Sunday, May 20, 2018

Shots in the Dark: The Toasters' "Frankenska"

The Toasters' Frankenska (Unicorn Records, 1990)
with cover art by Steve Friel.
Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights so-called Third-Wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Toasters’ first live album Frankenska was recorded in the summer of 1989 during the band’s maiden (and mostly underwhelming) tour of the UK--and ended up documenting the brilliant core of the band that was forging on despite still reeling from the surprise departure of their frontmen the Unity 2 just months previously (trombonist Ann Hellandsjo and alto saxophonist Marcel Reginatto also left in their wake). Less than a year earlier, The Toasters had released their fantastic second album, Thrill Me Up, which had reached #54 on the CMJ college radio charts and was starting to generate lots of press and industry attention, and they were headlining sold out shows all over the country. Literally and figuratively, The Toasters were going places fast. So, the Unity 2's unexpected exit (they had been lured away by Warner Bros. to capitalize on the blink-and-you-missed-it hip-hop/reggae craze of 1989-1990) threatened to destroy all that The Toasters had accomplished up until that point. When we asked about this episode, Toasters’ founder, guitarist, and primary songwriter Rob “Bucket” Hingley told us that the Unity 2 had "cold-cocked" the rest of The Toasters and "disrupted the unit intensely."

Sean “Cavo” Dinsmore recently explained to The Duff Guide to Ska why he and Lionel “Nene” Bernard left The Toasters: “The simple answer is that we weren’t happy just being in a ska band anymore. We were much more into dancehall and hip hop by that time. We had already recorded “Shirlee” for a WB compilation (Funky Reggae Crew) as Unity 2 and had been offered record deals from both Island and WB. After we came off the last cross-country tour [with The Toasters], we played a sold-out show at The Ritz and there was an A and R guy there from Island. In the dressing room we were like, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I love it, but I only want to sign you two, not the whole band.’ After everything else that had been happening, it seemed like a sign from God. Of course, we still wrestled with it for a while, but it was inevitable. It was bittersweet for sure...No regrets at all, except I wish we had done the last few gigs that were on the schedule. We kind of left them in a tight spot. But it was so difficult because they were so clearly upset by it. Lionel and I just thought the road would be a nightmare for all of us if we went. Buck was very pragmatic and just wanted their asses covered, fair enough. But we couldn’t.”
A June 6, 1988 feature on The Toasters in New York Magazine, while Thrill Me Up was being
recorded (note that they refer to it by its working title at the time, Franken-Ska).

Indeed, The Toasters’ decision to embark on a UK tour and appear at the second London International Ska Festival was a Hail Mary of sorts, to shake off the Unity 2’s body blow and keep the band’s momentum going during a transitional period when they could just have easily broken up.

During a respite on that 1989 UK tour, Bucket told George Marshall of Scotland’s indispensable Zoot skazine, “We’ve been playing venues in town where people don’t even know who we are. We get a lot of letters from Europe, but I suppose they are just isolated pockets of fans...The ska scene’s further developed and not so underground in the States. Ska’s happening in the U.S. and it’s not just talk. It’s bigger now that it was during 2 Tone. We played in front of 1,000 people in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco when we toured, and in New York we had 2,000 people in The Ritz [at a show that included The NY Citizens and Bim Skala Bim].” In a recent interview with The Duff Guide to Ska, Bucket added, “I was surprised how quickly the ska scene had deteriorated in the UK after the zenith of 2 Tone. Some of the audiences were light indeed, but then again most people had never heard of us and some wouldn't come and see us because we were ‘Yanks.’”

Notably, this tour and live album marked the first and temporary appearance of singer/toaster Coolie Ranx in The Toasters’ line-up (which at the time consisted of Jonathan McCain on drums, Greg Grinnell--who worked with the Unity 2 on their What Is It, Yo? debut album--on bass, John Dugan on tenor sax, Steve “Hex” LaForge on keys, Vince Fossitt of Buffalo, NY’s The Great Train Robbery on alto sax, and Buck on guitar and vocals). Bucket recently recounted how he originally encountered Coolie back in 1989: “Coolie was living in Brooklyn at that time. I had discovered him when we were auditioning singers, one of whom had been Andre from Mephiskapheles, by the way. A friend from S.O.B.’s passed me a copy of this 12” single “Roughneck,” which sounded to me like a much more energized version of Shinehead. So, I went out to Crown Heights and tracked him down, much to the amusement of the Yardie drug dealers who lived in his building. They were impressed by the wraparound shades, black bomber jacket, and Kangol...When I met Coolie, I had an all-black minivan with tinted windows. Whenever I showed up at Coolie’s place--which was actually in Bushwick now that I think about it--which was deep in the hood back in those days, the Jamaican Yardies were at first suspicious because they thought I was a Fed. After that, they took a shine to me, as there weren’t that many white folks in that neighbourhood at that pre-hipster epoch.”

