Monday, January 20, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Zen Baseballbat "You Won't Get Paid" EP, plus "Place Like This" single!

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Zen Baseballbat You Won't Get Paid (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020); "Place Like This" (digital single, self-released, 2020): I completely missed out on Zen Baseballbat's activities in the early 2000s (when they released two albums on Moon Ska World), but am grateful to have been turned onto this fantastic band now, thanks to the intervention of Kevin Flowerdew of Do the Dog Skazine/The Bakesys. Zen Baseballbat's new EP You Won't Get Paid is an incredibly appealing mash-up of modern ska/reggae plus synth-pop, New Wave, and krautrock married to explicitly left-wing lyrics about living in an era where there's no bottom to the depths of shamelessness, self-dealing, lawlessness, and cruelty that those in power will sink to.

The ironically bright title track condemns an increasingly rapacious economic system that offers fewer and fewer crumbs to the people doing the actual grunt work (all while those at the top funnel cash to politicians who do all they can to slash the social safety net and deregulate business): "I've been shoveling 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/Billinger, billinger, billinger" (roughly translated from German as "cheaper"). In the grayer "Reasons for Living," the band posits that, despite its trappings as a liberal democracy, England has become a surveillance state that the Stasi could only dream of, with the government's ability to easily monitor its citizens via hacked public and private security cameras, cell phones, smart speakers, email, texts, social media (this last one, our own fault, really), etc.--the song is sung from the perspective of imagined officers at the Home Office: "We have reasons to believe that.../You have been living six months behind sound proof privets/Treading on grapes, but the wine still tastes of feet/You were knee deep in chocolate decisions/A sweetened informer dropped you in it/We know who you are/We know where you’ve been/It’s colder in St Helens than Cold War Berlin" (St. Helens is a town located between Liverpool and Manchester and near Zen Baseballbat's home base in Widnes, Warrington).

"There's Going to Be Trouble" is a grand reggae track that employs a spoken 2017 quote from socialist filmmaker Ken Loach regarding Tory austerity-imposed cuts to unemployment benefits in the guise of welfare-to-work requirements intentionally designed so that many people couldn't meet them: "Sanctions are a cruel and vindictive way of treating vulnerable people. This is an extraordinarily cruel thing. They're driven to food banks. When you stop people's money, you force them into the direst poverty--they have nothing. Punishing the poorest and blaming them. Now, don't you think that's absolutely disgusting?" The title of this song is its chorus, sung over and over, as both warning (there's going to be unrest when desperate people have absolutely nothing left to lose) and an appeal of sorts (it's in the rich and powerful's best interest to maintain a livable bottom rung to capitalism, so as to keep society from devolving into widespread chaos and violence, which wouldn't exactly be good for the financial markets). While it's almost too on the mark to be satire, "A Backstage Pass to The Stanley" (which sounds like it could be a The The circa Mind Bomb track) offers brutal commentary on our sick society's never-sated desire for real and staged Hunger Games-like acts of violence, freakishness, and self-humiliation as entertainment: "Ladies and gentlemen/Put your hand grenades together and give a warmonger's welcome for tonight's doomed fancy fella/Testing intestines, one-two, one-two/Take a big deep breath/I’ll bicycle kick myself to death/Vomit a Sinatra, a Nat King saliva/Return to sender/The awfully wedded karaoke machine/When there’s a hole in the chest/Expect nothing less/Than a man with a gun and a grudge in suburbia." All the bread and circuses helps keep us from noticing what's going on behind the scenes--and to us.

The digital single "Place Like This" is electro-spaghetti Western-reggae (think Kraftwerk, Big Audio Dynamite's "E=MC²," and maybe a bit of Yazoo) that the band has dedicated to, "the one too many, midweek disco dancers, desperate for a shag and falling asleep on the bog in a niteclub at 4am...an anthem for the knackered." More than one listener of a certain age will relate to lyrics like this: "Biology laid bare/Bodily functions everywhere/Why to we always end up in a place like this?/Dressed head to toe, an anniversary/Is everybody here in the mood, but me?" In their comments about this song, Zen Baseballbat adds (figuratively, but also a bit literally), "celebrate the shit, it's all we have left." And the band's happy to provide this brilliant and spot-on soundtrack for the occasion.

