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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Sunday, November 3, 2019

Duff Gig Review: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra at Sony Hall on 10/22/19

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra performing at Sony Hall 
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Several frenetic and sweaty songs into their set at Sony Hall in Manhattan on 10/11/19, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra's baritone sax man Atsushi Yanaka stood on one of the monitors and introduced their song "Paradise Has No Borders" by gesturing to the packed audience (a diverse mix of Japanese ex-pats plus NYC area TSPO fans of every color and background) with open arms in a manner that indicated everyone in the room and said,"Welcome to our paradise!" While the surface-level reading of this statement was about the musical communion in the room, the subtext--for anyone paying close attention--was an anti-racist declaration, as full-throated an endorsement of multiculturalism as this decidedly apolitical and entertainment-focused band felt comfortable expressing. And that made it all of the more powerful and appreciated coming from them in this ugly age of metastasizing nativism and white supremacy.

Even though I have caught TSPO live previously, I was still bowled-over by the extraordinary intensity and almost non-stop, bum-rush-the-songs, high-energy of their wildly engaging performances (they have the stamina of gods and know how to work a crowd into a frenzy, as they did on "Lupin the III '78," which was part of an insane medley that included "Movin' Dub," "Burning Scale," "Blue Mountain," "Kimi to Boku," and "Break into the Light"!)--and it struck me (in a very minor revelation that I'm sure others have realized long ago) that this explains the heavy, Bosstones-y vibe given off by a good portion of the crowd. They feed off/find release in that ska-core-like roaring buzz and beat, even though TSPO are light years away in terms of sound and musical inspiration. There were, of course, a few musical interludes where the pianist (Yuichi Oki on "Suikinkutsu") or melodica player (Nargo, AKA Kimiyoshi Nagoya, during the intro to "Ska Me Crazy") took over the stage so the rest of the band could catch a much-needed breather, but those moments were far and few between.

In addition to the songs mentioned above, TSPO's fantastic set list included "Skaravan," "Downbeat Stomp," "Jamaica Ska" (via Fishbone and Annette Funicello, of course), a cover of Madness'/Prince Buster's "One Step Beyond" (no doubt, a nod to the 40th anniversary of the release of Madness' debut album), their version of the "Theme to the Godfather" (AKA "Speak Softly Love"), Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" TSPO's new single "Zombie Games," and "All Good Ska Is One."

Really, there's no question that Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra are one of the best ska acts in the studio and on stage. This year marks the 30th anniversary of their first release (their eponymous EP) and here's hoping they keep on going for many years to come. After their encore, the band said they'd be back (bring t-shirts for the merch table next time!)--and the crowd made it abundantly clear that TSPO's always welcome in NYC.

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To read more about Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, check out these Duff Guide to Ska posts:

Duff Gig Review: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7, The Pandemics at Stage 48 (4/28/13)

Duff Review: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra "Paradise Has No Border"

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: BBC (Bovell, Brown, Cobby) "Quality Weed," Leon Dinero "If You Ask Me" b/w Screechy Dan "Bandits"

The paper label of this 7" single displays the name of the song ("Quality Weed"), the group that recorded it (BBC), the label that released it (Declasse), and all of the copyright information.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

"Quality Weed" (7" vinyl single, Declasse Records, 2019) is a terrific,  amusing, pro-pot cut borne of a collaboration between Dennis Bovell (Blackbeard, Matumbi, The 4th Street Orchestra), Jimmy Brown (UB40), and Steve Cobby (DJ/producer, Fila Brazilia, The Solid Doctor). The lyrics, sung by Bovell with his almost impossibly deep voice, pretty much sum up the proceedings: "Take my advice now, now hear ye this/There's nothing wrong with cannabis/Set yourself free whenever you wanna/Avail yourself of some marijuana/Select the buds and plant the seeds/To be sure that you're partaking of quality weed..."

The track is presented in two versions, a traditional, dubby roots reggae take and a house remix on the flip side (that manages to retain its reggae flavor through the bass line and brass). With its cranked up BPM and additional percussive touches, the house version--unsurprisingly--has more life to it and is actually the better of the two. Essential for Bovell completists like this reviewer; diversionary fun for everyone else.

