Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Duff Review: Heavy Manners "Blue Beat (live)" b/w "Ska Jam"

Jump Up Records
Limited edition 7" vinyl single

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Released to coincide with a Thanksgiving weekend tribute show (date and venue etched in the runout groove of side A) in honor of Heavy Manners' co-founder and bassist Jimi Robinson, who unexpectedly passed away this past July, this single features two live cuts from this Chicago-based band's heyday in the early 1980s! Information about these tracks' provenance is lacking, but it seems likely that they're the same cuts featured on the long-out-of-print 1996 compilation CD of Heavy Manners' output, Heavier Than Now.

The Robinson-penned "Blue Beat" takes a propulsive 1950's rhythm and blues/early rock 'n' roll sax riff and marries it to a brisk ska beat (much like what the 1960s JA originators did); this terrific version was recorded for a 93XRT "Sunday Night In Concert" performance and proves that the band were formidable and fun in front of an audience (Robinson sings: "The blue beat, ska beat riddim won't let me go!"). "Ska Jam" (titled "Rude Boy Jam" on their career retrospective comp) was written by singer Kate Fagan and recorded live in the recording studio. It's a ridiculously catchy New Wave ska song (a style of ska I like to refer to as Square Peg ska) urging ska fans of every stripe to join the Heavy Manners party ("Every rocker grab a rock/And get up, join the ska jam/Every ska fan, make this a ska land/Get up, join the ska jam/And the girls say/We are the rude girls/We all love the ska jam/And the boys say/We are the rude boys/We all love the ska jam!"). It's a blast to hear this pioneering ska band in action (who were directly inspired by 2 Tone--Robinson had visited London in 1980 at the height of the ska craze and worked on starting Heavy Manners upon his return) and a wonderful and fitting remembrance of such a key player/musician in the history of American ska.

All sales of this single will benefit Robinson's family.

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For more on Heavy Manners, read The Duff Guide to Ska review of their 2010 12" single featuring "Get Me Outta Debt"/"Fight the Good Fight."

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Duff Review: Rhoda Dakar "The Lotek Four, Volume II"

7" vinyl EP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is the second--and really superb-- crowdfunded EP from the always extraordinary Rhoda Dakar and her boss band (Louis Vause on piano and Paul Tadman on bass--both of the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra; Lenny Bignell of Pama International and The Sidewalk Doctors on guitar; Mark Claydon from The Get Up on drums; and Terry Edwards of The Higsons and sometime Madness collaborator on horns). On The Lotek Four, Volume II, the soul influences that were quite present on Dakar's debut EP are even more pronounced--to great effect--on this set of really fine originals, all co-written with various members of the band (full disclosure, I was a supporter of this release; also, make sure to read our Duff Guide to Ska review of Dakar's first EP).

EP opener "Comfort Zone" is a fantastic jazzy-soul-ska cut that wouldn't have been out of place musically or thematically on The Special AKA's stellar In the Studio (Dakar's vocals, of course, were essential to the success of that album). The song's about going through life on auto-pilot--detached, ambivalent, without enjoyment; doing what you have to in order to get by ("The 9 to 5 is no good for me/Just busy keeping myself fed/To make a buck don't get me horny/I'd rather stay at home in bed...Save up that cash for that one rainy day/When the worst comes, I'll be up anyway..."). It's comfort zone as trap not refuge. "Welcome To My Themepark" is a Madness-y pop piss-take on the gentrification of Brixton, though it could just as easily apply to any formerly vibrant and funky urban neighborhood ruined by real estate developers' greed (huge swaths of Manhattan and Brooklyn have been transformed into playgrounds solely for the rich and fabulous). Dakar alternates between being an amusement park barker ("Ladies and gentlemen, by visiting Brixton police station at the end of your stay, anything of which you have been robbed--with the exception of your dignity--will be returned. Thank you for coming!"), and lamenting what has been lost: "It used to be a real town/Was a good life, not a fake one/And we lived that real good life/With our husbands and our wives."

The straight-up Stax-like "Back for More" finds the singer repeatedly trying to exit an emotionally abusive relationship: "You bide your time/I come back for more/Like a fool, I'm back for more." But the repeated chorus ends on a defiantly optimistic note: "I'm not coming back for more/I'm not coming back..." Everything ends too quickly with the ethereal "Love Notes (From Your Soul Team)," a wonderfully radiant, spirit-lifting track that is a sure-fired cure for anyone's blues. It also serves as a reminder of how vital close and caring friends are for staying sane and making it through this life: "You're on the same team/Not sure what it means/But you've faith in the friends who make it seem alright/We're your soul team/Here to stop you feeling sad/Takes a whole team/To antidote the bad/We're your soul team/Best support you've ever had/Sending love notes..." This is soul-pop perfection.

