Sunday, July 5, 2020

Duff Review: Brixton Sounds "Sonidos de Brixton" b/w "Me Perdi"

The artwork is a reproduction of a Steady Beat Recordings paper label for a vinyl single.Steady Beat Recordings
7" vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This stellar new single from Oaxaca, Mexico's Brixton Sounds contains two original tracks of '60s ska and Jamaican jazz with hints of cool jazz, bossa nova, and samba--all impeccably performed and produced--and will remind one of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Jump with Joey, and the originators, The Skatalites. A theme song of sorts, "Sonidos de Brixton" is an elegant, almost cinematic instrumental with a lovely melody in the repeated chorus, while the moody "Me Perdi" ("I Got Lost") features the gorgeous and expressive vocals of Alondra Hernández. It doesn't get much better than this.

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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Duff Review: The Lions "The Loser"

Names You Can Trust
7" vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

It's hard to believe that it's been five years since The Lions released their magnificent Soul Riot (here's some of what I wrote about it back then: "I am in awe of this record. Like Fishbone's Truth and Soul or Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, The Lions' absolutely phenomenal Soul Riot is full of songs of defiance, despair, anger, and pure joy (where love and lust are concerned) that reflect the Black American experience--as the nation's horrific legacy of slavery continues to play out in so many devastating ways (in particular, see "When It Rains," "At a Loss," and "Going Nowhere")). Fortunately, they're finally back with a superb new single, a cover of Derrick Harriott's perfect 1967 rocksteady hit "The Loser." The Lions' take on it at first seems pretty faithful, but when you hear the Impressions-like harmonies in the chorus and other responses, Alex Désert's silky lead vocals, and Black Shakespeare's deft deejay commentary, it all ascends to the next level.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Duff Review: The Equators "Nice to Be Nice"

The cover features an illustration of someone dancing next to the sun.Self-released
Digital single

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Equators, of course, are the all-Black Birmingham-based ska band that pre-dated The Beat, opted to sign with Stiff Records rather than 2 Tone, backed Desmond Dekker on some of his 1980 Black and Dekker album, inspired The Untouchables to form, and released one incredible album (Hot) in 1981, just as 2 Tone was flaming out.

The Bailey brothers (Don, Rocky, and Leo) reformed the band with several new members in 2017 and released the digital single "Bed of Roses" (about the difficult experience of immigrating from the Caribbean to the UK in the 1960s). The Equators' excellent new single "Nice to Be Nice" is much more upbeat--they're pitching it as this summer's anthem and certainly have made a strong case for it. It's a sweet, crisp, and brisk ska track that's about nothing more than the minor miracle (particularly these days) of how a beautiful day can make you happy: "Feeling nice/Feeling really good/As I walk through my neighborhood/No dark clouds in the sky/Make everybody feel so nice." Put this on if your mood needs a boost.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Duff Review: Steady Social Club "Take One"

The album cover features an illustration of a Black mermaid lounging on letters forming the name of the band.Self-released

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Take One is the impressive debut album from Poland's first rocksteady act Steady Social Club, and is filled with really terrific original tunes and ace performances--all recorded live in the studio on analog gear in one take, warts and all, with no edits, overdubs, etc. (hence, the album title). It should be noted that Steady Social Club are not newcomers to the scene, as members hail from other Polish and (one) German ska groups (Vespa, The Bartenders, Real Cool Sound, Big Fat Mama, and Spartan Allstars). They joke that they're ska veterans, but older now, so they play slower (hah!). And this really is a late night, end-of-the-afterparty record, when people couple or uncouple, and don't necessarily make the best decisions (practically all of the songs on Take One are about falling in or extracting oneself from a romantic relationship). The rocksteady tempos are markedly (almost stubbornly) unhurried, giving the male and female singers (Wioletta Baran, Anna Teliczan, and Boris Borowski) plenty of time to do their thing, and the song arrangements are uncomplicated, yet completely appropriate and effective (the band is rounded out by Artur Grochowski on drums, percussions, and keyboards; Bartłomiej Kościański on bass, guitar, and keys; and Maciej Januchowski on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; the later two wrote all of the tracks here).