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This is the second Daptone single from singer Leon Dinero and producer Victor Axelrod (upon first hearing his debut from earlier this year--"Lover Like Me" b/w "Conscious is Heavy"-- you'd swear it was a lost '60s Skatalites/Jackie Mittoo 45 recovered from Studio One's vaults--it's superb). "If You Ask Me" (7" vinyl single, Daptone Records, 2019) is one of the late Dan Klein's sweet rocksteady compositions that was considered for The Frightnrs debut LP back in 2016, but put aside in favor of other material. Dinero, backed by the remaining Frightnrs, does this lovely, pleading love song justice ("If you ask me to/I would be the very best me I could be...") and this cut reminds the listener, once again, of Klein's considerable songwriting gifts. "Bandits" features Screechy Dan on the mic decrying the predatory and racist policy of allowing the gentrification of large swathes of Brooklyn by greedy landlords/real estate developers (with tacit approval from the city) and the resulting mass displacement of poor/working class people of color (from neighborhoods where they've lived for decades) over the boss "If You Ask Me" instrumental track: "From Bed Stuy to Crown Heights to Flatbush/Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, down to Red Hook/It's like bandits come in/Have the place shook/While we look as our culture get ambushed..." Like all truly great and catchy protest songs, "Bandits" moves both your body and conscience (that is, if you have one).

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Duff Review: Various Artists "Check One-2: Spirit of '79"

A harrington jacket is covered with badges for The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter, and other 2 Tone bands.Specialized Records
4xCD (2xLP to be released on Jump Up Records)
2019

(Review by Steve Shafer)

At last, this is the 2 Tone 40th anniversary-related release that fans have been waiting for! While many of the key 2 Tone players are still too consumed with nursing past/present grievances to organize official 2 Tone concerts or make an effort to release rare or unheard material from the vaults, leave it to their progeny to do the heavy lifting to properly honor 2 Tone's legacy! Coming in at a weighty 67 songs spread out over four CDs, Specialized Record's Check One-2: Spirit of '79 is a stunningly good tribute to 2 Tone and all of its associated acts (bravo to all involved!). Honestly, there's not a bum track here.

As with all compilations of this type, it's split between bands who turned in fairly faithful renditions (despite comp producer Paul Ayriss specifically requesting participating acts not to record exact copies of the originals) and those who reinterpreted the tracks, injecting a bit of their own DNA to put a new spin on beloved, if very familiar, material. Notably, in addition to illustrating 2 Tone's enduring and global impact, a large number of the acts on Check One-2: Spirit of '79 feature female singers (Boss Riot, Malabo Ska, The Tremolites w/Valerie Etienne, The Scotch Bonnets, Third Beat Drop, The Pressure Tenants w/Eloise Berry, Project Blackbird, The Tinkerman, The Red Stripes, Erin Bardwell Collective, Well Charged, The Decatonics, The Reggaskas, RK Ska, Indeed)--finally rectifying the imbalance between 2 Tone's stated anti-sexist stance (in spite of some overtly sexist songs) and the relatively few women actually in 2 Tone bands back in the day.

Below are comments on some of the bands who went further afield in their cover versions that are worth calling out (and in no way is meant to slight the many acts on here who recorded really excellent covers that didn't stray too far from their source, including Napoleon Solo, Boomtown United, Boss Riot, Erin Bardwell Collective, The Porkers, The Bishops, Hub City Stompers, Rude Boy George, and others).

Disc One
The Inflatables "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend": Dammers' dark no-wave jazz/reggae/pop gem is revved up to ska speed, giving it a sharper edge that underscores the lyrics' manipulation and duplicity even more than the original.
Detroit Riddim Crew "Three Minute Hero": The Selecter's frenetic, aggro frustration at punching in and out of soul-crushing, dead-end jobs is traded in for a more laid-back, but equally insistent rocksteady reading of this cut.
King Hammond "Murda! (Exodus 20:13)": The King delivers a bold Motown-ish take on The Selecter's cover of Owen and Leon Silvera's 1962 Blue Beat single; the Biblical reference, of course, relates to the sixth of the Ten Commandments--"Thou shall not kill"--and the song's original lyrics paraphrase part of Psalm 55 ("If I had a pair of wings, I would fly away...").
The Crombies "Click Click": This one's got even more menace and out-of-control-ness than The Beat's, as someone contemplates ending it all via a solo round of Russian Roulette.
The Communicators "The Selecter": Neol Davies and John Bradbury's seminal 2 Tone track that triggered the creation of that magnificent band is transformed into an awesome 2 Tone medley that weaves back and forth from this song to bits of "Three Minute Hero," "Do the Dog," "Rat Race," "On My Radio," "Nelson Mandela," and more.

