Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Duff Review: Phoenix City All-Stars "Skatisfaction"

Hotshot and Scorcher

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As a kid--we're talking elementary and middle school years here--I was a Beatles guy, drawn to their perfectly constructed, catchy pop and rock songs (for the record, I was a much bigger fan of John's than Paul's--I liked my Beatles songs to have a bit of an edge, like "She Said, She Said," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and "Strawberry Fields").  I certainly was aware of The Rolling Stones--they were inescapable in the realm of pop culture--and heard them often on NYC's classic rock radio station WNEW in the 1970s (as well as the oldies station WCBS), but I just wasn't that much into their shambling, bluesy rock.

But the advent of MTV in the early 80s started to change my stance on the Stones. I had to visit my friend Johnny in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan to watch MTV, which we did obsessively (my parents' house in nearby Yonkers didn't have cable yet and even if we did, the local cable company didn't carry MTV yet). In between all of the British New Wave music videos I was devouring, I was exposed to a number of Rolling Stones videos, including "Waiting on a Friend" (watch it and time travel back to NYC's East Village in the early 80s and see Mick and Keith hanging on a St. Mark's Place stoop with Peter Tosh), and begrudgingly found that I liked their New York centric New Wave and disco tracks from Some Girls and Tattoo You (see a tune like "Shattered": Don't you know the crime rate/Is going up, up, up, up, up/To live in this town you must be/Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough/You got rats on the West Side, bed bugs uptown/What a mess, this town's in tatters/I've been shattered, my brain's been battered/Splattered all over Manhattan").

While the Phoenix City All-stars Skatisfaction tribute album doesn't mine the late 70s/early 80s Stones output that wormed its way into my brain, I'm happily surprised to find that I really dig their stellar vintage ska take on a slew of Rolling Stones hits and deep album cuts from the 1960s and early 70s. Skatisfaction follows the Phoenix City All-stars' tremendously great tribute to 2 Tone, Two Tone Gone Ska, where the band interpreted, arranged, and performed material by The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, Madness, and Specials producer/2 Tone fan Elvis Costello as if they were The Skatalites back at Studio One in 1965 (honoring both the originators and the revivalists). And it seems especially appropriate that the Phoenix City All-stars (comprised of members of Pama International, The Sidewalk Doctors, Kasabian, Intensified, Dub Vendor All-stars, The Loafers, Big Boss Man, The Bongolian, and The Delegators) are channelling The Skatalites on Skastisfaction, since The Skatalites tended to cover--even commandeer--the pop hits of the day (see The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" repurposed as "Independence Anniversary Ska" or Henry Mancini's "Mambo Parisienne" versioned as "Ska La Parisienne") and The Rolling Stones were their musical contemporaries (!). As a music fan, it may be heretical to admit this, but I prefer these songs in a ska setting rather than a blues-based one--and the fact that many of the Stones' songs were written in minor keys works to the Phoenix City All-stars' advantage, since so many of The Skatalites' best tunes are in those scales ("Reburial," "Confucius," "A Shot in the Dark," "Determination," "Exodus," etc.).

Skatisfaction starts with a killer, driving instrumental version of the menacing, I-can't-be-bought-off 1965 B-side "Play with Fire" ("Well, you've got your diamonds/And you've got your pretty clothes/And the chauffeur drives your cars/You let everybody know/But don't play with me/'Cause you're playing with fire") that was originally recorded just by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Phil Spector producing (and playing bass). I wasn't familiar with the original cut until looking it up on YouTube--but this version really holds up quite well against the original (and may even best it). Guest vocalist Freddie Notes (who, according to the album liner notes, sang at Mick and Bianca Jagger's wedding--and is known for his world-wide 1970 Trojan smash "Montego Bay") gives a soulful reading to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," shedding the youthful urgency and angry sexual frustration of the original for the wisdom that comes with age (sure he still wants it, and will keep trying to get it--but experience has taught him that life doesn't own you a damn thing and will often leave your wants and desires unsated, just like it did when you were young) .

The terrific, edgy instrumental version of "Under My Thumb" features a vocal line taken on by a Jackie Mittoo organ and guitar work very reminiscent of Ernest Ranglin or Lynn Taitt. I was never a fan of the Stones' sluggish ballad "Wild Horses," but completely love the Phoenix City All-stars' crisp rocksteady version, which still retains the original's sadness, regret, and longing through The Sidewalk Doctors' Nathan Thomas' superb vocals (this might very well be my favorite track on this album).

I've never heard Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" until now (covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1969 album Let It Bleed--I prefer Johnson's direct and stripped down version), but this blues standard is almost completely transformed into a great Skatalites dancefloor stormer by the Phoenix City All-stars. "Paint It Black" sounds like newly rediscovered spaghetti Western reggae gem, with Oxman toasting on top (listen to it below). Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" (recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1961 and Sam Cooke in 1963--the Stones based their version on Cooke's and it reached #1 on the British charts in 1964) with Freddie Notes on vocals sounds very much like an early 60s ska track, when ska's rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll roots were still very evident. The country track "Sweet Virginia" (from Exile on Main Street) is rendered here as a sprightly ska track (greatly improving the song, in my opinion), with a sweet saxophone covering the vocal line.

The Phoenix City All-stars take on "Time Is On My Side" perfectly conveys the cool confidence, swagger, and cockiness of the original ("...you'll come running back to me"), with the horns delivering the vocal line. Nathan Thomas closes the album with a less boastful/more sober version of (the kinda skanky, as in nasty) "Honky Tonk Woman" that doesn't seem to revel in trolling for prostitutes and "fallen" women as much as the original (but I always found the Stones' in yer face, bad boy, sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll pose/lifestyle kind of tiresome to begin with). It's a nice touch--it an album full of them--that they keep the cowbell intro to this song and that the song fades out at the end, as if the band and Thomas drift off into a blurry night of drinking and debauchery.

People who happen to be fans of both The Rolling Stones and ska will immediately take to the Phoenix City All-stars' Skatisfaction (and they should--it's fantastic!). But the greater triumph may be its ability to win over those ska fans ambivalent (maybe even hostile!) towards the Stones--which just goes to prove that really well-crafted songs can be introduced into a new musical genre and, in the right hands, sound just as good--or even better--than the originals.

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