Top cuts here include "Let's Do Rocksteady," which has wonderful harmonizing and offbeat use of male falsetto ("Let's forget all the daily trouble/Now it's just you and me together/Hold me tight, till you feel my heartbeat/All the world can come back tomorrow"); the gorgeous ballad "Magic Feeling" (which, of course, is that of being in love); and the incredibly sultry tracks "Set Me Free" (who could resist this entreaty?) and the you're-headed-for-a fall "Slow Down." "You Kept Me Waiting" is more Harry J skinhead reggae than rocksteady and features really amazing Jerry Dammers-esque organ during the chorus (the singer knows he's not ever going to get what he wants, but still can't help himself: "I'll keep on waiting/Up through the night/I'll keep on waiting/Until the dawn/Why?"). "Friend or Foe" also is excellent dirty reggae about someone getting what they're owed in a Niney the Observer "Blood and Fire" kind of way ("I say one day/You gonna pay/And the lies you've said/Will be exposed!"). Perhaps the fiercest song on the album is "There's the Door" (I'm warning you/This game won't be played be no more/It is last chance for you to change/And otherwise there's the door")--you won't be able to resist singing along with the ominous "ohs" of the chorus.

Even though I'm getting killed on the shipping costs from Poland to the USA, I need Steady Social Club's Take One LP in my collection. If you're a fan of rocksteady, you'll want this album, too.

[Update: Since posting this review, I've learned that this LP will be available in the USA through Jump Up Records.]

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Duff Review: Danny Rebel and the KGB: "For Babylon's Head" EP

The cover painting depicts Danny Rebel driving a car and a police car chasing him can be seen in the rear view mirror.Self-released

(Review by Steve Shafer)

If you aren't into American hardcore and punk from the first half of the 1980s, you might miss that the cover artwork for Danny Rebel and the KGB's new EP For Babylon's Head is a brilliant take on the Minutemen's 1984 Double Nickels on the Dime cover photo--and that this punk-hardcore-art rock-jazz masterpiece contains 45(!) tracks on two LPs filled with left-wing commentary on racism, war, working-class life, and more. Like that Minutemen album, the tracks on DRKGB's For Babylon's Head deal with the gentrification and destruction of a diverse, working-class neighborhood and tangling with lawless, racist cops (the one big difference between Danny Rebel's painting and the Minutemen's photo is that in the former, we see the police car lights in the VW Bug's rear view mirror, while in the latter, it's bassist Mike Watt's smiling eyes; also, note how Rebel has artfully snuck in references to his band's first two albums!).

With its Old Testament echos of the Israelite siege and destruction of Jericho and its wicked inhabitants, "St Henri Wall" is part rocksteady track, part spiritual aimed at the predatory capitalist developers and gentrifiers in this Montreal neighborhood who are representative of Babylon's evildoers: "This wall is bound to fall/St Henri Wall is gonna come a tumbling down/I don't think they know/How we gonna break this wall down/I don't think they know/How we're gonna fizz the fire/Babylon better run/Run, run, run Babylon." This incredible track is versioned in "Wall Dub."

"Another Song About You" is a sparse but positively seething acoustic cut about police racial profiling, harassment, and murder (they're Babylon's enforcers) that's powerful and emotionally devastating in its musical simplicity and lyrical directness:

Another song about you, Mr. Man
Another death in the streets from your hands
Another scream of anger
In the end, it's all noise

Lights of blue and red
Once again, in my car
Another random check
That's the third time, so far
"I'm not supposed to feel you"
Yes, that's what you're trained to do

Feeling paranoia walking down my street
Your hands around my neck
And I feel that it's so hard to breathe
If I was a criminal
You would see a bullet through those eyes

It's another verse
Another melody
The words are rearranged
To sound like new
I felt inspired as you look at me
It's just another song about you

Maybe it's the color of these eyes
That you want me to die
Maybe it is written in the Book of Rules
Who to call
About the cause of all this murder?
If I was a criminal
You would see a bullet through those eyes

Both of these songs are protest music at its finest (deeply meaningful messages delivered within exceedingly catchy tunes). We're all living through some truly awful times, but Danny Rebel and the KGB are helping to provide a soundtrack for the downtrodden and oppressed that pushes back against the powers that be--and maybe even provides some hope for better days.

