Friday, July 13, 2018

Duff Review: Heavyball "Black Eye Diaries"

Magnetic North Melodies
CD/LP/digital
2015

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Heavyball's second album When Can You Start? was one of our favorite albums of 2017 (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of it here) and is still in frequent rotation on our turntable. So, when we learned through Kevin Flowerdew's essential Do The Dog Skazine that Heavyball's debut album Black Eye Diaries (Ten Uplifting Songs About Death and Disappointment) was back in print, we got our hands on a copy as soon as the Royal Mail could deliver it to our lair in New York City. Whereas When Can You Start? is a brilliant mod-ska-Brit pop opera of sorts about a week in lives of workers both high and low in the UK, Black Eye Diaries focuses on the indignities of living in the middle of nowhere, stuck in an existence with not much good going on, and of life (and people) letting you down badly. Sounds like a bummer of a record, but as the subtitle of the album states, it delivers as advertised: these are terrific, upbeat songs about life's hard truths.

The tension and limits of living in lesser metro areas are conveyed in tracks like the no future of "Small Time Hero" ("Your girlfriend is still in detention/You park up and smoke by the gates/Her song is playing so she can hear/Her teacher wishes you'd disappear...And you're never gonna leave this town/Where you can't afford to buy a round/And you're never gonna get too far/Flipping burgers in a fast food bar/And you're never gonna leave this place/Non-starter in the human race/And you're never gonna leave this town/'Cos you didn't even last the round") and a fantastic ska cover of Erasure's mid-'80s synth-pop hit "Smalltown Boy," about a gay teen's experience with homophobia, gay-bashing, and familial rejection leading him to abandon his home town for the (hopefully) more tolerant (or anonymous) big city. "Another Country" expresses disgust at the increasing economic inequality between the very rich in London versus everyone else outside its city limits ("It's like living in another country/It's all ugly and it's all for show/Too many folk with too much money/Looking down on the one's below...Now I'm home I feel much better/So much better than I did before/It may be cold, I know it's wetter/I'll never be a city boy...Home sweet home/We're not wanted").

Then there are songs of bad decisions and dashed expectations. The top of that list is the hilarious, self-aware/regretful, still-in-love with your ex/drunk bar fight song "Black Eye Friday" that manages to work in a bit of Toots and the Maytals' "54-46 (Was My Number)": "I hit him one time/He hit me three times/I was talking, when I should've been listening..." (that last bit is something that singer/guitarist Bigface heard during a stint in the army: "I stole that quote from a corporal I worked with in the army. When the lads turned up for first parade on Monday morning, at least one would always have a black eye. He’d taunt them in a broad Sunderland accent 'Ah! You was talking when you should have been listening, eh?'"). Or the tale in "Wanted" of how she's left her boyfriend/husband and is literally running off with you, but it's changed the dynamics of everything in ways you didn't expect: "You got what you wanted/But you lost what you had/And if you got all that you wanted/Why do you look so sad?" (Which reminds me of this admittedly nerdy, but apt Star Trek quote spoken by Spock's character in "Amok Time": "After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.") The bitter, but completely rocking mod track "Lost Heroes" expresses the sting and anger of learning that the people you looked up to--pop stars and politicians alike--are complete frauds ("And I have seen everything I need/And I don't need anything I've seen"); there's an incredible live acoustic version of it here! The eerie ska cut "Hands Up" is (I think) about managing to survive the horrors of war and making it back home (which was all you wanted), but being so damaged by the experience that you end up taking your own life.

The album ends with "Unhappy Now," an extraordinary Revolver-era Beatles/Sound Affects-era Jam-influenced song about (guiltily) having to leave a dead-end town and a good friend mired in a rut: "No money to pay the rent/Now the money's all been spent/Because life is hard in our town/Being home just dragged him down...Moved deep down south for a life in the sun/I'm sorry that I'm the only one to go/People so unhappy now/Everyone's so unhappy now/And deep down I still miss him/But I've made my choice/And now I've got to go."

It's relatively rare to come across such a powerful collection of songs that ring so true and real in their depiction of--and ambivalence toward--modern life. Heavyball's Black Eye Diaries is a phenomenal ska-mod soundtrack for one's less-than-hoped-for existence.

+ + + +

No comments: