Monday, February 20, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Sentiments "Hi-Fi"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Sentiments Hi-Fi (digital album/CD, Simmerdown Productions/Bandcamp, 2016): This Portlandian ska supergroup of sorts (comprised of members of Easy Big Fella, Francesca, Engine 54, Crucial DBC, and Cornerstone) released their all out fantastic debut album just prior to the Christmas holidays. So, of course, it got lost in my end-of-year mad blur and I'm just now becoming clued in to what I've been missing (which is a lot)! The Sentiments play a sweet and pleasing blend of ska, soul, rocksteady, and reggae (paging all fans of The Pietasters!) Indeed, with lead singer Erin Wallace's wonderfully soulful alto voice, one could imagine that The Sentiments came into being when she took a wrong turn backstage and ended up on stage being backed by a ska band, rather than a soul one...

The Sentiments' Hi-Fi is an album stacked up with great songs (that seem so cinematic--some appropriate for films noir, others in the classic "let's put on a show" type musical vein, if the American song book had been written in ska 'n' soul) full of genuine emotion (the highs and lows of love) and razor sharp performances (by Mike Anderly on trombone, Sir Ryan William Bley on bass, Newel Briggs on guitar, Mike Birenbaum on piano, organ, and vocals, Tadd Enright on tenor sax and guitar, Matt Griffin on drums, Paul Howard on barit sax, Christian Lyons on trumpet, and Erin Wallace on vocals). The defiantly jaunty ska/soul of "Moving On" is all about being way past the pain of a break-up and eager for freedom again ("So, take all the time that you need/To try and get yourself straight/I'm out the door before/Before it gets too late"). Even the fast rhythm of the song sounds like the thump, thump, thump of the highway joints under the tires as you head out of town. If you're a citizen of a certain political persuasion during these dark, nonsensical times, the Doreen Shaffer with The Skatalites-like "This House" offers shelter, relief, and the chance to recharge your batteries of resistance (maybe an alternate reading could be that it's neutral ground, a place where we can all come together and figure out our way back to common ground?): "This house will be filled with love/This house can be an escape/This house will be filled with love/So come in/Sit down, and know it's okay...'Cause outside there's so much trouble/And outside there's heartache and pain/And inside there'll be no more struggle/'Cause inside this house we all share the same name..."

"You Don't Know" is a raucous showstopper--a fantastic duet between Wallace and keyboardist Mike (Mikey Sha Sha of Easy Big Fella) Birenbaum--about how hard each of them has it in life, but also that they need to get dressed up, go out and lose this stress with some fun. You'll swear "Why Did I Stay" was a Motown-era hit, but it's a heartbreaking original full of regret about two people who brought out the worst in each other ("You make me a liar/I make you a thief"). "Go On"--a ska pop hit if I've ever heard one--gives him enough rope to hang himself ("Go on/And tell me how you'll find another/Go on/And tell me I'm not your favorite lover/Go on/And tell me how we were only meant to be friends/Go on/Let me tell you how it ends..."). Nice little Bob Marley nod in there, too. The swing ska of "Every Time" is another terrific duet between Wallace and Birenbaum with a very Toasters-like horn line. The last two tracks have a decidedly '70s bent to them--"I Don't Want to Fight" has a bit of country and Latino pop in there, while The Sentiments' cover of Ashford and Simpson's 1968 song for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell "You're All I Need to Get By" is an amazingly inspired choice.

So, now I just need to figure out if The Sentiments' Hi-Fi should go on my best of list for 2016 or 2017...

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: King Kong 4 "You Like Awake"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

King Kong 4 You Lie Awake (digital single, self-released/Bandcamp, 2017): If you mention that Mitch "King Kong" Girio was a key member of early '90s Canadian ska act King Apparatus (which, of course, featured Chris Murray), most ska fans would know the reference, but some might not be aware that he's been the go-to songwriter and producer for a slew of mostly Canadian bands including The Planet Smashers, The Kingpins, One Night Band, Prince Perry, and more. His most recent work has been in service of Susan Cadogan (check out our review of her incredible Take Me Back EP; Girio co-wrote all the tunes, as well as performed, recorded, and produced them), but now he's just released a great digital single for his own Toronto-based group, King Kong 4 (which includes Brendan Bauer on bass, Andrew McMullen on drums, Ronald Poon on Hammond organ, King Kong Girio on vocals and guitar).

