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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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Duff Guide to Ska NYC Winter 2016/2017 Ska Calendar #42

Misty in Roots (photo by Syd Shelton)
Thursday, December 29, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

The Skints, Rude Boy George, The Far East

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15 in advance/$20 day of show
All ages

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Thursday, December 29, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

HR (of Bad Brains), Dubb Agents, Skarroñeros, Kingsound

The Bowery Electric
327 Bowery
New York, NY
$12 in advance/$15 day of show

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Friday, December 30, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

The Porkers, The Pandemics, The Rudie Crew, Skarroneros

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$12 in advance/$15 day of show

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Saturday, January 14, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

Dubistry

Shrine World Music Venue
2271 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard/7th Avenue
New York, NY
No cover!

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

LARP Showcase #10: King Django, Control This, The Screwups, Brother Jerome, Carmelo DiBartolo (Beat Brigade)--plus DJ Ryan Midnight

Don Pedro
90 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Saturday, January 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Dj Gorilla Presents: Oi! Punk/Ska Party!!! [Queens Edition] w/Los Perros, Raise the Kicks, The Omega Men, Eskrofula

Pista Bandas Unidas Oficial
96-11 Roosevelt Avenue
Queens, NY
$10/All Ages

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Friday, February 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Skatalites

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Saturday, March 4, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Save Ferris, Baby Baby

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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Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Duff Guide to Ska: Year in Ska Reviews - 2016 Edition

(All Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Here we are at that time of the year again when we all take stock of the twelve months that have just passed. I tend to look at my failings, instead of the accomplishments (I could have reviewed many more releases, seen more shows, etc.). Having said that, I am proud of and stand by everything I've written here and hope that these words have helped steer you/turn you on to some amazing ska bands and music.

Below, please find links to all of The Duff Guide to Ska reviews of 2016, in case you missed anything, want to reassess a particular release, or re-read a review or two.

I'd also be remiss not to mention all of the ska musicians that we lost in 2016, including Prince Buster, Lord Tanamo, Jimmy Riley, John Bradbury, Clyde Grimes, Jr. of The Untouchables, Al Fletcher of The Selecter/Skaville UK, Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew, Dan "Brukky" Klein of The Frightnrs, and we just learned of Rudy "Valentino" Jones--the tenor saxophonist for The Trojans--who passed away this week (12/21/16). All of you will be sorely missed by many.

Albums

1592: Family of Choice

The Amphetameanies: Last Chance Bordello

The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger: Bounce

The Bionic Rats: T.B.R.

Sammy Buzz: The Buzzman Cometh

Susan Cadogan: Take Me Back 

The Crombies: Dance Crazee

The Downsetters: The Asylum Hotel

The Frightnrs: Nothing More to Say (review TK)

The Frits: The Greatest Frits

Vivien Goldman: Resolutionary (Songs 1979-1982)

Arthur Kay and The Originals: Rare 'n' Tasty reissue

Madness: Can't Touch Us Now

Massive Attack v. Mad Professor: No Protection reissue

N.S.T. and The Soul Sauce: Heaven is Here/Song for Rico EP

J. Navarro and The Traitors: Criminals and Lions

Phoenix City All-stars: Searching for the Young Ska Rebels

Pyrotechnist: Dub Rocketry

Rhoda Dakar: The Lotek Four, Volume I (review TK)

Rico: Man from Wareika/Wareika Dub expanded reissue

Max Romeo: Horror Zone

Joe Scholes: Songbook, Volume II

Sonic Boom Six: The F-Bomb

The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra: Bite the Bullet

The Toasters: Skaboom reissue

The Untouchables: The Duff Guide to The Untouchables

The Uptown Ska Collective: The Uptown EP

Various Artists: Money Maker

Various Artists: Skinhead Reggae 1969

Various Artists: Trembling Earth - A Scottish Ska Compilation


7" and 12" Singles 

The Abruptors: "Buffalo Ska"

Laurel Aitken and The Ruts: "The Peel Sessions"

The Bishops: "The Ol' 49R" b/w "The Black and Tan"

Dennis Bovell: "Heaven" 12" reissue

Dennis Bovell: "Row, Row, Row" b/w "River Dub"

Empire of Two: "Let Us Live"

Lynval Golding and Contra Coup: "Know Your Rights" 12"

Natalie Wouldn't: "Natalie Wouldn't"

The Ruts: "Psychic Attack" b/w "Vox Teardrop (Instrumental)"

Secret Affair: "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" b/w "Crumble Gunn"

The Selecter/The Beat: "Breakdown" b/w "Side To Side" split single

The Ska Flames: "Hoppin' Steppin'" b/w "Someday" and "El Camino" b/w "Hometown Waltz"

Yellowcap: "Around the World"

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Other Reviews and Pieces of Note

Review of The Selecter at The Gramercy Theatre on 10/6/16

The Duff Guide to Ska Remembers David Bowie

The Duff Guide to Ska Remembers Prince

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See what The Duff Guide to Ska reviewed during 2015 here!