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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part V: Mark Foggo's Skasters, Lee "Scratch" Perry!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Mark Foggo's Skasters Ska Pig Returns (LP, Jump Up Records, 2019): For anyone counting, Mark Foggo's Skasters released their debut album Ska Pig 30 (!) years ago (I first encountered them in '89 on Skank Records' Ska For Ska's Sake compilation), hence the title of their new album, Ska Pig Returns. Throughout the decades, Foggo and Co. have been remarkably consistent in creating album after album of incredibly high energy, sing-song-y, slightly demented, but always entertaining 2 Tone-influenced ska (think Madness' "Land of Hope and Glory"/"Baggy Trousers" meets Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"/"Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3") and their latest record doesn't disappoint! There's a stomper about encountering a woman on a train and thinking "she was the one, I was sure" but having her turn out to be the dreadful Theresa May and telling her off; a song about trying to make the best of things in increasingly dire times what with the planet dying and "Trump as boss" ("Eat Up Your Weeds": "Things are never as bad as they seem/But you never wake up from this one bad dream..."); and "Dum Diddy Die," a powerfully dark nursery rhyme of nonsensical sounds and disturbing couplets ("I've got to get a gun/And I got and fight the enemy/There's a very good chance/That maybe it's the end of me." But then there's the upbeat "Do The Monkey" (detailing the indignities the monkey in the zoo must suffer to get on); "London" is a really lovely, New Wave-tinged, unconventional tour of London ("Saw the queen and changed the guard/Breaking in, it wasn't hard/I just used my Oyster card/Had to beat the Scotland Yard/When I tried to steal the crown/The Beefeaters came and cut me down"); while the awesome "Rats and Mice" is about taphophobia, a fear that was much more widespread during the Victorian age ("Please build my coffin air-tight/But leave me for the rats and mice/And put me in a shallow grave/In case there's been a mistake/And I'm still alive!"). As you might infer from all this, Mark Foggo's Skasters' Ska Pig Returns seems like a blast--'cause it is!

Lee "Scratch" Perry Heavy Rain (LP/CD/digital, On-U Sound Records, 2019): This is the wild and massively good dub version of Perry and Adrian Sherwood's recent collaboration Rainford (reviewed by the Duff Guide here)--that actually overshadows its source material (and they include a few new cuts, too!). Heavy Rain plays to Perry and Sherwood's strengths as versioners; they're masters at revealing the dub versions not represented by, or hidden within, the official version (even if they created it in the first place). Perry and Sherwood have made space for the Rainford tracks to recombine, mutate, and augment--and their work reimagining the songs and adding effects, and blips and beeps both natural and synthesized is nothing short of brilliant. The deserved attention-getter is the incredible "Here Come the Warm Dreads" (the dub of one of Rainford's best tracks, "Makumba Rock"), with Brian Eno (get the punny title of this track now?) working his magic on everything coming out of your stereo's right channel. Perry's anti-capitalist/greed broadsides are largely traded in for the truly great Vin Gordon's melancholy, yet all-vanquishing trombone lines--and Gordon's playing is nothing short of magnificent on the now jauntier "Crickets in Moonlight" (original: "Cricket on the Moon"). Perry's "Autobiography of The Upsetter" is transformed into "Heavy Rainford," a wonderful conversation between a bluesy harmonica and reggae trombone (Vin Gordon, again!). The three new tracks that they slip in here are of the same calibre and fit in seamlessly. "Dreams Come True" is a slumberous cut that creates a musical twilight zone between the real and imagined (and this is apparently some of what Perry sees: "Mick Jagger/Tripe and banana/Rolling home from work work/Feeling kind of peckish/Flying to his home/To have his favorite dish/Ackee and saltfish"). "Above and Beyond" features both violin and sax lines ebbing and flowing over a strutting riddim, while "Mind Worker" (Perry: "I move brains and I transfigurate minds") has these amazing jazz piano breaks in the midst of a serious reggae groove. Heavy Rain has to be the best reggae album of 2019 and is certain to go down in history as another Perry/Sherwood masterpiece.

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part IV: Vin Gordon

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez may be more familiar to ska and reggae fans than Vin Gordon (AKA Don D., Jr.), there's no doubt that they've heard Gordon's trombone playing, as he's performed on hundreds of crucial ska, rocksteady, and reggae recordings (that's him on the foundational "Real Rock" riddim with Sound Dimension) and helped establish the classic and enduring Jamaican ska and reggae trombone sound, along with Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, who were fellow alum of Kingston, JA's Alpha Boys School's music program under bandmaster Lennie Hibbert. (Gordon's Discogs entry is over 20 pages and includes his work on classic releases for just about every significant reggae artist you can imagine, including Lee "Scratch" Perry (he both performs and has writing credits on Scratch's latest albums, Rainford and Heavy Rain), Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Aswad, Coxsone Dodd (he was Studio One's main trombonist), The Heptones, The Ethiopians, Culture, Big Youth, Horace Andy, Mad Professor, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Andy, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Max Romeo, King Tubby, The Skatalites, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, Alton Ellis, The Revolutionaries, and many more--he even recorded a ska LP during the 2 Tone era, which I picked up in the late '80s). Having said that, the number of albums released under Gordon's own name are relatively few, given his talents and the scope of his career.