King Kong 4's sound is a cross between the late '70s New Wave angry young man songwriters Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson (both of whom recorded ska/reggae tracks early on in their careers) and the 2 Tone of The Specials, but this kind of sells Girio's songwriting short--he's got his own thing going and can compose hooks like mad. "Breaking My Heart" is about love from a distance--the singer with a crush on a girl in the audience who he can't quite compel to dance to his band's music, which would be kind of like them being together (but she's with her "dead weight of a boyfriend"): "So get your ass onto the floor, girl/You better shake those hips/So what you think we play this shit for?/Can’t you read my lips?/It’s time to make a move, so act now/You can do the Twist /Just a little bit of dancing/Then you can’t be wrong /Just a little bit of dancing/Dancing all night long." "Annabelle" might be about a girl losing herself on an LSD trip ("Your world has come undone/Quickly dissolving on your tongue") or to growing paranoia/mental illness ("With no one to absolve you/Because the problem still revolves around the fear/That’s floating in the atmosphere/That’s coming oh so near"). Whatever the issue is, she's worried about being forgotten: "When half the world is slumbering/You lie awake half-wondering/Who will leave something here for Annabelle?" Both songs have an undercurrent of longing and melancholy, but the music is wonderfully catchy and upbeat.

Don't let this terrific release from King Kong 4 pass you by!

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Shots in the Dark: The Offs' "First Record"

Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights third-wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, a fickle record-buying public, or other, unforeseen disasters, were lost in the fray. 

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Band: The Offs were formed in San Francisco in the late '70s by openly gay Don Vinil (vocals) and Billy Hawk (guitar) with Chris Olsen and then Bob Steeler on drums--and a shifting set of bass players (including Fast Floyd, Olga de Volga, Denny Boredom, and Eric Peterson) and horns (Bob Roberts, Roland Young, and Richard Edson). While they were very much a part of that SF's nascent first wave punk scene that spawned Crime, Nuns, The Avengers, Pink Section, Tuxedomoon, Vktms, Mutants, Lewd, The Dils, The Zeros, and more (the Dead Kennedy's first show was with The Offs at Mabuhay Gardens in 1978), there was ska and reggae in The Offs' wild mix from the start (according to a 1978 interview in Slash magazine, guitarist Billy Hawk was the one in the band who loved his reggae). The Offs' 1978 debut single featured a great punky cover of The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad" (think of how The Clash covered "Police and Thieves")--though their follow-up single in the same year, "Everyone's a Bigot," was much more representative of what would become their almost unclassifiable post-punky, no wave, ska/reggae sound.

By 1980, The Offs were living part of the year in Manhattan on Prince Street (while maintaining their home base in SF) and had been quickly embraced by the downtown/underground Manhattan music and art scene (that brought together musicians and artists of every color and from every scene), where The Offs regularly performed at the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and Max's Kansas City, which released their third single, "You Fascinate Me" b/w "My World," also in 1980 (the former a loungy-jazz punk cut, the latter straight up ska). At some point in 1983, The Offs had their debut album in the can for San Francisco-based CD Presents (the CD standing for Civil Defense, not compact disc; the label was also home for The Avengers, D.O.A. and Billy Bragg in the US), but singer Don Vinil overdosed on heroin in NYC--prior to the record's release in 1984--and The Offs were no more.

The Sound: Think of Sandinista-era Clash plus the angular post-punk funk of Gang of Four, all heavily influenced by the early 80s NYC no wave/art jazz scene (see James Chance and the Contortions). The Offs are challenging and certainly not for anyone put off by transgressions of musical boundaries and genre conventions--but they had punk attitude to spare and a sound that was rebel music/ska 'n' reggae to its core.

The Release: I picked up The Offs' First Record (which has only ever been available on vinyl) in the late '80s at Bleecker Bob's based almost solely on the fact that it was in the ska section; there just weren't that many ska releases available at the time. Of course, it also helped that the back photo of the album clearly identified it as a ska record and NYC downtown artist Jean Michel Basquiat had illustrated the cover in his punky/primitive graffiti style. Even though The Offs' music exists in an uneasy, often dissonant intersection between funky post-punk, no wave jazz, and ska/reggae--and was like nothing else I was listening to at the time--I was hooked from first play and 30 years later find that First Record still holds up.