Disc Two
J. Navarro and The Traitors "Ghost Town": Like their counterparts in Coventry, these boys from Detroit know what it's like to live in a formerly prosperous, but now decaying motor city; though their anger and dismay doesn't seethe and simmer, but boils over.
The Skapones "Do the Dog": Paul Willo and Co.'s take on The Specials' rendition of Rufus Thomas' "The Dog" is all "keep it cool, boy" swinging jazz, that is until the abrupt body blow shift to ska punk that knocks you off your feet, creating a tension and contrast appropriate for a song about all of theses factions itching to maim and kill each other.
Andy Keys Clark and Friends "Rasta Call You": Imagine this Rico cut in Maroon Town's hands or if the Potato 5 circa True Fact had covered it; the beat and sound are dance foor big, and the tempo's brisk.
Third Beat Drop "It's Up to You": The Specials' red or blue pill choice posed to its audience ("Take it or leave it we'll carry on regardless/If you don't like it you don't have to use it") about standing up to racism/fascism in one's everyday life is reframed as a seductive dare to do the right thing when white supremacists come for you.
Gruppo Sportivo "Mirror in the Bathroom": This radical, rock reworking of one of The Beat's signature tunes by this revived New Wave-era band probably shouldn't work, but succeeds brilliantly.
Vieja Skina "Nite Klub": Terry Hall's bile is drained away and substituted with a kind of louche joy; no one gives a damn if you have a job or future, which is freeing in its own perverse way.
The Pressure Tenants featuring Eloise Berry "Do Nothing": Laurel Aitken's former backing band delivers a wild soul/pop/dancehall reworking of one of Lynval Golding's finest moments; though the nonchalance at how things are is replaced by a knowing and weary sadness.
Heavensbee featuring Mista Rhee "Inner London Violence": These moonlighting Rude Boy George/Bigger Thomas members enlist The Boilers' Olivier Rhee (!) and his toasting skills for a UB40-like take on the Bad Manners classic about the veritable "Clockwork Orange" urban war zone right outside one's door.
Project Blackbird "Easy Life": This is an incredible jazz-AM pop version of The Bodysnatcher's brightest moment--about feeling some ambivalence over the choice between surrendering to sexist gender roles or mustering the will to fight for real gender equality.
The Tinkerman "Friday Night Saturday Morning": Ayriss took his own advice and he and his band mates created a gorgeous, lush, and ultimately very lonely rendition of Terry Hall's song, with lots of ice rink organ, synth washes, and dub effects--all to emphasize how leisure-time fun isn't really possible when there's no purpose to, or way forward in, your life.

Disc Three
Woltka Trawolta "Hands Off...She's Mine": Instead of trying to keep pace with The Beat's manic pace, this one heads in the opposite direction, giving it a lovely reggae skank, though the delivery comes across as more sincere, instead of The Beat's "spoof" on the fragile male ego, jealousy, and ridiculous notions of male "ownership" of women.
Well Charged "Street Feeling": This is less tightly wound and brighter than the original, but just as sharp, about someone striving to become hard in order to survive in the world outside one's home; and it's one of my favorite Selecter tracks.
The Feckin Ejits "Rat Race": Roddy Radiation's tune is presented as dirty punk rock, quite appropriately, as capitalism is an ugly, rigged game.
Martyn Callwood "Why?": Golding's stark original is compellingly fleshed-out musically--though the question about the senselessness of real-life racial knife attack he experienced remains the same.
Too Many Crooks "Concrete Jungle": Roddy's tale of struggling to evade endemic urban violence is recast as a cool Northern Soul/Dexys Midnight Runners track.