UK reggae producers/musicians Al Breadwinner and Nat Birchall (a celebrated jazz performer in his own right) had this in mind as they were planning their next Sounds Almighty album of roots reggae instrumentals with Gordon--and decided to turn it into a full-on Vin Gordon album instead. What's wild is how this record came together. Birchall composed the instrumentals for the album, and then he and Breadwinner recorded the rhythm tracks (Birchall on bass, piano, percussion and Breadwinner on drums/percussion, guitar, organ, and piano). Then Vin Gordon joined them in their analogue studio, listened to each cut a few times and came up with his horn lines on the spot (in old school Studio One fashion), which were then recorded in a day--and the horn melodies were added later by David Fullwood (trumpet), Stally (bari sax), and Birchall (tenor sax). The result, Vin Gordon's African Shores (LP/CD/digital, Tradition Disc, 2019), is a phenomenally good and moody roots album that's similar in sound and vibe to King Tubby's and Lee "Scratch" Perry's mid-'70s output--and showcases Gordon's virtuoso, improvisational playing floating over razor sharp riddims. All of these tracks are relatively spare and uncluttered--allowing for ample space between the notes--and feature almost hypnotic bass lines and beats. The majestic "African Shore" and its "Gold Coast Dub" evoke unending, wide screen coastlines of an extraordinary continent that is the ancestral home for the African diaspora and whose resources, natural and human, were wickedly exploited by white Europeans. "Styler Man" is a ringer for a classic Skatalites tune ("Dubbing Style" is its pair), while "Spill Over" is funky reggae like Jackie Mittoo used to do. I have no idea what the mysterious "Gusum Peck" refers to (its companion "Voodoo Man in Dub" suggests something to do with syncretic religion), but it sounds fantastic, in all senses of that word. Like its title suggests, "Sa La Vie" features a gorgeous, laid-back, "come-what-will" melody (and pace) that's the perfect closer to an album that somehow frees the listener to slow down and experience whatever feelings, memories, or dreams this set of songs conjures up whenever they're played. Here's hoping that Birchall and Breadwinner keep on collaborating with Vin Gordon and showcasing the exceptional talents of this true legend of ska and reggae.

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Monday, January 6, 2020

In Memory of Jason Lawless/Benefit Show in Celebration of His Life

Illustration of Jason Lawless by CHema Skandal. 
If you're connected to the US ska scene--particularly in Southern California--you've most likely learned the awful news via social media that long-time ska fan, record collector, promoter, DJ, and blogger Jason Lawless (nee Sirota) passed away around New Year's Day at age 41 (Lawless had a long history of complex medical and financial issues). Lawless was a vital and beloved fixture on the LA-area ska scene--and was also connected to many ska fans and players around the world.

I didn't know Jason well and had never met him in person, but was a big fan of all of his efforts to big up the ska scene through his Lawless Street blog, Dancing Mood ska forum, and Moondust Records label.

Back in October of 2011, I published an interview with Jason about his Reggae 69 Fan Club and the launch of Moondust Records. And in December 2012, as part of The Duff Guide to Ska's "2012: The Year is Ska" series, Jason was kind enough to share his thoughts on his five favorite ska releases of 2012; the top five ska shows he attended; the best ska merch he spotted; his ska regrets over that past year; and his ska hopes for 2013. Both posts might provide a bit of insight as to who he was as a person and as massive fan/supporter of ska.

I offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends. May he rest in peace.

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If you're anywhere near the LA area, a show in honor of Jason's life will be taking place on Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm at Boomer's Cocktails in Long Beach, CA. All details are below.

Soulside Productions in Sympathy presents:

Jason Lawless Benefit Show: Celebrating the Life of Jason Lawless

Live performances by Greg Lee (Hepcat), Chris Murray, Jesse Wagner (The Aggrolites), Los Aggrios, Jah Faith, Swinging Johnny, Queen P., and The Lawless All Stars (featuring members of Western Standard Time, See Spot, The Debonaires, The Expanders, The Aggrolites, Ocean 11, The Allentons, Capsules, and Mobtown).

Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm

Boomer's Cocktails
5456 East Del Amo Boulevard
Long Beach, CA

Donation required for entry--and all donations will go to Angel City Pits Dog Rescue.

This is a 21+ event.