The album kicks off with a second stab at the "Taxi Driver"-like "You Fascinate Me" (about watching young hustlers: "I said all you kids/Out on the streets/Hunting around now/Trying to make ends meet/Hanging out on corners/Outside of bars/Cruising Johns drive by in their cars/I said, you fascinate me/I don't know why/You living your life, honey/It's live or die...You bringing me down")--which had evolved from its earlier incarnation into a funky ska-like track with a fantastically ragged "oh, oh, oh" line in its chorus and a sweet guitar flourish at the end of the song that resolves all of the previous musical off-kilterness and lyrical ugliness. The fantastic keep-a-lid-on-it "Cool Down" is a Augustus Pablo/Far East sounding reggae track that wouldn't be out of place on a punk re-imagining of "West Side Story" ("When he was young/It was so much fun/No cares in the world/Nothing tied him down/Today, he keeps it straight/For the fun that is done/For tomorrow he's a poor man/So, tell me, what's the poor man done?"). The tightly wound-up punk-no wave-funk of "True Story" (with drummer Steeler on vocals) is all bitter with betrayal ("Told me a true story/Said it was fiction/The girl you seem so sad about/I know that you're the one/You changed most of the names and places/But still the innocent have faces/Do I see through you and him/Just like a pair of aces/What are you expecting?/A true story?"). Side one concludes with the jazzy ska of "Why Boy," which is their "Friday Night/Saturday Morning," about a kind of aimless night on the town for a misunderstood youth just looking for something approximating fun ("People wanna know/Where you come and go/They don't understand/'Cause it's not their way/'Say, 'why boy?'/You go down to the park/As the night begins/You got money in your hand/You're looking for the man...Some strangers from the suburb/Wanna push your around/They don't understand/'Cause it's not their way/You better fight back boy...You go to the club/To see the band/The people there seem to understand/Tonight...").

The Offs' mash-up of musical styles and subcultures (note the hip hop/graffiti reference in the lyrics) is at its most Sandinista-like on the first track of side B with "Body Hesitation," a more reggae-ish "Magnificent Seven," if you will, written and sung by their saxophonist Roland Young ("This ain't no/Misguided energy/It ain't no/Running wild style/This ain't no/Lack of thinking/For our society/It is a sinking..."). The horrific misogyny/gender politics of The Heptones' sweet-sounding "I've Got The Handle" ("I've got the handle, baby/You've got the blade/So, don't try to fight me, girl/'Cause you'll need first aid, yeah") is blunted a bit when The Offs shift the song into a broadside against then President Reagan: "Ronald Reagan is Babylon/Babylon must fall/You must find the resistance to kill 'em/Fight 'em back, to resist him!" The tension of the funky James Brown-ish workout "One More Shot" (of booze, that is, and he'll be ready) is almost unbearable. Everything finishes with The Offs' incredible ska cover of Mary Wells' 1960 R and B cut "Bye Bye Baby" ("You know, you took my love/Threw it away/You gonna want/My love someday/Well, a bye bye baby"), which is somehow the appropriate bookend to the twisted opener "You Fascinate Me."

(Fun fact: Character actor/downtown musician Richard Edson--who was Sonic Youth's first drummer and also a member of Konk--played trumpet on this album; you'd probably recognize him as the parking garage attendant from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," as well as from "Desperately Seeking Susan," "Stranger Than Paradise," "Do the Right Thing," "Platoon," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dirty Dancing," and many other movies and TV shows.)

The Ugly Reality: Back in the late '80s, I always wondered why The Offs simply seemed to have vanished, since I never read about them anywhere or ever came across more of their music (it was like that in the pre-internet days; some questions would just never be answered). Don Vinil's 1983 death from drug overdose years certainly explains why. I would have loved the chance to see The Offs live and how they might have been embraced (or not) by the growing NYC ska scene in the mid-to-late '80s and in which direction their next album might have gone.

