Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Duff Review: Bim Skala Bim "Chet's Last Call"

Bim Skala Bim Music

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I first encountered Boston's Bim Skala Bim when I picked up the Skankin' Round the World compilation (Unicorn Records) in 1988 and heard their song "Bangin'," which is about two people in a relationship driving each other crazy, not the cruder meaning of the word: "You've got me bangin'/my head against the wall!" (This compilation clued me in on how there was a whole lot of ska music being created outside of the USA--I had assumed everything had pretty much ground to a halt in the UK after the demise of 2 Tone; imagine how psyched I was to find out that Bad Manners was still active; incredible acts like Laurel Aitken and the Potato 5, The Trojans, and The Deltones even existed; and that there were even other ska bands in Europe, like Mr. Review, Saxawhaman, Kortatu, and Spy Eye!). I heard more Bim on the first (and brilliant!) US ska compilation, Ska Face (Moon Records, 1988), which featured their "Shoes," and then picked up their tremendous second album Tuba City (1989) at either Bleecker Bob's or CBGB's Record Canteen because it was released around the same time and on the same label as The Toasters' extraordinary sophomore album, Thrill Me Up. (I caught both bands at The Ritz--along with the NY Citizens, who were supporting their debut LP On the Move--in March 1989, just before Tuba City and Thrill Me Up were released; I'm pretty sure the gig was supposed to be one giant record release party for both bands...) I had been a huge fan of The Toasters since first hearing their first EP in 1985, so their close association with Bim Skala Bim was significant and compelled me to learn as much as I could about them (which wasn't easy in the pre-internet days!). And it turned out that Bim's story was strangely intertwined with The Toasters'.

The parallels between Bim Skala Bim and The Toasters were striking: both bands formed in the early 1980s; their original line-ups featured male and female co-lead vocalists (Toasters: Bucket and Vicky Rose; Bim: Dan Vitale and Jackie Starr); their debut releases came out within a year of each other (The Toasters' Recriminations EP in 1985; Bim's debut LP in 1986); they helped foster vibrant ska scenes in their respective cities; both established long-running ska labels and issued some of the first ska compilations in the USA (see Moon's New York Beat: Hit and Run from 1985 and Razorbeat Records' Mash It Up! from 1987); and they worked collaboratively to support the burgeoning ska scene in America (that eventually gave rise to the so-called Third Wave of Ska in the 1990s).

After they had released the The Toasters' smash debut album Skaboom in 1987, Bucket had convinced Celluloid Records to give The Toasters their own ska imprint--Skaloid--which issued The Toasters' Thrill Me Up, Unicorn Records' Skankin' Round the World comp--and Buck arranged for Skaloid's release of Bim's Tuba City. Even though Skaloid's parent label went under about a year later (though Celluloid was revived in the mid-1990s and issued bootleg copies of all of these releases), it provided some desperately needed resources to some of the major players on the US ska scene--it had the money to press up LPs and CDs and a reliable distribution network that made sure the releases hit the right record shops and reached the fans, something Moon had struggled with for years (a series of distributor failures had plagued Moon in the late 80s, swallowing up whole pressings of releases like Ska Face and denying the label of desperately needed cash and ska fans of amazing recorded music).

While Bim Skala Bim was strongly influenced by 2 Tone like The Toasters, Untouchables, and Fishbone, their sound (and vibe/look) incorporated elements of 60s hippie rock (see their cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your  Love"), making them stand out from their contemporaries (and, no doubt, giving them an avenue to appeal to those beyond the ska faithful). Like these other pioneers of US ska, Bim had an enormous impact on the American and world-wide ska scene (Bim were so popular amongst European ska fans that they played the first London International Ska Festival in 1988--a recording of the festival released on Buster Bloodvessel's temporarily revived Bluebeat Records captured one of their best early tunes, "Jah Laundromat," which features the lyric: "We'll wash all our sins away/down at Jah laundromat today"; The Toasters played the second LISF in 1989). Now, twenty-eight years (!) after their debut album in 1986 and thirteen years after their most recent album Krinkle in 2013, Bim are back with a fantastic new CD, Chet's Last Call, which serves up another set of terrific songs about everyday life and is sure to please their legion of fans.