The Toasters live in London on June 12, 1989:
Bucket, Coolie Ranx, and John Dugan (left to right).
“Before I decided to sign on with The Toasters, I was a dancehall artist,” Coolie told The Duff Guide to Ska. “I put out a few songs and had already traveled to the UK when I was introduced to The Toasters by Catherine Tobias. She was managing Shinehead at the time, but they parted company. At the time, my song "Roughneck" was playing on the urban music stations and she heard the similarities between Shinehead and myself. She sought me out and proposed management of me. She said The Toasters had lost their two frontmen and suggested I audition and do a small run with them to Europe for me to gain stage experience (she wasn't aware of my history of opening up for most of the reggae acts that came from Jamaica to do stage shows). I had just returned from England singing in Saxon Sound when all of this happened upon me.”

Coolie continued, “At the time, I was a dancehall artist doing ska and had no intention of staying in the scene. It was meant to be as a one-off tour with them and I would resume my work in dancehall. It really was culture shock for me.” He would not resume his role as the official and wildly popular front man of The Toasters until a few years later (Cashew Miles and then Pablo Wright were the interim singers/toasters for the band who appeared on This Gun for Hire and New York Fever). “I had just returned from living in London from 1991-1993. I was walking in New York City when I ran into [Toasters drummer] Jonathan McCain’s girlfriend. She said he was back in The Toasters and they were playing that night. I went to check them out the show--this was in 1993. Buck spotted me in the audience with my friend Natty and from the stage he began shouting out to me and reminding me of past shows we did. After the show, he came over and said he wanted to catch up and have a drink later in the week. We met for a drink at Blanche's and there he proposed I rejoin the band.”

The London International Ska Fest II flyer that was included in
every album mail ordered from Unicorn at the time.
Both the second London International Ska Festival (held at The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, London on May 27-29, 1989 with Laurel Aitken, The Trojans, The Deltones, Potato 5, The Toasters, Skaos, Floyd Lloyd, Skaos, The Hotknives, The Busters, The Braces, The Ska-dows, Mr. Review, Les Frelons, Spy Club, Arthur Kay’s Originals, and The Skandal on the bill) and the Frankenska recording at the Town and Country II in Islington, London on June 12, 1989 had been organized by Unicorn Record’s label head Mark Johnson, while the other Toasters’ dates around the UK were booked by RPM, which was run by several ex-members of 2 Tone act The Bodysnatchers. While George Marshall opined in Zoot that The Toasters’ performance wasn’t their best at the London ska fest, there’s no question that the band had all cylinders firing for the Frankenska recording.

While the Frankenska set list is loaded with classic Toasters tunes from Recriminations through Thrill Me Up, it also featured a small preview of the band’s next album in the form of “One Track Mind” (this one’s better than the studio version). Coolie confidently takes the lead vocals on “Go Girl,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Thrill Me Up” (and delivers some amazing toasting on “Run Rudy Run”), as if he had been in the band forever instead of a few months. The versions of “Ska Killers,” “East Side Beat” (check out Greg Grinnell’s hilarious Beastie Boys-like rap--swapping out the one usually done by Cavo during an instrumental break in the song: “I live on the outskirts of a place--East Flatbush/Hot like Texas and twice as dangerous/Every second of my life was a thrill/For a walk on the wild side, there’s a place--Brownsville/It’s hard to chill when they turn up the heat/Come on boys, do the East Side Beat…”), and “Pool Shark” are positively scorching. Even The Toasters’ roadie for that tour Steven “Big Steve” Carroll is heard from--he shouts “Matt Davis, special agent” throughout the album opener. I was fortunate enough to catch The Toasters several times in NYC in 1988 and 1989--those gigs continue to be some of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever experienced--and despite the unfortunate departure of some of the crew, the remaining Toasters more than hold their own on Frankenska; this performance rates amongst the Thrill Me Up-era band’s best. George Marshall concurred in his review of Frankenska for Zoot: “Despite a below par performance at Ska Fest II, The Toasters did enough on their European tour to make this LP worthwhile. It benefits from concentrating on their earlier material like ‘Matt Davis,’ ‘East Side Beat,’ and ‘Weekend in L.A.,’ making it a fans’ album with all three sure to get you dancing away in the safety of your bedroom. There’s even a giveaway poster for freebie freaks.”