It's a sad but true story that drugs have killed off many a brilliant band. And The Offs' tale is yet another one.

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Despite being reissued a few years ago, The Offs' First Record remains pretty rare and expensive, so you might be stuck buying a digital copy on iTunes or listening to it on YouTube. There's also a 1997 German compilation of The Offs' singles and compilation tracks called Californian Skapunk Pioneers out there (I happened to have bought a copy of it in 2000 at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square) and a much cheaper and easier to find live recording of the band, Live At The Mabuhay Gardens Nov 7 1980.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Asian Man Records Releases Let's Go Bowling's First Two Albums on Vinyl!

Let's Go Bowling's first two albums--Music To Bowl By and Mr. Twist--are being issued on vinyl for the first time ever by Mike Park's Asian Man Records! These two stone-cold classics of the so-called Third Wave of American ska were originally released on Moon Records in 1991 and 1996 respectively, but only on compact disc and cassette, as vinyl was an unpopular (and assumed to be dead) format in the US during the 1990s.

In particular, Music To Bowl By was an extremely important album in Moon Records's history. Despite some incredible releases in the late 80s (such as The NY Citizens' On The Move and the Ska Face and NYC Ska Live comps), the label had barely limped out of that decade after a series of distributor failures and ill-fated licensing deals swallowed up the label's already limited product and capital. These brutal experiences made Moon Records' label head Rob "Bucket" Hingley all the more determined to build as strong an indie label as possible by going back to the basics (starting with a fairly busy mail-order operation out of his basement, fulfilled mostly by Buck when he wasn't on tour with The Toasters; taking orders directly from mom and pop record shops; and creating a one-man in-house promotion/marketing team to get the word out to college radio and zines--yours truly!). Let's Go Bowling's Music To Bowl By and The Scofflaws' self-titled debut album (also issued in 1991) were two vital releases from the then newly revitalized label that demonstrated to the ska world Moon's intention to go big (and be more than just a home to The Toasters and NY Citizens) and its renewed commitment to supporting high quality ska acts in the 1990s--both albums are superb from start to finish.

You can pre-order the Music to Bowl By and Mr. Twist LPs from Asian Man Records here. Both are slated for release the second week of February.

If you're unfamiliar with Let's Go Bowling, make sure to check out two of their best tracks below...





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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Duff Guide to Ska NYC Winter/Spring 2017 Ska Calendar #43

Patch by CHema Skandal!
Friday, January 27, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 Play the Roland Alphonso Songbook
(plus DJ 100dbs)

Hank's Saloon
46 Third Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$8

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Friday, January 27, 2017 6:00 pm - 10:00 pm

DJ Ryan Midnight spins classic and rare ska tracks from the 60s, 2 Tone era, 90s 3rd Wave, through today's current roster of bands!

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover

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Friday, February 3, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Rude Boy George, High Disciples, The Twilights, Penniless Loafers, plus DJ James Kelly

Crossroads
78 North Avenue
Garwood, NJ
$10

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Friday, February 24, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

The Skatalites, Organically Good Trio

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15/21+

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Saturday, February 25, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Big D and the Kids Table, Stray Bullets, Crazy and the Brains

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$13

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Saturday, March 4, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Save Ferris, Baby Baby, Rude Boy George

The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$20/16+

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Friday, March 17, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Pietasters

The Marlin Room @ Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$16/16+

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Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hub City Stompers

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$13 in advance/$15 day of show
All ages

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Friday, March 31, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

The Theatre at Madison Square Garden
4 Penn Plaza
New York, NY
Tickets: $35-$95

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Saturday, April 29, 2017 @ 5:30 pm - 9:30 pm

ReadJunk 20th Anniversary Party w/Rude Boy George (two sets) and DJ Duff

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover

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Friday, June 9, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Specials