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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part III: Babylove and the van Dangos, Catbite!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Babylove and the van Dangos The Golden Cage (LP, self-released, 2019): The excellent sixth album from this Danish neo-trad ska/rocksteady/soul powerhouse of a band is a sharp critique of what it's like to live in a society where the accumulation of wealth, status, and power is everything--conveying great unease, ambivalence, sorrow, and indignation about the way things are through a collection of catchy and seemingly chipper tunes written mostly by vocalist Daniel Broman (that often sound like the singer is trying to woo a lady not decrying extreme income inequality or the spiritual emptiness of materialism). The record starts with one's end in "No God Above the Bottom Line" (think of how the sunglasses in the movie "They Live" reveal that "This is your God" is printed on all of those dollars) and that the ritual of publicly commemorating your own death is often the last opportunity to show off your deep financial resources: "It's the coins that we place on your eyes/And the check you write us to cry/The champagne you never get to taste/So, let's chuck another nugget on the scales and pray that we'll be fine/Because there's no god above the bottom line." "Golden Cage" points out the grievous damage that our unfettered capitalist system inflicts on the souls of the rich, the lives of the poor, and the very planet that sustains us ("Some may win but many must lose/I see dead eyes and expensive shoes... and when the sea's rising/and when the fields burn/What you gonna buy with the money you earn?"), while "Her Dress Is New" observes how women are confronted by a King Solomon-like choice between work and life when making a go of it in the corporate world ("She can't afford a boyfriend/To take time from her career/'Cause she's climbing up that ladder/And it's slippery up there"--shades of Perry/Romeo's "War Ina Babylon" in that last bit: "It sipple out deh"). One can't help but assume that "Lazy Little Me" is an autobiographical track--the singer can't fathom employing his talents "to write songs in a factory/Churning out generic bullshit for an industry/That's just looking for a hit..." He finds fulfillment and can eke out a living writing ska songs instead (rejecting capitalism's sirens' call to commodify his art), though not everyone has the luxury of opting out of the system in this manner (see the drug dealers and street kids depicted in "Cigarette Boy"). Of course, wealth's close companion is power (a currency of its own used to achieve/maintain wealth and social/political control). "Sledgehammer" addresses the Trumpian outrage machine that keeps manufacturing enemies and threats in order to manipulate followers for his own ends and prevent them from developing empathy for and solidarity with anyone outside the cult of MAGA dead-enders ("You've got to give the people what the people want/And keep their eyes off what it is they really need/You've got to keep them hungry, you've got to keep 'em mean/You've got to starve out compassion and keep feeding the greed..."). And the rise of authoritarian leaders around the globe is noted in "Old Man Trouble," which reminds the listener that the fascists are always with us, lurking, waiting for things to fall apart just enough so they can make their move ("It's the same old faces/In the same old lines/And the same old hatred/Trickling down through time/It's the same old bodies/In the same old graves/And the same old feelings/Making us their slaves/Oh and it's the same older leaders/It's the same old lies/And we say we won't forget/But my how time it flies..."). The Golden Cage also features love songs, mostly about relationships going bad ("The Cracks," "Bleeding Me"), but there's some happiness to be had (see "You Do, So I Do"), and several fine instrumentals (particularly, "Mexiskaner"). The choice of album cover artwork may be intended to remind one of the 1968 version of "Planet of the Apes" and all of its pointed commentary on humanity's tendency toward cruelty, selfishness, and self-destruction (much of it by Rod Serling). At the very opening of the film, as astronaut Charlton Heston prepares to return to Earth after they've been away six months but 700 years have passed on the planet, he wonders, "Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?" (And later in the movie there's this passage read from the sacred scrolls of the apes: "Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.") If you like sweet-sounding ska music to pack a lyrical wallop and speak to what's going on in the world around us, then The Golden Cage is for you.

Catbite Catbite (Pink, yellow, or splatter vinyl LP/digital, Bad Time Records, 2019): On Catbite's debut album, they sport this incredibly appealing and melodic 2 Tone-New Wave-power pop sound that's both retro and completely fresh. I hear echoes of Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Specials, The Selecter, King Kong 4, King Apparatus, and others (and you'll bring your own set of bands to the table after listening to this record), but this set of songs is fully theirs. Just about all of the lyrics on Catbite are about one's oftentimes complicated feelings for others--and the music (as well as Brittany Luna's singing) does an ace job of expressing the range of emotions behind them. The record races out of the gates with "Come On Baby" ("...let's have some fun!"), which is about the blast of out-of-controlness that hits you when you fall for someone hard (""I'm scared of losing/Like I've lost my mind/That's how I feel whenever I'm not near you")--it captures the same intense, ragged desire/longing/euphoria as X's cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless." "Amphetamine Delight" compares the joys of being with someone to the rush/high of speed. The brashly unapologetic "As You Will" is about using revisionist history as a coping mechanism ("'Till I change memories to what I want 'em to be/I'm not lying if I'm lying to me/Take it as you will/But that's how it's gonna be"). "Can't Give You Love," with all of its '60s girl group-like touches, is devastatingly beautiful in its sharp clarity and honesty: "Is it bad/That I don't think of you when I'm out with my friends?/I keep my thoughts to myself lately/And let them fill up my head/Wish that I could change/And be the flirt that you want/But it's not written in the stars for us/And I can't give you love." I bet Costello wishes he could still write such a hook-packed song like "Sneaky Feelings" that would fit right in with tracks from his late '70s glory days; and the conflicted-ness about where one's true emotions lie is pitch perfect ("I can't let those kind of feelings show/I'd like to get right through to the way I feel for you/But I still got a long way to go..."). Don't let Catbite pass you by--and make sure to keep an eye on what this wonderful band does next.