Even though lead singer Dan Vitale now lives in Panama (Bucket now hangs his baseball cap in Spain!) and some other members of the Bim have spread out across the US, for the past several years, the band (largely unchanged since the early 1990s: Vinny Nobile on trombone and vocals, Jim Jones on guitar and vocals, John Cameron on organ and piano, Mark Ferranti on bass, Rick Barry on percussion, Jim Arhelger on drums, Dave Butts on sax) has reunited for summer shows in the Boston area and on Cape Cod, which, no doubt, yielded the laid-back, t-bone driven instrumental "Summer of Ska" and the more tense "Buses, Boats, Planes, Trains, and Taxis" (this upcoming summer is no exception--Bim's playing dates in Boston, Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island this August). But the best songs here concern work and play (mostly play, really)." Get Us Out" is a sweet, shambling, and chivalrous rocksteady cut about going to a party with a girlfriend/wife and promising you'll facilitate the quick exit if things go south ("I know how to get us out of here/if we need to get out of here/I know how to get us out of this/We can stick around for just a little bit/I know how to get us out of here/if it gets to late/if this party's strange/We don't have to stay." The upbeat "Dance with Me Darlin'" suggests that the party turned out to be alright--good enough to hit the dance floor for some close dancing that feels mighty good.

My favorite track on the album, "On the Dance Floor" (and the one that reminds me the most of all of Bim's signature sound--as embodied by a song like "Diggin' a Hole") is a scorcher of a tune about having a crush on someone at work who seems demure and distant--and then bumping into them at a club and discovering they're a completely different animal: "I see your light on after quitting time/I wonder if you notice mine/Do you even know I'm here?/We share a wall, never talk at all, till you said/"I'll see you Monday, on the other side"...That night I went out to the dancehall place/Where I saw a familiar face/From the side, your profile/You're wild, on fire!/We all just can't believe what you've been keeping up your sleeve/and, good god, now you've revealed it and everybody knows/On the dance floor, on the dance floor/Now everybody knows."

"Phony" is a frenetic flip-off to all the soul-sucking fake people that plague us at times ("I see you coming with your plastic smile/I see you coming from a hundred miles/Phony, baloney/Oh, what a wicked way to start the day/So many words, nothing to say/Phony, baloney/I can see, I can you coming/I can smell, I can smell a rat/Can't afford all the noise that keeps on coming from your mouth..."). "Hat When You're Not" is a loping reggay-ish cut about the toll that long road trips take on your body and soul ("Driving all night and your eyes are bloodshot/You feel like you're wearing a hat when you're not"). I think the dancehall-ish "Papa Don't Put Too Much Pepper" is about doing the pepper seed dance ("It's such a fine line/the way you dance and grind/Papa don't like it/and says it that it has to stop"), but there are also references to food and cooking--are all the peppers making the dancing too hot? Could be... The album is bookended by the catchy rocksteady track "Everybody's Got Their Style" and its version--part mission statement, part plea for tolerance and multiculturalism: "Not counting colors/Not taking sides/So many various shapes and size/Culture-wise."

It's always great to see the ska greats back in action, creating new music, and not merely relying on past glories and nostalgia simply to help fill the coffers. Here's hoping that the members of Bim continue to go on finding the time to keep on moving forward and doing what they sure do best.


Anonymous said...

Bim are touring Europe starting next month.
Two of the shows are with our old pal Buck and The Toasters.

Pete said...

Here's the full Euro tour:
24.04.2014 DE-Mannheim, Kulturbrücken
25.04.2014 DE-Unterwaldhausen, Querbeat Festival
26.04.2014 DE-Freiburg, Walfisch
27.04.2014 DE-Fulda, Kreuz w/ The Toasters
28.04.2014 CZ-Prag, Cross Club
30.04.2014 DE-Dresden, Scheune
01.05.2014 DE-Hamburg, Hafenklang
02.05.2014 DE-Köln, Freedom Sounds Festival w/The Trojans, Vin Gordon, The Senior Allstars....
03.05.2014 BE-Meerhout, Groezrock
04.05.2014 LUX-Koerich, Duerfkessel

dan said...

great band! Good to hear they're back. Good to read, also, about their history. I saw them live only once, late eighties, at DCs 930 club. I remember two things: how good their were and that de "ska" audience, or the coooler than you part of it, would look at them on stage a bit like "mmm, look at these guys in jeans... On of them even has long hair?" the few skimheads there were not into it at all. Knowing a few things about the ska world, I suspect a band like BSB got this thing more often than not, even though they were (are) so great. But did they really? Were they seen as "not rude enough" by some, for their looks?