Brooklyn Steel
319 Frost Street
Brooklyn, NY
$50/16+

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Rude Guest "Lost Chicago Ska 1982-1993"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Rude Guest Lost Chicago Ska 1982-1993 (CD, cassette, Jump Up Records, 2016; LP with remixes/bonus tracks forthcoming, 2017): While the history of the first wave of American ska bands to crop up in the wake of 2 Tone is still largely unwritten and forgotten (apart from the efforts of bands like The Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, Fishbone, and The Untouchables), every now and then another vital piece of this story comes to light. Thanks to the determination of ska obsessive and Jump Up Records label head Chuck Wren, Chi-town ska pioneers Rude Guest are finally getting their due. Founded in 1982 by brothers Kurt and Paul Schroeder (vocalist and drummer, respectively) and directly influenced by 2 Tone--while backpacking in Europe after college, Paul caught Madness and UB40 live and sent tapes of 2 Tone acts back to Kurt in the USA--Rude Guest released four DIY cassettes of all-original material (recorded surreptitiously and on the cheap after-hours through a friend at a Chicago recording studio); gigged extensively at colleges and clubs throughout the Midwest; opened for Fishbone, the Crazy 8s, Yellowman, and Naked Raygun; and appeared at the first Midwest Ska Fest in Milwaukee in 1991. Despite all of their obvious talent and long hours on the road and in the studio, Rude Guest never was able to snag a record deal (from a recent feature on the band in the Chicago Reader: "The rejection letters weren't always so bad, though. "I think the best one—I'm trying to think of who it was—they say, 'We really like you guys, but we just signed UB40,'" Paul recalls. "We love UB40. We're like, 'OK, that's not such a bad slam.'") and Kurt tragically died of cancer at age 40 in 1996, effectively ending the band just as the US ska scene was exploding.

Like many of the early 80s American ska groups, Rude Guest played tightly-wound, twitchy New Wave-y ska and reggae (synths abound!), but what makes everything transcend those times is the great strength of their songs and performances (earworms abound!). A brilliant example/starting place is the triumphant "Still I'm Happy" from their 1985 cassette, a bass-driven ska track (with killer sax and guitar solos) that shifts between minor and major keys to reflect the conflicting emotions of a break-up and the realization that the singer will be okay no matter what: "Too late, too late, too late/I'm sorry, she said and then she walked away...I can't go/I'm at the end of my rope/She said no/I wonder is there any hope...I don't know just what I'll do or where I'll be/But still I'm happy!" But there's a treasure-trove of other stellar tunes to check out, including the dubby reggae tearing down of someone's facade in "There You Go" ("Look at the way you're parading/Look at the way you think you ought to be/Look at the way you're masquerading/Look at the way/I can always read between the lines...I hope your head don't go/Where the sun don't shine/I hope your savvy don't go/'Cause you can't have mine"); a longing to escape civil unrest/war in "Revolutionary Night"; "Please, Please, Please," which may be one of the catchiest come ons/declarations of love ever set to a ska beat; the self-doubting, I'm-not-worthiness expressed in a "Girl Like You" ("What would I do/With a girl like you?") that first appears on the 1983 tape and is more than worthy of being reprised and polished up for the 1985 cassette; and the ominous "We Can't Cry," which laments the fact that humanity is headed toward self-destruction via global environmental disaster, famine, or world war: "We won't know/Until it's too late/What to do/To save ourselves."

After listening to Lost Chicago Ska, it's quite evident that had the right break come their way, Rude Guest could have hit it big--really big. But at least their place in the story of American ska is now secure and Rude Guest's amazing songs are back in print.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Ska Flames "Turn-Up" LP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Ska Flames Turn-Up (vinyl LP, Sun Shot, 2016; a limited number of imported copies are available in the USA through Jump Up Records): While they were relatively dormant for much of the first decade of this new millennium, Japan's The Ska Flames kicked it all back into gear for their 30th anniversary in 2015, when they released a live album and performed several anniversary shows, and (fortunately for ska fans!) have been busy ever since. In addition to two great new 7" vinyl singles (read our review of them here), The Ska Flames recently have released their fifth album, Turn-Up. And like all their records, it's stunning and very much worth owning.