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Monday, December 23, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part II: Isaac Green and The Skalars, Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, and The Void Union!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Isaac Green and The Skalars: Skoolin' with The Skalars (Clear vinyl LP/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2019; first issued on CD by Moon Ska Records in 1996): Back in the early '90s--when I was running the Moon promotions office from a desk in my kitchen at night/on weekends and the seeds of the mid-'90s ska boom were just taking root--I used to field these phone calls from this kid in St. Louis, who would chat me up about all things ska. But more importantly, he'd pump me for info about the working mechanics of the underground music scene--like how doing you go about booking a show, promoting a band, releasing a record, etc. A few years later, a single shows up, I'm hearing about Isaac Green and The Skalars from other Moon acts on tour playing St. Louis (including, of course, Moon head honcho Bucket of The Toasters)--and maybe half a year later, I'm hiring a graphic designer to come up with the cover for their debut album on Moon and sending their master tape to our pressing plant. It's not every day that someone actually uses the (limited) knowledge you share with them, but Isaac Green took it ran with it, practically willing this band into existence (note that his role in the band onstage was MC/moves and as band manager offstage)! Isaac Green and The Skalars' best known track is "High School," thanks to their excellent music video (directed by Drew Sentivan of The Fiascos in collaboration with Crazy Duck Productions for Moon) that was shown nationally on MTV's alternative music video channel M2. I was a bit shocked when I listened to the album recently and realized that it wasn't Jessica Butler's voice I was hearing (I had forgotten that it was sung by Amy Scherer, but she left the band after the album was released, so Jessica recorded a new vocal track for the music video). There are a host of other really great songs on The Skalars' debut, including another fantastic moody reggay-ish cut, "Don't Count" ("...on getting what you want/But appreciate it, when it comes"), which is almost a companion piece to the unsettling uncertainty conveyed in "High School"; the rhythm-and-blues goes ska versions of the Marvelettes' "Beechwood 4-5789" and Wynonie Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes," as well as a gorgeous cover of The Heptones' "I Love You" (there were three female vocalists/brass players in the band!); and some more really fine originals, particularly The Skatalites'-like "Special K," and the swinging "Phat Steaks." This first-time-on-vinyl edition of Skoolin' with The Skalars was released to coincide with a rarely offered reunion show The Skalars played in Chicago in November that didn't disappoint (they were terrific live in the 1990s, too!). Depending on your age, this LP is a great excuse to be introduced to the band or reminded why you loved them so much way back then (it's hard to believe that 23 years have passed since Skoolin' was released and it's now a Third Wave classic!). If you can find it, The Skalars' sophomore album for Moon Change Up is pretty killer, but came out in '99 when the bottom fell out of the ska scene in the U.S. and few bought/heard it...

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan "Share My Love" b/w "Cool and Deadly" (7" vinyl single, Liquidator Music, 2019): Brooklyn's Top Shotta Band--helmed by trumpeter/producer djMush1, who was previously in The Slackers and Murphy's Law, and fronted by dancehall veteran Screechy Dan, known for his work with Vital Crew/Big Yard/Shaggy Posse, under his alias Leon Dinero, and with Megative on their amazing debut album--have a terrific new single out in advance of their forthcoming Spread Love LP, to be released in 2020. Both cuts have a tremendously good vintage Skatalites/Don Drummond ska vibe and sound to them, with Screechy Dan making his pitch for why he should be her man in "Share My Love" and boasting of his prowess and resilience in "Cool and Deadly" ("I'm a champion/I'm nobody you can stomp on/But you can keep your eyes on/A conqueror, that's what I am!"). Keep and eye out for their album and go their shows if you have a chance, as they're stellar live.

The Void Union Return of the Super Vape (CD/digital/Red vinyl LP, Jump Up Records, 2019): The last time we heard from the Boston-area super-group/musical collective that is The Void Union was back in 2011, with their superb, second album Higher Guns (read our review of it here). While they may not be the most prolific act out there, The Void Union make up for it with consistently top notch music, through and through, as heard on their new (and the Lee Perry punning) Return of the Super Vape. As always, The Void Union plays a mix of vintage jazzy/big band JA ska, rocksteady, and modern ska--and there's a wonderful variety of sounds, since just about everyone in the band is a gifted songwriter and contributes at least one track to the recording (just another reminder of how there is strength in diversity). Many of the cuts here are concerned with women--setting up a rendezvous with one (the sing-along "Kassablanca" with Mr. T-Bone on guest vocals), loving them ("Mi Corazon" and "Mine"), being confounded by their ways ("Allora"), and being so head over heels that you can't imagine life without her (the ethereal "Build a World" with Jr. Thomas on lead vocals, Dave Hillyard on sax, and backing vocals with Hepcat's Alex Desert, Western Standard Time's Chiquis Lozoya, and The Expanders' John Butcher). As well, there are some amazing instrumentals, including the sprightly, keyboard-focused (of course) tribute to The Upsetter "Dread Perry" and the really lovely "Wash Yo' Hands," which gives the chance for the horn players to show off their chops. But, perhaps the best track is the razor-sharp commentary on our post-truth America (thanks to the willful ignorance, gaslighting, and propagandizing of the MAGA hatters, the entire GOP, and the nation's "president"--the long-term consequences to our democracy be damned), the "Shame and Scandal"-like "The News Cycle" (with The Pietasters' Steve Jackson at the mic): "I posted on my page today/I knew it wasn't true, but I like it anyway/I argue with another, about a baby didn't know I had/He said, you made a mockery of mom and dad/We won the news cycle/We won the news/Fuck everybody else/Fuck everybody else...I didn't verify your Lincoln quote/I didn't exercise my right to vote/I can't acknowledge my most fancy fears/Because I'm drowning in them Liberal tears..." (though one doubts that there will be the change of heart that takes place just before the end of the song: "I smacked my television set last night/Strapped my life up to some dynamite/Now that I've got clarity, I don't consent/No need to make America great again").

