Monday, March 16, 2015

Duff Review: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra "Ska Me Forever"

Nacional Records
2015
Vinyl LP and digital download

(Review by Steve Shafer)

In the weird, lost years after the flame out of the post-2 Tone NYC-Boston-LA ska scenes at the very end of the 80s and prior to the rise of the mighty Third Wave sometime in the mid-90s, I started reading in Tower Records' "Pulse" magazine about this ska band in Japan, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (TSPO or Skapara to their fans in Japan), that was on Epic/Sony Records (!) and had become as popular as a Top 40 band here in America. So, as a rabid ska fan at a time when there just weren't that many modern ska releases that were easy to obtain (back in the pre-internet era, this sometimes meant going to a bank to exchange currency and then mailing the intriguingly colorful foreign paper money overseas to pay for albums from Unicorn Records and other Euro ska labels), I had to keep my eyes peeled for these Holy Grail-like releases from TSPO at every record store I stumbled upon in my travels both near and far.

One fine day in 1991 at Tower Records on Broadway and West Fourth Street in Manhattan (RIP), my mind nearly melted when I came across a new plastic divider in the bins for Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. Even better, I found not just one, but several TSPO albums for sale! Most of the text on the CDs was in Japanese and, of course, completely indecipherable to me (I still don't know the names of some of the songs on them), and since they were imports, they were a bit pricier than most. But none of this prevented me from purchasing as many as I could reasonably afford (on my pitiful salary as a caseworker to mentally ill homeless people)--and instantly becoming a fan of their wonderfully insane mix of vintage 60s ska, big band music, film soundtracks, surf rock, and anything else musical that happened to inspire them ("Sesame Street" theme song, anyone?).

In 1999, I had the good fortune, during a terrible time when Moon Records was teetering on the edge of oblivion, to meet several representatives from TSPO's label (AVEX/Justa Record) who were in the States looking for a possible partner in the North American market. Moon would have been well-positioned to take on this role, had this meeting taken place several years earlier, when ska was all the rage and the label was thriving (and maybe having TSPO on Moon's roster could have helped prevent its demise?). Even though the brief meeting with the Justa Record people was fruitless (it was obvious that Moon was in its death throes and the Third Wave had long ago crested), they gave me a slew of TSPO vinyl (including this, this, and that) and CDs, as well as a few issues of the brilliant Justa Record magazine, which I still have to this day.

Although, in better days, I had a hand in licensing many of Moon's releases to Tachyon in Japan (which were issued on our sister label, Moon Ska Tokyo), I never was able to hitch a ride along with any of our bands that toured there. And when the bottom dropped out of the ska scene in the USA, any hopes of TSPO doing a victory lap around the US disappeared (or so I thought). Since I had drifted away from the ska scene for a few years to nurse my accumulated wounds after the failure of my ska/reggae digital-download label (7 Wonders of the World Music, 1999-2001), I was completely ignorant of the fact that TSPO performed less than 20 blocks from my apartment at NYC's Central Park Summerstage in 2005 (d'oh)! So, I jumped all over the chance to see TSPO in 2013 at Stage 48, on Manhattan's West Side--watch the videos I shot and read my review of that incredible show here.

Ska Me Forever is Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra's 19th album and has been belatedly issued in the US in celebration of the band's 25th anniversary in 2014 (if you can believe it, Ska Me Forever is TSPO's first release in the USA--through Nacional Records in Hollywood, CA, home mostly to Latin rock acts, like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Manu Chao, though the current incarnation of the Tom Tom Club also is on their roster). Purchasing the nine-track LP is a nice deal, as it includes a digital download card for those same cuts. An 18-track digital version of this record also is available--and it contains some real gems that I wish were included on the vinyl album, which should have been a double-LP. (A 13-track Japanese edition of Ska Me Forever was released on CD in August 2014.)

Side A of the Ska Me Forever LP--which features all new material and reflects their omnivorous taste in music--roars out of the starting gate with the amazing, menacing surf-ska instrumental "Damned" (featuring FPM) and then immediately shifts to the majestic "Horizon," another in a long line of lush ska-jazz cuts that TSPO does so damn well. "Wake Up" (with Asian Kung-Fu Generation) comes off as ska-punk lite, with echoes of the Bosstones' poppier fare; to be blunt, I'm not a fan of ska-punk, so take that into consideration when I tell you that this cut misses the mark (I just don't think it's in their wheelhouse). The gorgeous "Chance" sounds like a sunny 60s AM pop tune (think Carpenters or Bacharach) crossed with JA riddims that segues into a pleasantly light, I'm-totally-buzzed-and-carefree-on-summer's-afternoon dub. When I first listened to the church organ-heavy "The Tennessee Waltz" (which seems filled with nostalgic longing for an idealized home/refuge, much like "Take Me Home, Country Roads"), it seemed vaguely familiar, so I did a little bit of research and learned that it's an oft-covered 1946 pop/country tune by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King that was a massive 1950 hit for Patti Page (and was very popular in Japan).