If you've never encountered them, The Ska Flames create and perform vintage 1960s ska/Jamaican jazz in the style of The Skatalites and cut their debut album Ska Fever back in 1989 for Gaz Mayall and his Gaz's Rockin' Records, which deservedly became an instant vintage ska classic. Of course, like The Skatalites, The Ska Flames typically play instrumentals, as is the case on Turn-Up. The whole album is out-of-this-world good, with everything launching on Side A with their muscular ska track "Yanigawa Blues" (which affords many of the players the opportunity to show off their considerable chops), a tight 'n' brisk cover of Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes," the sparky "Draw the Line," and the plaintive, but gorgeous "Kanchana." "El Camino" (featured on one of their new singles) begins Side B, followed by the playful/cartoony "Cat and Dogs" (with human generated barks and meows), the rocksteady (and what I'm assuming is a love song sung in Japanese) "Oh Babies," a sweet rendition of Bill Doggett's and Henry Glover's 1959 bossa nova cut "Ocean Liner," ending with Fonesca's Afro-Cuban gem "Whisky and Soda."

If top-shelf ska-jazz is your thing, you'd better grab this quickly from Jump Up, as it's usually very hard and horrifically expensive to buy Japanese ska releases.

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Massive Attack v Mad Professor "No Protection" Reissue

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Massive Attack v. Mad Professor No Protection (heavyweight vinyl LP, Virgin Records, 2016 reissue; originally released in 1995 on Wild Bunch Records): I don't quite remember how I was first turned onto the extraordinary dub master Mad Professor. Perhaps it was a review in Tower Records' "Pulse" magazine or the 1995 issue #2 of the Beastie Boys' "Grand Royale" magazine that included a 24-page feature on Lee "Scratch" Perry with an extensive evaluation of his discography, which covered several incredible collaborations between Perry and the Professor. However it transpired, I quickly acquired most of the Mad Professor/Lee Perry albums, including Black Ark Experryments and Mystic Warrior, as well as many of Mad Professor's dub albums, most notably the magnificent Anti-Racist Dub Broadcast (which featured Rico Rodriguez on t-bone!). So back in '95, when I stopped by (the now long gone) Jammyland one day and saw this new CD from Mad Professor and Massive Attack (who I really didn't know much about other that they had collaborated with Horace Andy), I was really curious about it and asked whomever was behind the counter. They highly recommended it (might have even played a track or two for me) and I bought it on the spot.

The story, I later learned, was that trip-hoppers Massive Attack had asked Mad Professor to remix a track off their somewhat underwhelming second album Protection--and they were so pleased with the results that they arranged for him to create dub mix of the entire album, which completely transformed the source material and became an unqualified hit.

When I first listened to No Protection, I didn't have the original songs to compare the dubs to--but it didn't matter. These tracks stand so well on their own. There's an intriguing blend of uncertainty, menace, paranoia, and naked vulnerability that runs through all of the dubs (what's lurking in all the dark, silent space between the music?)--like living under the threat of some looming apocalypse. With titles like "Radiation Ruling the Nation," "Trinity Dub," "Cool Monsoon," and "Backward Sucking" (from the original "Heat Miser"), I envisioned a nuclear attack (of which there is "No Protection" from), radioactive fallout, and utter devastation that there was no coming back from. And it sounds just as brilliant today as it did twenty-two years ago.

No Protection is probably one of greatest modern dub records--and it's certainly Mad Professor's masterpiece.

Prior to this reissue, the LP version of this album was extremely hard to find, so make sure to pick up a copy now, while you can.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Selecter/The Beat Split Single "Breakdown" b/w "Side To Side"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Selecter/The Beat "Breakdown" b/w "Side To Side" (7" PS vinyl single, DMF Records, 2016): Who would have imagined that we'd ever see a veritable 2 Tone split single of great new material 38 years after the release of the first one? (I'm referring to, of course, the iconic, debut 2 Tone Records release of The Special AKA/The Selecter split single: "Gangsters" b/w "The Selecter.") The occasion for this release is a planned co-headlined tour of the UK and Ireland this spring, but whatever the reason, ska fans should take note and support the 2 Tone era acts courageous enough to move forward creatively (I'm looking at you, too, Madness!), instead of leaning on nostalgia and past glories to win the day.

The Selecter's "Breakdown"--from their most recent album Subculture (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of it here)--is a phenomenal song, very much worthy of being spotlighted in this fashion (and it's awesome live). Here's what I wrote about it in my Subculture review...