Disc Four
Orquestra Brasileira De Musica Jamaicana "Ghost Girl from Ipanema": At first, it may seem odd to incorporate sections of "The Girl from Ipanema" into The Specials' searing swan song, but if you think about it, both Thatcher's government and the girl walking to the beach in Rio wouldn't give the youth the time of day. (Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra should considering doing this version in addition to their "Ghost Planet"!)
Bim Skala Bim "Lorraine": Bim shaves off a bit of the domestic violence-y edge of this admittedly catchy and never meant to be serious Bad Manners tune by having a female singer respond to/question/make light of some of the more egregious statements; plus they present this track via their fantastic trademark sound, which is always winning.
Beat Bahnhof "Ska Wars": Arthur Kay's 1979 single is refashioned as a 1980s computer game-y, New Wave-influenced ska; offbeat, but it does the job well.
RK Ska "Run Me Down": I've been a fan of The Higsons' great funk cut since first hearing it in the early '80s on the New York City area radio station WLIR (which played it frequently), but didn't realize it was a 2 Tone release until years later (it's certainly an outlier on the label); and I love it as a ska song, too.
Subject A "Stereotypes": Taking up where The Specials' extended version left off (see The 2 Tone Story), this is a terrific, chat-filled dub.

All in all, Check One-2: Spirit of '79 reminds one of all of the brilliant original material (and choice '60s JA covers) recorded by the 2 Tone acts, much of which still holds extraordinary power and relevance four decades on. Of course, 2 Tone was always more than a label and roster of acts. It was a look, a scene, an attitude (tolerance, unity), and a movement that was part musical, part political (anti-racist, pro-democratic socialist-like governmental policies). Even if some of the original bands have lost the thread of all this, the fans haven't. Chrysalis, the songwriters, and the bands may own their respective copyrights, etc., but 2 Tone isn't really theirs. The spirit and message of 2 Tone belongs to--and lives on in--the fans and these bands.

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Proceeds of Check One-2: Spirit of '79 support three UK charities: the Teenage Cancer Trust, the National Foundation for Youth Music, and Tonic Music for Mental Health.

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Read Duff Guide to Ska reviews of other Specialized releases:

Boss: Tribute to the Original Sounds 7" singles
"Gifted: A Ska Tribute to The Jam" LP
Specialized: "A Modern Take on Specials Classics" 7" EP
Specialized II "Beat Teenage Cancer" 7" singles
Specialized III 7" singles and another Specialized III 7" single

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Barbicide "Fresh Cuts" and The Twilights* "Hear What I Say"


Editor's note: Back over the summer, I featured these bands (along with the mighty Beat Brigade) at my occasional Electric Avenue ska night at Characters in midtown Manhattan--and I'm a big fan of both acts.

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Barbicide, for those of you who've never stepped foot in a traditional barber shop, is the blue disinfectant, fungicide, and virucide that barbers dip combs, scissors, and razors into to kill off fungi and all sorts of nasty viruses. But Barbicide is also the name of a fantastic, NYC-based, modern/third-wave ska band (featuring two former members of Mephiskapheles, Brendog Tween on guitar and vocals, Mikal Reich on drums, plus Jerica Rosenblum (Hard Times, Scofflaws, Defactos) on keys and vocals, and Irena Jaroszewska on bass and backing vox) that has just released their dynamite debut EP, Fresh Cuts (digital, Pass the Virgin Music, 2019). It wouldn't be too far afield to compare Barbicide's sound and vibe with the kind of ridiculously catchy songs Reich and Tween wrote for Meph's The DEMOn tape and God Bless Satan (think "Eskamoes" "Doomsday," and "Saba"), but this is by no means a retread--yes, their music is immediately accessible, but it's wonderfully unique and bent.