The flip side of the Ska Me Forever begins with a haunting, dubby, and significantly re-worked instrumental version of Cafe Tacvba's melancholy "Eres" ("You Are," from their 2003 album Cuatro Caminos). Apart from being a wonderfully heartbreaking and melodramatic track (the original is about how devastated the singer is after his love is gone), it's a shrewd move for TSPO to cover a song from one of the most popular alternative rock bands in Mexico, since TSPO have a huge fan base there after playing major music festivals (like Vive Latino). This is followed by what I assume are a trio of new recordings of some of their past (and greatest) all-out ska crowd pleasers (which are here for the TSPO newcomers): "Down Beat Stomp" (from 2003's Stompin' On Down Beat Alley), "Ska Me Crazy" (from 2001's Gunslingers), and "Storm Rider" (from 2010's World Ska Symphony).

The gleefully raucous "Down Beat Stomp," which musically quotes "Dawning of a New Era" (and generally feels like a song The Specials could have written in 1979), sports a fantastic sing-along chorus and should be, not surprisingly, very appealing to fans of 2 Tone. While we're in Specials mode, "Ska Me Crazy" is similar in spirit to a blistering, show-ending rendition of The Specials' "Enjoy Yourself" ("Don't piss me now/Don't cross my nature/I can never get enough/I want something now/Do the rock now baby, yeah/It's time to go/I want to live the night life/Sleep all the morning/Going, getting off the whole night/Nothing would be better/You gotta ska me baby, yeah/Get ready to go!"). The LP proper closes with the incredible, cinematic, spaghetti-Western-ish instrumental "Storm Rider," which has the most bad-ass and sinister bass and bari-sax riffs this side of Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme."

The digital version of Ska Me Forever (which includes all of the songs on the LP) opens with a new, manic recording of the instantly familiar Russian folk song "Peddlers" ("Korobeiniki")--the first track on TSPO's 1989 self-titled debut EP. The Ramones-ish "One Way Punk" isn't half bad (though that may be because it reminds me of "Blitzkrieg Bop") and the catchy "Senkou" (with 10-FEET), which manages to be both uptempo and introspective-sounding, is a testament (despite the rap break) to the Bosstones' far-reaching and lasting impact (also see "Nagareyuku Sekai No Nakade" with MONGOL800). The bittersweet "Sunny Blues (7 inch)" finds TSPO back on traditional ska footing, as does their soused and happy cover of the classic Mexican folk song, "Cielito Lindo" (with its "Ay, yai, yai, yai" chorus that you may have heard sung by Desi Arnaz on "I Love Lucy" or, um, in an old Fritos commercial that trades in racial stereotypes).



"For the Goal" is a pretty great calypso-y footie chant ("Why don't we all share the finest moments/Why don't we laugh at the greatest feeling/Let's all hope together as we're shooting for the goal!") that would sound great on the terraces in Japan (if it isn't already being used there). TSPO's fantastic rendition of Beethoven’s "Ode An Die Freude" ("Ode to Joy") from "Symphony No. 9" (familiar to contemporary pop audiences via the first "Die Hard" movie or the brutal "A Clockwork Orange"--and to churchgoers as the hymn "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee") begins with the melody played on a melodica (with ska percussion beneath) before dramatically building to an epic, Monty Python-esque (or PDQ Bach-esque, if you like), cast-of-thousands finale. "All Good Ska Is One" is a pretty wonderful (and show-ending) soulful vintage ska cut (which I first thought sounded like Angelo Moore fronting The Senior Allstars while covering a choice Prince Buster or Laurel Aitken track--and it turns out that Angelo is singing lead on this track, which comes from the 2011 Sunny Side of the Street EP!) with a message that is awfully hard to argue with: "We can do it, now/Meet the world with an embracing heart/Nothing can ever stand in your way/We can all unite, like all good ska music...Come together, all good ska is one!"


As always, on both versions of Ska Me Forever, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra create some of the best and most enjoyable ska in the world, with something to please ska fans of every persuasion (vintage ska, modern ska, ska-punk, etc.). Live long and prosper, TSPO!


3 comments:

Andrew said...

Steve,

The digital download card I got with record only provided me with the tracks on the album, not the full 18 tracks on the CD. Is there something special I need to do to get the full 18 tracks?

-Andrew

Steve from Moon said...

Andrew,

My mistake! I had been sent a review copy of the digital album and assumed that was what one would receive through the download card that comes with the LP.

You can buy the 18-track digital album through Amazon and other music download retailers.

Thanks!

Steve

Chris Malone said...

I know this comes super late, but it's also worth mentioning that TSPO played their first ever show in the USA a year before the Central Park Summer Stage show at SOBs down in the west village in 2004! This is where I saw them for the first time, with Tatsuyuki Hiyamuta in his role as alto sax/agitate man, in likely the most intimate show TSPO has played since the late 80s. It was sold out, and I admittedly only went because I was having a crappy day interning at NY Presbyterian Hospital and my friends urged me to come out and blow off steam at the gig. The band absolutely blew me away and has been my favorite band, hands down, ever since!

After their set, the crowd cheered continuously for a good 15 minutes until the band, unprepared for the positive reception, came out to do an encore. Since that night I've also hunted down every scrap of TSPO music I could through various second hand stores, and finding friends over seas to pick me up new releases as theyve come out. I once laid it out, and I had over 55 TSPO cds/singles/LPs! They remain some of my most treasured musical finds. The Pandemics getting to open for TSPO the last 2 times they came to NYC has been 2 of my proudest moments in music to date.