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Rico "Man From Wareika/Wareika Dub"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Rico Man From Wareika/Wareika Dub (Double CD, Caroline International/Island Records, 2016): Even though he had lived in the UK since 1961 and had played on numerous records as a very respected and in demand session trombone man for Laurel Aitken, Dandy Livingstone (performing on "Rudy A Message to You"), Joe Mansano, Georgie Fame, and many others (for labels such as Blue Beat, Planetone, Ska Beat, Collins Downbeat), as well as releasing several albums of his own on Pama and Trojan, Rico Rodriguez (check out our bio of him here) wasn't well-known much beyond the Jamaican immigrant community and the devoted subculture of mods and skinheads until Island signed him in 1976. By that time, Chris Blackwell had begun to experience enormous success in marketing reggae to a rock audience--specifically with Bob Marley and the Wailers--and intended to repeat/build upon it with newly signed artists like Toots and Maytals, Burning Spear, and Rico Rodriguez.

Rico recorded Man From Wareika (its title track a tribute to Rico's friend and Alpha School mentor Don Drummond who first brought Rico to the Rastas up on Wareika Hill; this song is a version of Drummond's "Green Island") with top reggae musicians (Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Bobby Ellis, Eddie Thorton, Dick Cuthell, Ansel Collins, Karl Pitterson--who also produced the majority tracks here--and many more) during sessions in England at Island's Hammersmith Studios and Jamaica at Randy's and Joe Gibb's studios. A few months prior to Man From Wareika's release in 1976, Rico toured the UK with Bob Marley and the Wailers, which helped generate advance interest in his album (and in 1977, Rico opened for Marley on the European tour in support of Exodus). Man From Wareika received positive to stellar reviews and sold well-enough that Island released an extremely sought after handmade-looking white label dub version through its Ghetto Rockers imprint and a series of Island 12" singles in 1977 and 1979--"Africa," "Ska Wars," "Dial Africa," "Take 5," and "Children of Sanchez." Having said that, Rico's heavily jazz-influenced instrumental reggae was a bit out of step with the contemporary roots reggae of the mid-70s, which limited Man From Wareika's appeal to some degree (though Jerry Dammers took note, which led to Rico essentially joining The Specials a few years later and achieving even greater popularity and acclaim). But listening to it today, one recognizes that this a phenomenal album--a masterpiece of Jamaican jazz--though nowhere as near well-known and celebrated as it should be.

This definitive 40th anniversary release of Man From Wareika marks the first time that Wareika Dub has been available on compact disc outside of Japan (where it was issued in 2004) and this double CD features 15 bonus tracks--comprised of cuts from many of the Island 12" singles, a few tracks from the Man from Wareika sessions that were first released on Roots to the Bone in 1995, and five terrific unreleased songs (vocal versions of "Africa" and "(Free) Ganja" with Ijahman Levi; a cover of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder"; and Rico's "Shabeen" and "Night of the Bongo Man," which features Count Ossie). Fans of Rico will need this in their collection--but anyone who loves reggae and Jamaican music should really give it a shot, since it's that crucial.

One hopes that this re-issue will lead to expanded releases of Rico's two albums for 2 Tone: That Man is Forward (1981) and Jama Rico (1982). The later has never been released on CD, which is shocking, as its an extraordinarily good album (it may be Man From Wareika's equal or better) and very hard to find on LP these days.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Madness "Can't Touch Us Now"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Madness Can't Touch Us Now (16 track CD/12 track LP, Lucky Seven Records/UMC, 2016): You've got to hand it to Madness--there are precious few bands this far into their (incredibly successful) career who continue to give enough of a damn to resist the temptation of churning out by-the-numbers albums and sitting back to watch the royalty checks come flooding back in the mail. Madness' eleventh album Can't Touch Us Now keeps with the fantastic creativity and high quality control of their two most recent records, The Liberty of Norton Folgate (2009) and Oui, Oui, Si, Si, Ja, Ja, Da, Da (2013), and is packed with the kind of wonderfully crafted upbeat ska, melancholy pop, and uniquely British music hall tracks one always hopes for from the band. All Nutty Boys are present--with the exception of the much missed Cathal Smyth--and, always, all members had a hand in writing this collection of songs (which may explain their ongoing wellspring of great music--they don't rely on one or two songwriters to carry the day).