Fresh Cuts is an EP of protest songs--three of them essentially anti-love along with a more traditional anti-war track--from musicians experienced enough to have seen some dreams dashed and life mow them down a few times, but they're stubborn bastards; beaten up, battle-scarred, and all the wiser/wise ass/cynical for it (Gen Xers are, after all, at the helm here). The frenetically upbeat (check out those amazing "hey-hey-hey's"!) lead track "Unlove You" is about actively extracting oneself emotionally from a relationship gone bad ages ago ("Well, it's been a long time since you broke my heart/But it ain't been long since I cried/And it feels so good getting over you/Like Lazarus when he undied"); here, the opposite of to love is to unlove. This is followed by a film noir-ish portrayal of a not-exactly-healthy-for-you girlfriend with "Jezebel" (the second Biblical reference on the EP; she, of course, was the pagan, Baal or Satan/demon-worshipping, Christian-corrupting, sexually promiscuous temptress; you can take the musician out of the satanic ska band, but can't take the satanic ska out of the musician...), but at least the singer knows the deal: "Jezebel, you're my gallows/Jezebel, you're my femme fatale/You came from somewhere deep and dark/A creature from down below/Jezebel, you're my gal." "I Don't Remember" is the back and forth tale of a marriage gone south. The wife (Rosenblum) recounts the good and bad ("Do you recall we had ten kids/Ten piles of laundry all covered in skids/Do you recall all the money spent/Have a stack of bills, not one red cent"); while the husband (Tween) mostly doesn't have a memory of anything, but finally fesses up that he remembered that he "had it all" before he lost himself in booze. It's tragically funny and all-out brutal.

Barbicide's EP bows out with a brilliant, heartfelt cover of P.F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction" (covered most famously by the likes of The Turtles and Barry McGuire), which is an apocalyptic, anti-war, anti-nuke, and anti-racist protest track from the 1960s that captures all of America's contradictions in a nutshell--and is still incredibly relevant today. Some of the lyrics are worth quoting here: "Think of all the hate there is in Red China/Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama/You may leave here for four days in space/But when you return, it's the same old place/The pounding of the drums, the pride and disgrace/You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace/Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace/And you tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend/How you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction." (Even this song has cutting Biblical references about Christian hypocrisy: "You're old enough to kill, but not for voting/You don't believe in war, what's that gun you're toting?/And even the Jordan river has bodies floating...") Barbicide's Fresh Cuts is an immensely good EP--and highly recommended!

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If you're craving the sweet, late-'60 sounds of rocksteady (with lots of echo effects rolled in), you'll find The Twilights*' Hear What I Say (CD/digital, self-released, 2018) most satisfying. This 10-track album features The Twilights' really splendid, sing-along original cuts standing tall and proud alongside their marvelous takes on several rocksteady and roots reggae classics--notably Delroy Wilson's evergreen "Dancing Mood," Ken Boothe's version of Edward Heyman and Victor Young's pop standard "When I Fall in Love" (and its wild dub version, "When I Fall in Dub"!), and The Heptones' "Hypocrite." (The band, from Easton, PA, is Danny Kru Schurtman on lead vocals and melodica, Scott DeDecker on keys, Rebecca Pagliarulo on guitar and vocals, Edmond Cho on bass, guitar, and vox, and David Best on drums.)

Most of The Twilights*' own material is concerned with one's psychological mood--particularly the desire to achieve some semblance of emotional equilibrium. The musically bright, sing-song-y "Rainy Day" (which features an unexpectedly fantastic, effects-filled bridge) has lyrics that express longing for an end to episodes of depression ("In sad times, I have prayed for rain...Hide in corners/To feel gray...For the last time, let me shine again/Brighter than your mighty sun...It's going to be a rainy day/'Cause this shit's gotta change!'). The opening chords of "Gold" quote Freddie McKay's "Picture on the Wall," but then shift to a brisk, almost jaunty riddim reflecting the determination of the chorus: "Gold is in my eyes/Stars are in my head/I push it, I push it/I push until I'm dead"; but then doubt and insecurity seep in during the verses: "Things are not the way I've always dreamed/Feel away, cast away at sea/Pushing hard, 'cause that's how I still believe/People made boring by machines...Waking thoughts, you're still in my dreams/Everything's exactly what it seems...Don't go, don't go/Hold me, hold tight!" I particularly like the claustrophobic and unsettling "Panic Attack" ("Panic attack, deception's over me/Panic attack, it's something, can't you see?/No one takes it seriously...") with its choice use of off-kilter toy piano here. The album is capped off with a fierce, live, dubby version of Lee Perry and Max Romeo's "Chase the Devil" (one of the greatest songs ever written) that is simply epic! Keep your eye on this band!