Also on the bill that evening with The Toasters at the Town and Country II were the Potato 5 and The Deltones. A recording of the Potato 5’s fantastic performance that night was released as Five Alive on Unicorn Records and captured incredible tracks like “Spit ‘n’ Polish” and “Stopped by a Cop” that the band didn’t have a chance to record in the studio before breaking up late in 1989, after a difficult US tour (with gigs that included Bim Skala Bim and The Donkey Show). Bucket recalled that “Potato 5 was an awesome band. They had recorded that classic album with Laurel Aitken and some of their tunes like “Western Special” were excellent. We got on well with them and they had a relaxed vibe. Deltones were a bit shambolic, but they had great singers (Dill) and those shows we played with them knocking around in South East London were a lot of fun.”

A large free poster inside every LP!
By taking a big risk on this tour, The Toasters’ fortune finally changed for the better, as the band’s absolutely terrific live show was recorded for posterity, the tour put them on the radar overseas (and led to regular gigs throughout Europe and beyond from that point on to the present day), and on their return to the States, they connected with a major league domestic booking agency (which allowed The Toasters to further develop the US ska touring circuit and support all of local ska scene across the country--and lay the groundwork that would kick-start the massive, mid-’90s US ska revival). “As it turned out, that gamble paid off handsomely, as it raised the profile of the band immensely and we were able to tour in Europe consistently after that smash debut,” Bucket assessed. “It was a hot band and we blew most of the European groups away. Upon our return to the USA, we were promptly signed to Falk and Morrow booking, which was a huge agency. That helped cement the US touring and, hey presto, we were now an international touring act.”

The only bum notes about this release are that The Toasters never received any royalties for Frankenska (or any other Unicorn release of theirs, including Pool Shark and the Naked City comp) and the album was never issued domestically in the US. In the early 1990s, Unicorn’s Mark Johnson reportedly fled the UK for Turkey (and later Thailand) to escape the tax man and, in the process, absconded with what he owed to all the label’s bands. But given The Toasters’ previous experiences with other imprints and distributors who ripped them off or went belly up throughout the 1980s, it came as no shock(er) at all.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Duff Review: DJ Spooky "Phantom Dancehall" (2018 RSD Release)

VP Records
Clear red vinyl LP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I was really intrigued by this 2018 Record Store Day release after having reviewed (and loving!) DJ Spooky's Creation Rebel--his stellar 2008 CD of re-mixes and mash-ups of classic tracks from Trojan's vaults by Lee “Scratch” Perry, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Tapper Zukie, Wayne Smith, Dawn Penn, and more (read The Duff Guide to Ska Review of Creation Rebel; by the way, this absolutely deserves to be issued on vinyl someday). This time out, DJ Spooky (AKA Paul Miller) is working with material from VP Records and legendary UK label Greensleeves (now owned by VP), and with collaborator Apple Juice Kid (Stephen Levitin) has created an album of both original electro-dancehall (see their epic "Enter the Arena"!) as well as early '80s-sounding dancehall tracks that build upon snippets or larger elements of productions by Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Linval Thompson, Lloyd “Prince Jammy” James, and others to form something radically new (and oftentimes spectacular).

The cuts on side A skew toward modern dancehall, including "Hot Gal," which samples Busy Signal's "Da Style Deh"--there's a telephone busy signal sound in the mix, naturally; "Why I Come" makes good use of Lady Saw's "Walk Out" for a full-on club track; and Miller's and Levity's terrific "Dash It in the Mirror" might remind one of a stripped down Massive Attack-like take on dancehall. I'll cop to being partial to the early dancehall-ish tracks on the remainder of the album, such as the wonderfully heavy "No Return," which versions the Ranking Joe and Jah Screw written/produced "Country Gal Dub" from 1981's King Tubby Meets Roots Radics' Dangerous Dub; the menacing, yet fantastically majestic "Phantom in The Dancehall" (which I think incorporates Eek-A-Mouse's "Sensee Party" as part of its foundation); the mellow keyboard line from Eek-A-Mouse's "Ganja Smuggling" floats over a busy rhythm track on "Showtime (Dynamite Selection)"; and "Music of the Time" utilizes Prince Jammy's "Auto Rhythm" from Computerized Dub and is just this shy of being a digital ska cut. The album finishes with the magnificent "Jah Dub," whose distinctive and dramatic piano riff comes from Black Uhuru's cover of Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic." At first, many of the tracks on Phantom Dancehall might seem pretty uncomplicated, but this is a very smart, inventive, and well-crafted album that gains strength and depth with repeated listens. (And you can definitely dance to it!)

