, writ large) that forces many of its people to seek escape by any means necessary, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" (from 1971's Pieces of a Man) is heartbreaking in the mass suffering and wasted potential that it hints at. This is what happens when a nation decides that Black lives don't really matter: 

"Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain and it
Might not be such a bad idea if I never
Never went home again...

...Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum that's filled now with my silent screams
Home is where the needle marks
Tried to heal my broken heart..."

Puma Ptah's vocals are filled with so much sorrow on this track--and his singing is highly evocative and affecting throughout this album (as if he's channeling the unheard music of so many singers).

In the waning days of the disastrous Trump years, when racism, corruption, incompetence, cruelty, cronyism, inequity, lies, Covid-19, and outright sedition (I still can't believe that there was an out-in-the-open attempted coup by a sitting president abetted by the majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress!) have run wild and nothing good and right seems to matter, Scott-Heron and Jackson's mournful "Winter in America" (from their 1975 album Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day) feels uncomfortably prescient:

"And now it's winter
Winter in America
And all of the healers done been killed or sent away
Yeah, and the people know, the people know
It's winter
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save"

Augustus Pablo's wonderfully gifted son Addis Pablo contributes melodica to the Dennis Bovell-sounding (and "Rivers of Babylon"-like themed) "Rivers of My Fathers" (from Scott-Heron and Jackson's 1974 album Winter in America): "Rubber soles against the concrete/And the concrete is my smile/Got to change my way of living/Got to change my style/Let me lay down by a stream/Miles from everything/Rivers of my fathers/Could you carry me home?" "Peace Go with You, Brother (As-Salaam-Alaikum)" (also from Winter in America) is plea for Black solidarity in the face of oppression. The toll of America's still unresolved legacy of slavery and racism on generations of Black Americans is pointedly raised on the plaintive "Who'll Pay Reparations on My Soul" (from Scott-Heron's 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). Reworked in an awesome Lovers rock style, with impassioned vocals by Raheem Devaughn, "A Toast to the People" (from Scott-Heron and Jackson's 1975 album From South Africa to South Carolina) recognizes the awful burden and struggle Black Americans have faced, but is also hopeful that someday things will be better:

"And though it's been too long
Too many years have passed
And though the time has gone
The memory still holds fast
Yes, as strange as it seems
We still live in the past
The essence of a black life
Lost in the hourglass

And ever since we came to this land
This country has rued the day
When we would stand as one
And raise our voices and say
You know there won’t be no more killing
And no more talk of class
Your sons and your daughters
Won't die in the hourglass...

...A toast to all black fathers
Who live their lives in vain
A toast to all black mothers
Who shoulder this life in pain
A toast to the people"

With its sweet harmonizing and great, off-kilter percussive elements, the highlight of the album is "Must Be Something" (from their 1975 album Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day)--which brings Fishbone's "One Day" (from their 1988 record  Truth and Soul) to this reviewer's mind, as they're both about Black Americans living in a kind of limbo, since there's no clear answer as to how or when racial injustice will end (and it's not necessarily their responsibility to solve the problem, either): "Must be something we can do/We didn't come all this way just to give up/We didn't struggle all this time to say we've had enough."

One missed opportunity is "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (from 1971's Pieces of A Man), Scott-Heron's truly groundbreaking musical poem that, in addition to the work of of The Last Poets and the deejay style of toasting in dancehall reggae, helped give birth to rap and hip-hop later that decade (via the JA-born, Bronx-raised DJ Kool Herc). Perhaps all of the dated early '70s references (John Mitchell, Spiro Agnew, Hooterville Junction, etc.) led Burke and company to opt for the mostly instrumental route here, but it would have been fantastic if they'd asked a guest musician (like Horseman AKA Winston Williams) to toast the original text, which is so funny and potent in its urging Black Americans to get involved in the struggle for racial equality, since change will not be brought about by the powers that be and sponsored by corporations for broadcast on TV. And if listeners didn't get some of the political, pop culture, and product references, they should look 'em up! (One stanza from the original that now chills one to the bone is: "There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay." How times have changed.)

There are two excellent dub versions of "Home is Where the Hatred Is" and "Rivers of My Fathers," as well as the terrific "Revolution Disguised as Change," penned by reggae poet/musician Mutabaruka (who performs on this song) and Burke, and lyrically inspired by "Winter in America" and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"--the chorus reminds the listener that even though some progress has been made in the fight for racial equality, "It's not quite spring yet..." While I'm not well-versed in all of Gil Scott-Heron's music, with at least two business tycoons operating their own space programs (and NASA working on sending people to Mars), it would have been great if The Archives could have included a version of Scott-Heron's biting "Whitey on the Moon."

The Archives' Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson is a stellar tribute to Scott-Heron and Jackson's extraordinary musical legacy, and one of the best albums I've heard all year.