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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Duff Review: Flying Vipers "Cuttings"

The cover illustration depicts a volcano erupting in the midst of a lush jungle.Music ADD Records
Digital (July 3, 2020)/LP and cassette (Fall 2020, Jump Up Records)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Back in the mid-nineties when I ran the Moon Records promo department out of a bedroom in my apartment (with my assistant and an intern or two), I often played dub albums (loads of Lee "Scratch" Perry after reading an extensive overview/ranking of his recordings in the Beastie Boys' magazine "Grand Royale"), as the rhythms and melodies would help keep us working at a steady pace without being too intrusive or overpowering. While I'm certainly not implying that dub is akin to background music a la Muzak, it is great music to play either while doing something else or when taking the time to do nothing but be alone with your thoughts. If Flying Vipers' Cuttings had been available back then, it would have been in heavy rotation on the office stereo, as well as during the off hours.

After releasing a series of superb cassettes (The Green Tape, The Copper Tape), and physical and digital singles ("Highest Region," "Nervous Breakdub (Pandemic Version)" b/w "PMA Calling") over the past few years, Flying Vipers have finally issued their first long-player Cuttings, which, as one would expect, is crammed with incredibly hooky, dubby roots reggae instrumentals reminiscent of Dennis Bovell's magnificent productions and Perry's recent and awesome collaborations with Adrian Sherwood and Daniel Boyle.

Cuttings, of course, refers not only to the leaves that have been harvested from cannabis plants, but these musical fruits of the band's labors in the studio--and they have one bounteous crop here. Highlights include "Leaf Miner," which has a wonderful interplay between a rigid and relentless bass riff and a series of answering free flowing Rhodes piano lines; the prescient, apocalyptic "Two Twenties Clash" (and people thought things were bad back in '77!); the Bunny "Striker" Lee tribute "Flight of the Gorgon" with its majestic, panoramic horns; the bad-ass "Scorpio Son" and its version "Son of Scorpio"; and the supremely confident and untouchable "Puff Adder" (many of the cuts on this album are ripe for being versioned by deejays and singers--and becoming well-known riddims in their own right).

Flying Vipers are comprised of the devastatingly good rhythm section of Marc and John Beaudette (Destroy BabylonThe Macrotones), the gifted Zack Brines (Pressure Cooker) on keys, and Jay Champany (10 Ft. Ganja Plant) on percussion and the master at the analogue controls (plus ace guests on horns, sax, flute, clarinet, and binghi).

If you haven't been paying attention to this band, Cuttings is a brilliant introduction to the mighty Flying Vipers; and if you have, you're going to love this album,

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Megative Release Video in Support of Black Lives Matter (and a New Single is Forthcoming)

The band poses in back of a drum head with Megative printed on it.In case you missed it, Megative's self-titled debut album was one of the best ska-related releases of 2018 (this now hard-to-find LP is available through Soulbeats Records). Need a Megative teaser or refresher? Here's the first paragraph of The Duff Guide to Ska review of it from November 2018:

"Megative's tremendously good and absolutely searing self-titled debut is a concept album of sorts, focused on the breakdown or end, really the death, of everything--your own body and consciousness; inter-personal relationships; society/civilization; the sum of humanity; and the very planet that sustains us. These bleak Armagideon Time anxieties are expressed within a sparse, but powerfully realized and incredibly appealing mix of modern minor-key ska and dubby reggae (think of a mash-up of The Specials' Ghost Town EP with the Gorillaz's Demon Days or 2 Tone and punky-reggae Clash tracks given a modern, juiced-up Danger Mouse/Prince Fatty/Mungo's Hi-Fi production)."

While the band was largely off the radar during 2019, Megative had planned to release their new single "The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum) this June 5 (Soulbeats Records), but delayed it until July 15, due to the worldwide anti-racist/anti-police brutality protests that erupted in reaction to the outrageous police killing of George Floyd. In its stead, Megative has issued a new video in support of Black Lives Matter--a "Lockdown" version of their incredible and highly relevant "Yeah Yeah Yeah (Yeah Yeah)" cut, which can be viewed below. Here's what we wrote about this track back in 2018:

"The one joyful and truly blissed-out moment on the entire album comes in the "They Live" referencing "Yeah Yeah Yeah (Yeah Yeah)." The verses of the song are in a minor key (as is almost every song on the record)--"The maniacs are in control/Aliens in human bodies without souls/We watch them on our screens like they're gods/And we smile while they feed us to the dogs/Now I fear I might do something rash/Watching lunatics build towers doomed to crash/They divide us up against our friends/How I long for the days when we'll all sing again..."--but everything abruptly shifts to a bright major key during the you-can't-resist-singing-along chorus of solidarity and rebellion against oppression: "yeah, yeah, yeah (yeah, yeah)!""