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska Winter 2019 NYC Ska Calendar #10

...and Happy Hanukkah and Happy Kwanzaa!
Friday, December 20, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

The Slackers, The Pietasters, Mephiskapheles

Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$22/18+

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Saturday, December 21, 2019 @ 6:30 PM

Hub City Stompers Record Release Party w/The Rudie Crew, 45 Adapters, Damage Done

Berlin Under A
25 Avenue A
New York, NY
$10/21+

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Sunday, December 22, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Barbicide, The Joint G, The I in Team

The Cobra Club
6 Wyckoff Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Tuesday, December 24, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Roots Reggae Xmas featuring Vic Ruggiero, Anant Pradhan, plus DJ Vic Axelrod

Mama Tried Brooklyn
787 3rd Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10

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Friday, December 27, 2019 @ 8:00 pm
and
Saturday, December 28, 2019 @ 8:00 pm


Steel Pulse

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$30/21+

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Saturday, December 28, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

Holiday Party w/Rude Boy George, The Rudie Crew, The Band Called Fuse

Four City Brewing Company
55 South Essex Avenue
Orange, NJ
(It's about a block from the NJ Transit station!)

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Friday, January 3, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

The Skatalites, The Du-Rites

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$17/21+

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Friday, January 24, 2020 @ 9:00 pm

Caz Gardiner

The Parkside Lounge
317 East Houston Street
New York, NY
2 Drink Minimum/21+

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Saturday, January 25, 2020 @ 9:00 pm

Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7

Gutterbar
200 N 14th Street
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, January 31, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

Piano's
158 Ludlow Street
New York, NY
$10/21+

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Friday, May 22, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Madness (40th Anniversary Tour), The English Beat (featuring Dave Wakeling)

Manhattan Center
311 West 34th Street
New York, NY
$44.50-$110

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019!

Editor's note: Here's a recap of all of the music and books I reviewed this year (click through the links to read 'em)--and I still have a big pile of records to write-up over the next few weeks. So, look for more posts, each containing a bunch of short reviews of releases deserving of your attention and support!

(All reviews by Steve Shafer)

Laurel Aitken and The Skatalites: Ska Titans (LP, Black Butcher Classics, 2019)

Barbicide: Fresh Cuts (Digital EP, Pass the Virgin Music, 2019)

The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger: Public Confidential (CD/LP, DMF Records, 2019)

Dennis Bovell: Babylon: The Original Score (Digital, Old School, 2019)

Susan Cadogan: "Breakfast in Bed" b/w "Don't Burn Your Bridges Behind You" (Digital, self-released, 2019)

The Captivators: Need a Lift? (Digital EP, self-released, 2018)

Catbite: "Amphetamine Delight" (7" flexi disc, Bad Time Records, 2019)

Danny Rebel and the KGB: "Spacebound" (Digital, self-released, 2019)

Daytoner: "Feel Like Jumping" b/w "Perfidia" (7" vinyl single, Friday's Funky 45/Cabin Pressure, 2019)

Kevin Flowerdew: Memoirs of a Ska Librarian: The History of Rude Skazine (5 zines printed on glossy paper, Do The Dog Music, 2019)

Flying Vipers: Nervous Breakdub (Digital, Music ADD Records, 2018)

The Frightners: "Make Up Your Mind" b/w "Make Up Dub" (7" vinyl single, Mad Decent, 2019)

The Frightnrs: "Never Answer" b/w "Questions" (7" vinyl single, Daptone Records, 2019)

Le Grand Miércoles: "Lone Gunman Theory" b/w "I've Got to Surf Away" (7" vinyl single, Liquidator Music, 2019)

JonnyGo Figure: Crucial Showcase (12" vinyl/digital, Bent Backs Records, 2019)

K-Man and The 45s: Stand with the Youth (CD/digital/LP, Stomp Records, 2019)

King Kong 4: Songs for Olly (Digital EP, self-released, 2019)

King Zepha: King Zepha's Northern Sound (CD/digital/LP, Happy People Records, 2019)

Zara McFarlane with Dennis Bovell: East of the River Nile (12" vinyl EP/digital, Brownswood Recordings, 2019)