On the sleeve's liner notes, Dakar thanks her supporters for their leap of faith in funding both EPs in advance--well prior to hearing a note. And, once again, Dakar and Co. have delivered on their promise to their fans and then some. This is one small, but mightily impressive release.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Specials Preview "Vote For Me" From New Album "Encore"!

Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter (l-r)
(By Steve Shafer)

To help whet fans' appetites for the new Specials' album Encore (to be released on CD/LP on February 1, 2019 from UMC), the band is previewing their terrific song "Vote For Me" on their YouTube channel and FB page.

Upon first listen, it's sort of a shock to hear the opening bars of "Vote For Me" musically quote a bit of "Ghost Town" and then settle into the moody, minor-key territory staked out by The Special AKA's In the Studio (think the reggae and jazz of "Racist Friend," "Alcohol," and "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend," plus a bit of Rico's Jama; there's also a wonderful, Madness-like bridge with strings in there, too!). On one hand, it makes sense for the remaining Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter--joined by top collaborators Nikolaj Torp Larsen on keys, Kenrick Rowe on drums, and Steve Craddock on guitar) to go this route--they're essentially time traveling to pick up where The Specials left off with More Specials and the Ghost Town EP--which is exactly what Jerry Dammers and John Bradbury did with The Special AKA after Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding left The Specials to form Fun Boy 3 (some of the songs that appeared on The Special AKA's In the Studio were written before the split for The Specials' then-planned third album; and it should be noted that Panter, Golding, and Radiation did guest perform on a few In the Studio tracks).

So, in some sense, "Vote For Me" is a safe move, reminding the listener of Specials' sounds and songs of old that are ingrained on fans' hearts and minds. Yet, it's also sort of audacious, given how The Specials' dissolution was driven in part by dissatisfaction with the musical direction Dammers had taken with More Specials (he was the band's primary--though by no means sole--songwriter and arranger), as well as his leadership style (his given nickname "The General" was not meant to be endearing). Whether intentional or not, with "Vote For Me" they've validated Dammers' vision for the evolution of The Specials' post-"Ghost Town" music that was realized through In the Studio. It's just a shame that Dammers, Staples, Radiation, and Bradbury (RIP) couldn't be back for the ride, as "Vote For Me" successfully keeps faith with The Specials' collective sound and mission.

Lyrically, "Vote For Me" is pointed commentary on the corruption, lies, self-dealing, and moral bankruptcy of political leaders in England and America during this dreadfully bleak age of Brexit and Trumpism ("You tore our families apart" has to refer to the absolutely horrific, repugnant, racist, and inhumane Trump policy of sometimes permanently separating migrant/asylum-seeking kids from their parents at the US-Mexico border)--it continues the kind of "government leaving the youth on the shelf"/should be serving the greater good and needs of the people criticism expressed back in '81. And it's fantastic how the chorus references Queens, NY's bruddah's The Ramones and William Shakespeare (and Bob Marley's nod to the bard in "Get Up, Stand Up") to hammer home its point about political deception.

Every vote for you, do you promise
To be upright, decent, and honest
To have our best interests at heart?

You understand why we don't believe you
You're way too easy to see through
Not the best places to start

There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach
And all that glitters isn't gold

You're all so drunk on money and power
Inside your ivory tower
Teaching us not to be smart

Making laws that serve to protect you
But we won't ever forget that
You tore our families apart

There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach
And all that glitters isn't gold

So, every vote for you, do you promise
To be upright, decent, and honest
To take away all of the fear?

You said you wait for us to elect you
But all we'll do is reject you
Your politics bore us to tears

There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach
And all that glitters isn't gold

"Vote For Me" is a powerful and more than credible opening salvo from The Specials' Encore. Based on this track, it seems like fans' expectations for the new album should be high.

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For more on the new Specials' album, check our "Everything We Know About The Specials' New Album Encore" post from earlier this fall.

In addition, you can read The Duff Guide to Ska's write-up of the reissue of The Special AKA's In the Studio from a few years ago.

Lastly, unlike the some of the stone-filled beaches I've seen in England, New York City's Rockaway Beach is pretty much all sand and you can take the A subway line to get there.

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