Ska music purists will find great satisfaction in "Mumbo Jumbo" (a broadside aimed at right wing politicians: "Cobbled together raise your right arm/Stoke a little fear back on Maggie's farm"--which includes a great tip of the hat to Prince Buster's "Madness" at the end, when Lee Thompson sings "propaganda minsters" repeatedly) and the melodramatic spaghetti Western reggay of "Grandslam." As well, there are several really excellent ska-influenced music hall cuts (a Madness specialty)--"Mr. Apples" (which concerns a puritan who sneaks out at night to indulge the very vices he publicly decries), "I Believe" (about a boy who finds the strength to reject formal religion and its bigotries in favor of a moral framework that embraces difference and diversity), "Can't Touch Us Now" (about star-crossed lovers feeling invincible despite their fate), and "Herbert" (literally about trying to avoid a shotgun wedding, but also a musical nod to their friend, the late Ian Dury). For those fans whose tastes extend a little further afield, Can't Touch Us Now features some extraordinary pop songs, including the amazing Beatle-ish "Another Version of Me" (criminally, not included on the LP!), the neo-soul of "You Are My Everything," the lush ballad "Pam the Hawk" (about an actual skilled Soho beggar), and a trio of Motown-via-Madness cuts: "Don't Leave the Past Behind You," "Good Times," and the heartfelt, spoken/sung Amy Winehouse tribute--based on a real-life chance encounter Suggs had with her just days before she died--"Blackbird" ("'Alright, Nutty Boy,' she said/Passing me on Dean Street/She's striding through the puddles/On black stiletto feet/Guitar over one shoulder/Swirling swagger in her stride/And a well appointed pencil skirt/Just maybe 18 inches wide").

While listening to the album, you should try to pick out some of the song references on the Sgt. Pepper's-like album cover (ironically, Madness' album cover for Oui Oui... was designed by Sir Peter Blake, who is best known for creating the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's)--the title cut mentions the Tower of London, "I Believe" name-checks St. Paul's Cathedral, etc. (too bad that the LP/CD insert doesn't include a map of all of the people and places and why they were selected; what's the significance of the Bedford Theatre in Camden Town or the inclusion of the rude boy Islington Twins from Janette Beckman's photos?).

Can't Touch Us Now is another triumph from Madness--one that you shouldn't miss!

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Monday, December 12, 2016

The Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Bionic Rats "T.B.R."

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Bionic Rats T.B.R. (CD/digital download, self-released, 2016): If Rock Against Racism stages a comeback--and God knows we need them more than ever on both sides of the Atlantic--Dublin's phenomenal The Bionic Rats have two powerful anti-racist anthems ready for the RAR playlist, as well as a slew of other terrific ska, rocksteady, and reggae songs about enduring the slings and arrows of work, love, and life, on their amazingly good fourth album T.B.R. (the acronym reminds me, in my dyslexic way, of the Tom Robinson Band!). The ska-jazzy, but kind of spaghetti Western-ish "One More Nail in the Coffin" lays out The Bionic Rats absolute determination to counter the forces of fear and hate: "Climb up the ladder, get to the top/We'll never stop/One more nail in the coffin, one more nail/'Til all superstitions are dead in the ground/We'll never stop/One more nail in the coffin of ignorance." Even better may be the biting, minor-key lament "Half a Mind," which is similar in vein to Linton Kwesi Johnson's fierce anti-fascist/anti-National Front cut "Fite Dem Back" and is equally on the mark: "Now it wouldn't happen all the time/But you hear them talking about their kind/While they seem intelligent otherwise/I never fail to be surprised/Every time I hear their bile and see the poison in their eyes/They can never justify their lies but they try, oh yes they try/If they had half a mind maybe they could could use it/Take up too much of their time, too confusing." But it's not all about manning the ramparts against the bigots. The shiny and upbeat ska tune "I'm Doing Good" is an ode to the office workers of the world slaving away in their cubicles for someone else's big gain (complete with work-induced grunty vocal effects--shades of, um, "Allentown"!): "I'm doing good today/I'm making someone else some money...I'm doing good today/Hit all my targets this week/I'm doing good today/I worked right through my lunch break/I'm doing good today/I'm such a good employee/I'm doing good today/I'll still be here when it's late/I'm workin' it/I'm livin' it/I'm losing it/Each day at a time." "Say Something" urges bands to use their platform, large or small, to communicate something meaningful (amen to that--I'm all about the lyrics, too). "Until I Forget" is about struggling with drink--and references my favorite Homer Simpson quote ever on the subject. The band won't let you wallow in regret over how you completely blew it in the dubby "Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda"--'cause you know better. And the 11 year-old lurking within me loves the "dilemma" inferred in "Girls With Big Hands." The Bionic Rats' T.B.R. is by far one of my most favorite albums of the year--and fans of bands like No Sports or The Toasters should make a point to check it out!

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Friday, December 9, 2016

New Releases from Destroy Babylon and Flying Vipers

We're very much looking forward to two upcoming new releases that are slated for early 2017--the fifth album from Boston's incredible roots reggae act Destroy Babylon and the second cassette tape from their dub spin-off the Flying Vipers (there's a video teaser for "Dubbin' in the Den" here).

(Read what The Duff Guide to Ska thought of Destroy Babylon's most recent album Long Live the Vortex here and the Flying Vipers' debut The Green Tape here.)

And if you're in the Boston metro area, make sure to check out Destroy Babylon's next show at The Middle East on Saturday, December 17, 2017 with NYC's The Far East and Boston punks Whoopi Sticks! All the details are in the awesome Tom Robinson Band-inspired flyer to the right...

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