Inspired by appalling incidents in both the UK and the US, "Breakdown," the most politically potent song on the album, posits that the relatively frequent unjustified police killings of mostly unarmed (and sometimes handcuffed) black boys, men, and women are a horrific symptom of entrenched racism, societal dysfunction, and purposeful neglect. The failure of government and institutions at all levels to successfully address long-standing issues afflicting disadvantaged communities of color--substandard schools and public services; job and housing discrimination; limited access to health care; grinding and inescapable poverty; crime/addiction; and much more--has created neighborhoods, towns, even entire cities, full of people that have been effectively abandoned/written off. They are "others" apart from the rest of society, who--as the conservative/Ayn Rand-ian narrative goes--through some moral failing/deficit are responsible for their own lot in life (the rich are all self-made men, who achieved great success without anyone else's help, right?)--and, as such, society isn't responsible for their well-being. (It probably doesn't help that the people in these poor communities of color don't have the power to influence or flat out rig the system for their own benefit.)

In these neighborhoods, cities, and towns, nothing functions as it should, including the law and those who are entrusted to enforce it.

"I know a place
Where after six it's shut down
Where police just a drive around
But people just go on with their lives
The same

Stranger beware
The taxicab won't take you there
And he will charge you double fare
He says that there is danger down there

There's going to be a breakdown
A cultural breakdown
A social breakdown
In the eyes of the law
There's going to be a breakdown
A cultural breakdown
A social breakdown
We've heard it all before

Young souls rebel
They need to make a quick buck
They don't rely on nobody's luck
But people just go on with their lives
The same

Out on the streets
People sending dangerous tweets
For five minutes of dubious fame
So, tell me who is to blame?"

After Pauline Black sings, "Some things are so wrong that nothing ever makes it right," Gaps Hendrickson recites a devastatingly long list of black boys, women, and men unjustifiably killed by police in the UK and USA, starting with Stephen Lawrence and ending with Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice (though there seems to be an ever-growing number of new names to add to this list...). "Breakdown" is a "Ghost Town" of sorts for the 21st century (it borrows just enough of "Ghost Town's" structure and snippets of its melody and horn lines to reinforce that notion) and like that iconic song, it reflects the great inequity, fractiousness, and despair of our times.

[I love how this song references "Out in the Streets," which Neol Davies states in the liner notes for Access All Areas was about being young and having nothing to do after the pubs closed at 11:00 pm: "You find yourself driving around the ring road and end up somewhere you wish you hadn't. It was a comment on failed nights out in a city like Coventry--out on the streets again."]

"Dangerous tweets" takes on a whole new meaning with the new American president-elect, doesn't it?

Ranking Roger's UK version of The Beat's "Side To Side" featuring Roger's son Ranking Junior (from The Beat's recent Bounce album--read our review it here) is a terrific, driving ska tune concerned solely with getting the crowd to dance (a la "Ranking Full Stop") and boasting about the ability to do so. This track sports some wicked fast toasting by both father and son--and must be pretty fantastic live.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Toasters "Skaboom!" Reissue

The "Skaboom" LP and cassette covers with the re-worked
original art by Bob Fingerman.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Toasters Skaboom! (blue heavyweight vinyl/cassette, Jump Up Records/Megalith Records, 2016 reissue; originally released in the USA in 1987 on Moving Target/Celluloid and in a slightly altered form in the UK on Unicorn as Pool Shark): While The Toasters' 1987 debut LP wasn't the first American ska album out of the gate (bands like Chicago's Heavy Manners, Berkeley's The Uptones, and Boston's Bim Skala Bim beat them to the punch), Skaboom! was arguably the most influential record in the development/history of American ska--not only on its many musical merits, but because The Toasters' efforts to promote it helped lay the DIY foundation for the massive ska revival that hit the USA less than a decade later.