The Mad Geezers: "The Donkey" b/w "The Snake Charmer" (7" vinyl single/digital, Swing-A-Ling/Names You Can Trust, 2019)

Madness: "The Bullingdon Boys" (Digital, self-released, 2019)

Madness: "One Step Beyond" (Shaped 7" picture disc, Union Square Music/BMG, 2019)

NY Ska Jazz Ensemble: Break Thru (CD/digital, Brixton Records/Ska Jazz Productions, 2019)

Pama International: Stop the War on the Poor (CD/digital/LP, Happy People Records, 2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: "Big Ben Rock (Woodie Taylor Remix)" b/w "Steady" and "J'ai Tout Lu" (7" vinyl single, Where It's At Is Where You Are, 2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (CD/LP/digital, On-U Sound, 2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry" with Peaking Lights and Ivan Lee: Life of the Plants (12" vinyl EP, Stones Throw Records, 2019)

Prince Fatty with Big Youth and George Dekker: "Everything Crash" (Digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2019)

Prince Fatty with Big Youth and George Dekker: "Get Ready" b/w "Get Ready Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2019)

Prince Fatty with Earl 16: "Be Thankful for What You've Got" b/w "Be Thankful Dub" (7" vinyl single, Evergreen Recordings, 2019)

Prince Fatty Presenting Monkey Jhayam: The Rolê of Monkey Man (Digital/LP, Delicious Vinyl/Island, 2018)

The Prizefighters: Firewalk (CD/cassette/digital/LP, Jump Up Records/Prizefighter Sound System, 2019)

The Prizefighters: "Stop Them" (Digital single, self-released, 2019)

Ranking Roger with Daniel Rachel: "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" (Paperback book, Omnibus Press, 2019)

Reggae Roast: "Sensi Skank Reloaded" (10" vinyl EP, Trojan Reloaded, 2019)

The Seattle-ites: The Thing (10" vinyl/digital, Ready to Launch Records, 2019)

Ska Jazz Messengers: "Mil Veces No" b/w "Mil Veces Dub" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single, Liquidator Music, 2019)

The Specials: Encore (CD/2xCD/LP, Island Records/UMG, 2019)

The Specials: "10 Commandments" with Saffiyah Khan b/w "You're Wondering Now" with Amy Winehouse (7" vinyl single, Island/UMG, 2019)

David Storey: "80s Iconic Music Posters" (Booklet)

Subject A: Writers Eyes (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2019)

The Twilights* Hear What I Say (CD/digital, self-released, 2018)

UB40: For the Many (CD/2xCD/LP, Universal/Sony, 2019)

Various Artists: Check One-2: Spirit of '79 (4xCD, Specialized Records, 2019)

Various Artists: Max's SKAnsas City (LP, Jungle Records/Max's Kansas City Records, 2019)

Various Artists: The Shape of Ska Punk to Come (CD/digital/LP, Bad Time Records, 2019)

Various Artists: Sock It To Me: Boss Reggae Rarities In The Spirit Of 69 (CD/LP, Trojan Records, 2019)

Various Artists: Step Forward Youth (2xCD/digital/LP, Greensleeves/VP Records, 2018)

Well Charged: Lift Up Sessions EP (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2018)

Willie Williams: "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal)" b/w "Armagideon Time (Discomix Version)" (12" vinyl single, Soul Jazz Records, 2019)

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And here are some other pieces and gig reviews that may be of interest, if you didn't catch them first time around:

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Lee "Scratch" Perry w/Peaking Lights and Ivan Lee, "Life of the Plants" EP and Willie Williams "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal/Version)" 12"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Life of the Plants (12" vinyl EP, Stones Throw Records, 2019), a collaborative effort between Lee "Scratch" Perry, Peaking Lights (AKA Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis), and Argentinian musician Ivan Lee, is a compelling, modern take on roots reggae (Peaking Lights bills themselves as "electronic dub") that's not too dissimilar from Perry's work with Adrian Sherwood or Mad Professor. The moody and mysterious title track has an insistent and driving riddim with Perry urging the listener to follow a vegetarian way of life: "No meat, no beef/No chicken heads, no chicken backs, no chicken leg/No meat, no cannibalizing..." "No Age" features a repeated progression of dubby synth chords with various percussive and sound effects (its dub is similar, but incorporates more Perry exhortations). "Magik" is more of a trippy electronica cut than reggae, but concerns a recurring theme in Perry's work ("Macumba Rock" from his recently released Rainford album is about voodoo and black magic). Each of these tracks comes in just shy of 10 minutes--and all are too long, frankly. The material is great, but everything's needlessly stretched out. A more condensed and focused record would have yielded more powerful results.