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Friday, September 27, 2019

Duff Gig Review: UB40 at Sony Hall (9/26/19)

UB40 in action at Sony Hall
(Review by Steve Shafer)

This was my first time at Sony Hall, an upscale supper club-type ballroom in the basement of the Paramount Hotel, just off Times Square. Oddly, given the violent times we live in, my friends and I just walked right in and they scanned our tickets--no one patted us down at the door, made us empty our pockets and go through a metal detector, or looked in my friend's bulging backpack (I'd been to two other concerts in the previous week at Webster Hall and Central Park SummerStage, and was as thoroughly screened as if I was boarding an airplane). Similarly, the close to sold-out UB40 crowd wasn't quite what I had expected (and gave off a weird energy), comprised much more of corporate/finance-y and ex-frat boy types than the WLIR/new wave and reggae fans that I'd see at their concerts back in the day (I didn't recognize my GenX peers like I had at the B-52s/OMD/Berlin show I caught a few days ago in Central Park). And this essentially illustrates UB40's art-versus-commerce tension that's been a sticky component of their career and relationship with their fan base (it's particularly pronounced here in America), ever since the extraordinary success of their Labor of Love album in 1983. (Early in the show, there was some obnoxious guy yelling at Robin Campbell to play "Red Red Wine"; Robin replied that they were obviously going to play it toward end of night--and when they did, hundreds of hands holding cell phones shot up in the audience to record the song.)

Like many of their splintered 2 Tone-era peers, there are, of course, two versions of UB40 roaming the planet. This iteration--with original members Robin Campbell (co-vocals/guitar), Jimmy Brown (drums), Earl Falconer (bass/keyboards/vocals), and Norman Hassan (percussion/vocals), augmented by long-time members Duncan Campbell (vocals), Martin Meredith (saxophone), Laurence Parry (trumpet) and Tony Mullings (keyboards); original saxophonist Brian Travers recently was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment, so missed this tour--is the less poppy one, but they still split their set pretty evenly between their terrific original songs and their many hit (and bill-paying) pop/reggae covers. As this was their 40th anniversary tour (I had just been to The Selecter's 40th anniversary show earlier this month--great things were going on in 1979, right?), UB40 performed songs from key early albums (all of them notably political in nature: "Tyler" and "King" from their 1980 debut Signing Off; and the brilliant anti-apartheid track "Sing Our Own Song" from 1986's Rat in the Kitchen), as well as several new songs ("The Keeper," "Broken Man," Midnight Lover," "You Haven't Called," and "All We Do Is Cry") from their superb For the Many album (which we reviewed back in April), and a healthy number of their famous covers (including "Cherry Oh Baby," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Baby," "Midnight Rider," "Kingston Town, "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love with You"--and for some reason I was very pleasantly surprised to hear The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad").

UB40 served up a thoroughly enjoyable, well-honed performance that gave the people exactly what they wanted (at the expense of offering thrills of the unexpected). What I'd give to see them put aside their more commercial considerations and play a show solely featuring their own ace material (with tracks like "One in Ten," "Don't Let It Pass You By," "If It Happens Again," "Rat in the Kitchen," "Looking Down at My Reflection," "Don't Blame Me," "Who You Fighting For?," "Dance Until the Morning Light," "Gravy Train," "Bulldozer," "I'm Alright Jack")--the economics of it all be damned! I want to be wowed again.

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Thursday, September 26, 2019

Uncut's "The Ultimate Genre Guide: 2 Tone"

(By Steve Shafer)

Apart from the absolutely fantastic Selecter/Rhoda Dakar show that I caught recently here in NYC (read my review), I've been pretty disappointed at the general lack of 2 Tone 40th anniversary events, releases, etc.--and I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling this way (the half-speed remastered, billionth re-issue of The Specials' debut LP, along with the box set of re-issued 2 Tone 45s that most die-hard fans already have collected over the years are okay for newbies, but pretty thin gruel for anyone else). And, yes, we get it--a whole lot of people in these bands are still mad at each other for transgressions of varying degrees committed over the years and more than happy to continue to take public swipes at each other in the press. Perhaps it is too much to expect our musical heroes--who promoted things like tolerance, love, and unity back in the day--not to have clay feet like the rest of humanity. But in many ways, this anniversary isn't really about the 2 Tone bands and label, but the multitude of fans worldwide for whom this music is still incredibly relevant and treasured. The 2 Tone faithful would have been so happy and grateful if everyone still standing (RIP Rico, Brad, and Roger) could have temporarily put aside their differences, issued some previously unreleased music from the vaults, and played some reunion concerts in key cities around the world. You know, put some effort into it. They owe this to the fans.