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Friday, June 19, 2020

"2 Tone: The Albums" Box Set Forthcoming

Word comes via Specials' autobiographer Paul Willo that Chrysalis Records is releasing a box set of the first eight 2 Tone albums as a CD box set on September 4th, 2020. Titled 2 Tone: The Albums, this collection comes packaged with mini-LP sleeves, a 24-page booklet with liner notes by Jason Weir and Peter Walsh, and contains The Specials' The Specials, The Selecter's Too Much Pressure, The Specials' More Specials, Dance Craze, Rico's That Man Is Forward and Jama Rico, This Are Two Tone, and The Special AKA's In the Studio. The retail list price will be £32.

Of course, the majority of these albums have been previously released on CD, but 2 Tone fans may still be enticed to pick up this set, as this edition of Dance Craze restores the Madness tracks that were excised from previous CD reissues and for the fact that Rico's Rico Jama has never before been available on CD outside of Japan.

All details can be found at Paul Willo's FB post.

Lastly, this box set is not being released in the USA or Canada, so you'll have to mail-order it from overseas if you live in either of those countries.

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Update (7/2/2020): This box set is now available to pre-order through the official Two Tone store; a related t-shirt can be had, too.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Duff Review: Rudebeard "As You Walk Away" EP

F&J Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While the new As You Walk Away EP from Rudebeard, a Scottish ska supergroup (made up of members of The Amphetameanies, Newtown Grunts, Joe Viterbo, and other acts north of Hadrian's Wall) is a mere three tracks, all of them are funny, gleefully irreverent, and extraordinarily catchy. The title track--the only one without rude words--is a mid-tempo modern ska track with awesome, I've-learned-my-lesson lyrics straight out of a country and western song: [Chorus:] "Don't you let the door hit you on the arse/At least exit quietly/You were right and I was wrong/But now I've got some clarity/Lots and lots of clarity..." Whenever live shows are permitted again, everyone in the venue will be singing along to this one. "Small C Conservative" eviscerates free market-loving politicians ("He's a small 'c' conservative/And a big 'C' cunt...Friedmanite/Gammonite/Monetarist/Gobshite"), while sporting a wickedly good Brix Smith-era Fall meets Dick Dale surf guitar riff (and '80s Fall synth sounds). As its title suggests, "A Mucky Fumble on a Pishy Mattress" is kind of over before it's really started--the song's only about 30 seconds long--but it's nevertheless a great pop-punk-ska cut. (Rudebeard has two other digital EPs available, both very much worth checking out: Smell Yer Ska and Wide-os on the Rise.)

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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Duff Review: Rude Boy George "Lies and Alibis"

The EP cover is made to look like a tabloid newspaper, with titles of songs as headlines and lyrics as the stories. Pictures of various band members are scattered throughout.Self-released

(Review by Steve Shafer) 

[Disclaimer: I was a co-founder of this band, but left five years ago.]

Lies and Alibis marks Rude Boy George's fourth EP of ska and reggae versions of new wave hits--and it's another really fine and fun collection of tracks from this ace band of NYC-area ska veterans (Bigger Thomas, Hub City Stompers, Heavensbee). This time out, RBG focuses on early '80s synth-pop from Heaven 17, Thompson Twins, Soft Cell, and...Rod Stewart? Released in 1981 on Tonight I'm Yours, "Young Turks" was the Rod's quite successful bid at gearing some of his music to the popular new wave sounds of the day (and made it to #5 on Billboard's US pop charts). Rude Boy George's take on it is a vast improvement on the original--but, still! (Can I refer to Stewart's original as "cod new wave"?). The other choices of songs are impeccable, particularly Thompson Twins' "Lies" and Heaven 17's "Let Me Go," both of which are given a shiny pop-ska sheen.

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