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As part of their ongoing Studio One reissue series, Soul Jazz Records is releasing classic tracks from Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's pioneering label as a series of 12" singles. So far, I've picked up Horace Andy's 1973 hit sizzler "Fever" b/w Cedric Im Brooks' "The Flu" (an instrumental version of "Fever")--and have Alton Ellis' 1967 rocksteady smash "I'm Still in Love" (Althea and Donna used this riddim for "Uptown Top Ranking") b/w Soul Vendors' funky "Just a Bit of Soul" (love the Jackie Mittoo keyboard work here!) coming soon in the mail. Of all the 12" singles issued so far, the one that I'm most excited to have in my hands is Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal)" b/w "Armagideon Time (Discomix Version)" (12" vinyl single, Soul Jazz Records, 2019), an absolute favorite of mine that I think is one of the greatest reggae songs ever recorded. These versions (first released in 1980) are not too far removed from Williams' original 1979 Studio One single (which utilizes Dodd's magnificent "Real Rock" riddim and is credited to Dodd/Mittoo/Williams), but incorporate laser sounds, almost ethereal piano chords/lines played by Mittoo on a Fender Rhodes, and additional percussion. I have these exact tracks on a treasured blue and white paper label Studio One reissued 7" single (pressed in the US in the 1990s?) that I found a few years ago, but they're titled "Armagideon Time" b/w "Armagideon Version" (with Sound Dimension). Of course, this song gained a vastly wider audience beyond JA when The Clash covered it brilliantly for the b side of their 1979 "London Calling" single (I was first introduced to "Armagideon Time" via The Clash's Black Market Clash compilation). Indeed, Joe Strummer's impassioned vocals--full of empathy, outrage, and desperation--contrast so well against the band's taut, muscular, but spare take on the music (they really "got" reggae--and Topper Headon's drumming on this cut is phenomenal). Thematically, "Armagideon Time" was also the perfect companion piece to "London Calling's" apocalyptic/post-nuclear "error" societal breakdown scenario. But for all of Strummer's emoting, Willie Williams' simple, straight-forward, and relaxed vocals are all the more powerful for their same-as-it-ever-was matter-of-factness. His lyrics pack all of the punches themselves...

"A lotta people won't get no supper tonight
A lotta people going to suffer tonight
'Cause the battle is getting harder
In this Iration, it's Armagideon

A lotta people won't get no justice tonight
So, a lot of people going to have to stand up and fight
But remember, to praise Jehovah
And he will guide you
In this Iration, it's Armagideon"

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Duff Review: Madness' New, Anti-Tory/Boris Johnson Single, "The Bullingdon Boys"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After a three-year break from recording (their last album was the excellent Can't Touch Us Now--though they have been playing gigs/festivals and have just released a book, "Before We Was We: Madness by Madness"), Madness are back on the beat with the explicitly anti-Boris Johnson/Tory/Trump track, "The Bullingdon Boys," just in time for the UK's high-stakes general election coming up later this month. For non-Brits, the Bullingdon reference is to an elite/exclusive club for rich Oxford University students (one not officially recognized by that institution) who have been educated at "public" (meaning private in the US) schools, such as Eton. Members of the Bullingdon Club include the former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland Nick Hurd, and the current PM Boris Johnson (Tories/Conservatives, all). And this song's about how the 1% (see the aforementioned Eton alum) maintain their cold, dead grip on political power and wealth through a rigged system of predatory capitalism/governance that benefits them at the expense of everyone else (in a similar vein--times never change--see The Jam's "Eton Rifles""What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?").

In "The Bullingdon Boys" lyrics below, note the MAGA reference and Johnson's similar, Trumpian ploy of appealing to the anti-immigrant/racist crowd in order to lure them into voting against their own interests (buh-bye NHS) for the party that will gladly pick their bones after they've fleeced the nation.

"The Eton Boys are undefiled
The Bullingdon Boys, running wild
And England slides into the mist
No hope they'll cease nor desist

They're making England great again
Make way for the bagmen
And when everything's been sold and bought
We'll soon be off the life support

This is an English public school
This is where Britain raised its empire
Rulers of yesterday
And still trains the leaders of tomorrow"

"The Bullingdon Boys" opens with the discordant, careening car crash final crescendo of sounds (an orchestral glissando) from Lennon and McCartney's/The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," (in the "Bullingdon" music video, it looks like we're about to crash into the cliffs of Dover) and transitions quickly into Madness' classic music hall-pop-ska sound, with Suggs serving as our reliable (if bitter) guide through the nation's "comedy horror show." The music video for "The Bullingdon Boys" features clips from movies like "A Clockwork Orange," "A Christmas Carol" (highlighting the pre-reformed Scrooge, of course), "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Bonnie and Clyde," one of the spaghetti Westerns (don't have time to watch them now), and the disturbing satire of English public school life (also starring droog Malcolm McDowell), "...if," among others.

At the moment, there is no physical release of this song--it's a digital single, available from the usual outlets. But a protest track like this--so sharply relevant to what may be democracy's end times--cries out for a physical release (that artwork's made to be on the picture sleeve for a 45!) to race up the charts and give notice/pause to the powers that be (and hope to the resistors) that not everyone's been duped by their authoritarian gaslighting or co-opted via their insidious, bread and circuses-like schemes.

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