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One 2 Tone 40th anniversary-related release that is definitely deserving of fans' attention is Uncut's "The Ultimate Genre Guide: 2 Tone," which contains newly written/considered overviews of each band's career (though I take enormous issue with John Lewis' trashing of The Beat's Wha'ppen?, which is one of my favorite albums of all time), as well as reprints of late '70s/early '80s pieces and interviews with all the bands from Melody Maker and NME (which are worth the price of admission in themselves!), and new articles like "The Ska Roots of 2 Tone" and "The Best 40 Ska Singles." In short, this magazine is a 2 Tone 40th anniversary souvenir book of sorts--and something that I'll be keeping on the bookshelf to refer to over time, along with all of my other ska and reggae books.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska Fall 2019 NYC Ska Calendar #9

Laurel Aitken
Thursday, September 26, 2019, doors @ 6:00 pm/show @ 8:00 pm

UB40 (Robin Campbell, Brian Travers, Jimmy Brown, Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan, Duncan Campbell, Martin Meredith, Lawrence Parry and Tony Mullings)

Sony Hall
235 W 46th Street
New York, NY
Tickets: $39.50 in advance/$45 day of show
All ages

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Saturday, September 28, 2019 @ 8:30 pm

Barbicide, On Dope

An Beal Bocht Cafe
443 West 238th Street
Bronx, NY

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Saturday, September 28, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

DJ Gorilla 4th Anniversary Party w/The Ladrones, Brunt of It, Raise the Kicks, The Screw-Ups, The Oneness, plus DJ Gorilla

Desmond's Tavern
433 Park Avenue South
New York, NY
$10/21+

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Saturday, October 2, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Five Iron Frenzy, Mustard Plug, Mephiskapheles

Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$26.50 in advance/$30 day of show
16+

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Tuesday, October 22, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra

Sony Hall
235 W 46th Street
New York, NY
$35

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Saturday, November 16, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

DJ Gorilla presents: Sgt. Scagnetti, Hans Gruber and the Die Hards, Disposable, SuptropicoMilitia HeavySound, International Override

Desmond's Tavern
433 Park Avenue South
New York, NY
$10/21+

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Friday, November 22, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents The Copacetics, The Penniless Loafers, Smittix, plus DJ Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A and B)
New York, NY
No cover/21+ (but bring $ for tip bucket for bands)

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Friday, December 20, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

The Slackers

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

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Seattle-ites "The Thing" EP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Seattle-ites' six-track debut EP, The Thing (10" vinyl/digital, Ready to Launch Records, 2019), showcases the band's superb songwriting and musicianship, as well as their mastery of the jazz-big band-ska hybrid pioneered by the magnificent Skatalites (they cover Tommy McCook's end of the party, slow-dancer "Starry Night," which is a version of Glenn Miller's arrangement of one of the movements in Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6 in B minor") and all of the associated musicians in their orbit (like Lynn Taitt and Ernest Ranglin). So, it comes as no surprise that members of The Seattle-ites come from Seattle area trad ska acts (like The Georgetown Orbits) and classical groups (such as The Seattle Symphony!)--and each track provides ample solo opportunities for these musicians to show off their considerable chops.

The mysterious title track--named for the 1951 sci-fi monster movie or the VW jeep-like car?--immediately builds tension with a series of percussive minor chords (that are somehow reminiscent of the opening brass riffs in the 1960s British TV show "The Avengers") before releasing some it with the introduction of the song's melody that's improvised upon and returned to for the rest of the track. Both the jaunty "Sidewinder" and brisk-paced "Freedom Ska Dance" (with its fantastically crazy, almost dissonant jazz horn sequences) are dead-ringers for Skatalites originals and sure to pack the dance floor when performed live or heard via sound system. The wonderful and wittily titled "Prado for P'rez" is heavy on the mambo, while "Ska-la-Mode" is a sublime slice of vintage ska that could have been off The Scofflaws' brilliant debut. The Seattle-ites clearly invested a lot of time, creativity, care, and love in The Thing and you, the listener, receive so much in return. This EP is a true thing of beauty.

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