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Duff Review: Prince Fatty w/Omar and Fatlip "Sunshine" b/w "Sunshine Dub" (RSD 2018 Release)

Evergreen Recordings
Vinyl 7" single

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is a fantastic and instantly recognizable Prince Fatty roots reggae take on Roy Ayers perfect 1976 jazz-funk-soul creation "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" (if this song doesn't completely epitomize the sound of American black music the 1970s, what does?). For this Record Store Day release, Prince Fatty enlisted the UK neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook on vocals and Fatlip from The Pharcyde rapping in the breaks ("Teach the children/celebrate diversity/Like The Beatles/They say, 'Let it be'"), as well some of the great usual suspects in Fatty's musical orbit, including Horseman (drums), Mafia (bass), Bubblers (keys), and Kashta Tafari (guitar). The results, of course, are top-notch--and you probably wouldn't be surprised if I told you that this makes for an ideal summer reggae track. This is coming to a sound-system near you.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Duff Review: Various Artists "Drink the Ska"

Jump Up Records/Ska Brewing

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The loose concept for this unofficial 2018 RSD compilation was born at a Ska Brewing anniversary party in 2017 that featured Jump Up's Chuck Wren on the decks. Wren suggested that he and one of Ska Brewing's co-founders Dave Thibodeau put together a compilation featuring acts who have played Ska Brewing parties in the past, as well a healthy selection of choice bands from Jump Up's current roster. The result--unsurprisingly--is a really great mix of new, lesser-known, and solidly established ska bands from across the USA (many from the heartland) playing a variety of ska styles to please every taste.

The lead-off track is The Toasters' stellar tribute to Motown, "House of Soul (Whirly Gig Mix)," which, if you can believe it, is from 2013 (!) and represents the most recent bit of recorded music from them; surely another 45 must be forthcoming soon (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of the "House of Soul" 7" single here)! Of course, The Toasters have had a long association with Ska Brewing, which even released the limited-edition Sheebeen IPA Black in celebration of The Toasters' 30th anniversary. Top tracks to help you catch up on other well-known bands include Monty Neysmith and The Bishops' hilarious "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Skinheads" (from their Jump Up record Monty Neysmith Meets The Bishops, which we reviewed here); The Crombies' spot-on ska cover of Billy Bragg's heartbreaking "Levi Stubbs Tears" (from their Jump Up Dance Crazee LP, which we reviewed here); The Dendrites' awesome ska-jazz "Booty Lu's Canoe" (from their recent Jump Up album Damn Right); The Prizefighters' very Skatalites-sounding "The Accolade"; the Bandulus' righteous ska-soul-early rock cover of James Brown's "Good Lovin'"; Green Room Rocker's hot version of Montell Jordan's '90s New Jack Swing cut "This Is How We Do It" (from their Jump Up release Sweat Steady); the grooving reggae "Dogs" by 2 Tone Lizard Kings (with Alex Desert of Hepcat); and Chris Murray and Caps Lock's sweet acoustic ode to consent in "50 Shades of Okay."

Many of the newer/lesser-known bands on Drink the Ska are a revelation and you'll be thankful for the intro. Boss Riot's "Hearts and Hands" ("...they tend to wander") is a terrific, catchy 2 Tone cut with female vocals; Boomtown United's "Work It Out" reminds me of a lot of the excellent modern ska coming out of Europe in the early '90s; there's ska-punk from Buster's Ghost with "Horn Show"; Blue Hornets' "Boom Ska" is top-shelf vintage ska with Dick Dale guitar break; The Breachers' rocksteady-ish (and kind of melancholy) "Walking to the Train" is on a loop in my head; and The Fuss' lovely rocksteady cut "So Many Times" (more female vocals!) is a treat!

Ska fans from all over should be sure to check out this dynamite comp! (Wish I could say the same for Ska Brew's beers, as they're only in distribution in certain states--I'd love to be able to sample their products! Drink the Ska, indeed!).

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