By 1987, The Toasters' brand of ska had evolved from the quirky, heavily New Wave-influenced ska of 1985's Recriminations EP to the brash and gritty, New York-centric in your face/"I'm walking here!" modern ska of Skaboom! that became their enduring, signature sound. And the band had metastasized into a "Warriors"-size gang; the only holdovers from the Recriminations era were Robert "Bucket" Hingley on guitar (the British expat zealously determined to popularize ska in America), Steve "Hex" LaForge on keys, and Gary Eye on percussion--augmented by The Unity Two, Sean "Cavo" Dinsmore and Lionel "Nene" Bernard sharing vocals with Bucket, Brian Emerich on bass, Jonathan McCain on drums, Marcel Reginato on alto sax, John Dugan on tenor sax, Greg Grinnell on cornet, and Anne Hellandsjo on trombone. The Toasters' (in)famous residency at CBGBs (the hardcore scene spilled over into the ska scene and with it came a fair amount of violence that led Hilly Kristal to ban ska from CBs for a time) and their non-stop gigging at other renown NYC clubs like Danceteria helped whip the band into a formidable live act (amongst the best I've ever seen).

Not only did The Toasters have the live chops (and then some), they had the tunes, too--written by Bucket, Dinsmore, and LaForge. Skaboom! is a brilliant collection of songs from start to finish--"Talk is Cheap," "Pool Shark," "Weekend in LA," "Shocker," "East Side Beat," "ABCs," "Manipulator," "Mr. Trouble," "Now or Never," and more--most of which are still included in The Toasters' live set 30 years later (you can read our in-depth look at some of these tracks here). Indeed, hearing this album for the first time in 1987, I remember being struck how original and fully-formed it all was--Skaboom! wasn't a 2 Tone clone, but its very own amazing thing.

Since Bucket's still fledgling Moon Records wasn't in a position to press and distribute Skaboom! (which they had produced themselves--hence, the fairly rudimentary recording), they struck up a deal with the French/American NYC-based independent label Celluloid to have the album released on their rock/reggae imprint Moving Target (which had issued records from Sly and Robbie, Yellowman, Dennis Bovell, and The Fleshtones). As a result, Skaboom! was distributed far and wide across the USA (and Unicorn did a decent job with Pool Shark in England, with some copies making their way over to the continent via mail order), so The Toasters decided to go for broke, quit their day jobs, and devote themselves to the band full-time--embarking on their first national tour in support of the album (the "Toast on the Coast" tour, naturally).

In the late 80s, ska music pretty much was limited to parochial underground scenes in major cities like NYC, Boston, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA, which were fairly isolated from each other in those pre-internet days (I had no idea that there were any other ska bands from California apart from Fishbone and The Untouchables until hearing Moon Records' Ska Face: An All American Ska Compilation in 1988). Notably, The Toasters' "Toast on the Coast" tour helped forge the first ska touring network (which many bands would later follow); started to connect all of the disjointed regional ska scenes; and inspired numerous ska bands to form in their wake (which would reach critical mass in the mid-to-late 1990s with the so-called Third Wave of ska).

American fans converted to ska through 2 Tone (which many people here discovered long after it was over in the UK) and/or Fishbone's EP and The UTs' Wild Child apparently were primed and ravenous for more new, homegrown ska music. As a result, Moving Target/Celluloid sold upwards of 25,000 copies of the Skaboom! LP, CD, and cassette (though royalties on Skaboom! were never paid to the band before Celluloid went bankrupt right after the release of Thrill Me Up on Celluloid's new ska imprint for The Toasters, Skaloid)--and the album made it to a very respectable #54 spot on the CMJ college radio charts. In addition, Skaboom!/Pool Shark was well-received by the post-2 Tone UK scene that had emerged in the mid-to-late 80s around such extraordinary acts as Laurel Aitken, Derrick Morgan, The Trojans, Potato 5, The Deltones, The Hotknives, The Loafers, Maroon Town, The Riffs, Bad Manners, Judge Dread, and others. Scotland's phenomenal Zoot skazine declared The Toasters' Skaboom! to be "the best thing to come out of America since sliced bread" (a compliment) and the band eventually made it over to tour the UK in 1989 (where they recorded the live album Frankenska for Unicorn).

Three decades later, it's easy to take Skaboom! for granted (particularly in light of all of the great Toasters records that followed it), but one cannot overstate the significance of this release. In many ways, Skaboom! was the catalyst for much, if not all, of what transpired in American ska for years to come. Without it, the burgeoning U.S. ska scene might have gone bust a decade sooner...

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To read more about The Toasters' history and their Thrill Me Up, This Gun for Hire, and New York Fever albums, click here.

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