Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Catbite, King Zepha, and The Mad Geezers!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Catbite "Amphetamine Delight" (7" square yellow flexi disc, Bad Time Records, 2019): While awaiting delivery of my mail-ordered copy of their debut album, I received a free copy of Catbite's sweet flexi disc single with another LP I bought (the ACLU-benefit Bad Time Records compilation album The Shape of Ska Punk to Come, to be reviewed soon). Ostensibly about the joys of doing speed (though maybe obliquely it's about the high that comes from being with that special someone?), this wonderfully catchy jolt of ska, pop-punk, power-pop, and rockabilly is completely winning (among their influences they list The Specials, The Exploding Hearts, The Undertones, and Chuck Berry--all of whom you can hear in this track). Props to the label for this cool old-school promo item and to Philly's Catbite for knocking it out of the park with this song.

King Zepha King Zepha's Northern Sound (CD/digital/LP, Happy People Records, 2019): As the title of this album infers, King Zepha's Northern Sound is vintage ska imbued with 1960s American rhythm and blues (see their fantastic cover of Doris Troy's "Just One Look"--which is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the '70s, as this was all over AM radio, in TV ads, and featured on multiple K-Tel comps), along with hearty helpings of '50s rock, big band, Henry Mancini or Neal Hefti-like movie music, and dashes of reggae and dub (fans of Laurel Aitken, The Trojans, Jump with Joey, and Dr. Ring Ding will love this record). All of the tracks are brilliantly heavy on stick-in-your-head melodies and the band (King Zepha on lead vocals, bass guitar, guitar, organ, percussion, tenor and baritone saxes, Joe Love on drums, Adam Richards on double bass, Chris Lloyd on piano, Ric Colley on backing vocals and lead vocals on "Just One Look," Sonny Thornton on backing vocals, Stuart MacDonald on alto sax, Jack Davis on trumpet, Stuart Garside on trombone, Jon Burr on harmonica solos, Al MacSween on organ solos, and George Birkett on guitar solos) is incredibly versatile within this compelling mix of musical genres.

While their music mines retro sounds from yesteryear, the topics of King Zepha's songs address some of today's madness. "Bottom of the Pile" is an anthem of solidarity among the working class, as well as a critique of free market capitalism ("We welcome one and all/Together in this hall/There's room for everyone/Together we are strong/Stick together, all the rank and file/It's fine at the bottom of the pile/It's lonely at the top/But there's a bigger drop/To get there one must climb/On those they've left behind"). In what is clearly pointed commentary on Rupert Murdoch-like right-wing tabloids and their slimy ilk and how they've been weaponized (and not aimed at papers striving to sort out and convey the truth), "Shoot the Messenger" advocates the boycott of the conservative echo-chamber media: "They pit the labourer against the foreigner/They call a traveller a lazy scavenger/They use the newspaper to stir up hate in you/We need a takeover, let's shoot the messenger/Propaganda, fabricated facts/Leading weapons of the ruling class/Just as deadly as a poison gas/So, shoot the messenger."

The completely epic "Mother of All Hangovers" should be your go-to song whenever you find yourself in this inevitably regretful/hellish state. "Let Your Hair Down" is a lovely plea for a good deal more more than the proverbial lowering of one's locks, while "You Let Yourself Go" admonishes the aging rude boy for going to seed, both physically and fashion-wise ("You used to be lean, mean and very, very clean/Now you're chubbier and grubbier than others on the scene"). King Zepha offer their own (not John Holt's) Middle Eastern-tinged ska take on the Ali Baba/"Arabian Nights" myth (which is accompanied by its dub version "Dubfart"). And there are also instrumentals on hand: the swinging jazz of "Tin Man" and the contemplative "Catalunya" (dedicated to that breakaway province from Spain). The album closes with "Grass is Greener," a sweet fantasy (?) about shedding one's dreary, soul-deadening, day-to-day life and going on holiday for good ("Days are longer and the beer is stronger/And the locals are a scream/By the sea, as he escapes reality/Our boy's the cat that finally got the cream"). All in all, this is a tremendously good record that is destined to become a classic of whatever we're labeling this current era of ska.

The Mad Geezers "The Donkey" b/w "The Snake Charmer" (7" vinyl single/digital, Swing-A-Ling/Names You Can Trust, 2019): At first glance, this band of insanely good Los Angeles-based musicians (Oliver Charles on drums, Jason Yates on organ, Dan Ubick on guitar and percussion, and Dave Wilder on bass) have seemingly come out of nowhere to deliver this incredible single. But when you find out that they've worked with De La Soul, Hollie Cook, The Heptones, and The Lions in particular, you realize why they're so far ahead of the pack from the get-go. While The Mad Geezers are heavily influenced by Jackie Mittoo in his brilliant prime--you'd swear that the Geezers' funky reggae cut "The Donkey" was off Showcase--the Lions connection is what makes complete sense (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of their extraordinary 2015 LP Soul Riot). There's a mastery of, and reverence for, reggae and all of the black American music that helped create and shape it over the years--all of which is so clearly evident in The Lions' music. While "The Donkey" is keyboard-centric, "The Snake Charmer" is an hypnotic and loping bass-driven reggae skank, perfect for dancing in the wee hours after partaking in whatever makes your cares temporarily slip away--but beware, the low-end on this track is so heart-thuddingly deep that it just might blow out your speakers if played at top volume.

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