Monday, January 20, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Zen Baseballbat "You Won't Get Paid" EP, plus "Place Like This" single!

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Zen Baseballbat You Won't Get Paid (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020); "Place Like This" (digital single, self-released, 2020): I completely missed out on Zen Baseballbat's activities in the early 2000s (when they released two albums on Moon Ska World), but am grateful to have been turned onto this fantastic band now, thanks to the intervention of Kevin Flowerdew of Do the Dog Skazine/The Bakesys. Zen Baseballbat's new EP You Won't Get Paid is an incredibly appealing mash-up of modern ska/reggae plus synth-pop, New Wave, and krautrock married to explicitly left-wing lyrics about living in an era where there's no bottom to the depths of shamelessness, self-dealing, lawlessness, and cruelty that those in power will sink to.

The ironically bright title track condemns an increasingly rapacious economic system that offers fewer and fewer crumbs to the people doing the actual grunt work (all while those at the top funnel cash to politicians who do all they can to slash the social safety net and deregulate business): "I've been shoveling shit for far too long/My body aches, but my head is strong/I haven't got a pot to piss in/Yet, you want me for next to nothing/You won't get paid/Billinger, billinger, billinger" (roughly translated from German as "cheaper"). In the grayer "Reasons for Living," the band posits that, despite its trappings as a liberal democracy, England has become a surveillance state that the Stasi could only dream of, with the government's ability to easily monitor its citizens via hacked public and private security cameras, cell phones, smart speakers, email, texts, social media (this last one, our own fault, really), etc.--the song is sung from the perspective of imagined officers at the Home Office: "We have reasons to believe that.../You have been living six months behind sound proof privets/Treading on grapes, but the wine still tastes of feet/You were knee deep in chocolate decisions/A sweetened informer dropped you in it/We know who you are/We know where you’ve been/It’s colder in St Helens than Cold War Berlin" (St. Helens is a town located between Liverpool and Manchester and near Zen Baseballbat's home base in Widnes, Warrington).

"There's Going to Be Trouble" is a grand reggae track that employs a spoken 2017 quote from socialist filmmaker Ken Loach regarding Tory austerity-imposed cuts to unemployment benefits in the guise of welfare-to-work requirements intentionally designed so that many people couldn't meet them: "Sanctions are a cruel and vindictive way of treating vulnerable people. This is an extraordinarily cruel thing. They're driven to food banks. When you stop people's money, you force them into the direst poverty--they have nothing. Punishing the poorest and blaming them. Now, don't you think that's absolutely disgusting?" The title of this song is its chorus, sung over and over, as both warning (there's going to be unrest when desperate people have absolutely nothing left to lose) and an appeal of sorts (it's in the rich and powerful's best interest to maintain a livable bottom rung to capitalism, so as to keep society from devolving into widespread chaos and violence, which wouldn't exactly be good for the financial markets). While it's almost too on the mark to be satire, "A Backstage Pass to The Stanley" (which sounds like it could be a The The circa Mind Bomb track) offers brutal commentary on our sick society's never-sated desire for real and staged Hunger Games-like acts of violence, freakishness, and self-humiliation as entertainment: "Ladies and gentlemen/Put your hand grenades together and give a warmonger's welcome for tonight's doomed fancy fella/Testing intestines, one-two, one-two/Take a big deep breath/I’ll bicycle kick myself to death/Vomit a Sinatra, a Nat King saliva/Return to sender/The awfully wedded karaoke machine/When there’s a hole in the chest/Expect nothing less/Than a man with a gun and a grudge in suburbia." All the bread and circuses helps keep us from noticing what's going on behind the scenes--and to us.

The digital single "Place Like This" is electro-spaghetti Western-reggae (think Kraftwerk, Big Audio Dynamite's "E=MC²," and maybe a bit of Yazoo) that the band has dedicated to, "the one too many, midweek disco dancers, desperate for a shag and falling asleep on the bog in a niteclub at 4am...an anthem for the knackered." More than one listener of a certain age will relate to lyrics like this: "Biology laid bare/Bodily functions everywhere/Why to we always end up in a place like this?/Dressed head to toe, an anniversary/Is everybody here in the mood, but me?" In their comments about this song, Zen Baseballbat adds (figuratively, but also a bit literally), "celebrate the shit, it's all we have left." And the band's happy to provide this brilliant and spot-on soundtrack for the occasion.

+ + + +

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part V: Mark Foggo's Skasters, Lee "Scratch" Perry!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Mark Foggo's Skasters Ska Pig Returns (LP, Jump Up Records, 2019): For anyone counting, Mark Foggo's Skasters released their debut album Ska Pig 30 (!) years ago (I first encountered them in '89 on Skank Records' Ska For Ska's Sake compilation), hence the title of their new album, Ska Pig Returns. Throughout the decades, Foggo and Co. have been remarkably consistent in creating album after album of incredibly high energy, sing-song-y, slightly demented, but always entertaining 2 Tone-influenced ska (think Madness' "Land of Hope and Glory"/"Baggy Trousers" meets Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"/"Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3") and their latest record doesn't disappoint! There's a stomper about encountering a woman on a train and thinking "she was the one, I was sure" but having her turn out to be the dreadful Theresa May and telling her off; a song about trying to make the best of things in increasingly dire times what with the planet dying and "Trump as boss" ("Eat Up Your Weeds": "Things are never as bad as they seem/But you never wake up from this one bad dream..."); and "Dum Diddy Die," a powerfully dark nursery rhyme of nonsensical sounds and disturbing couplets ("I've got to get a gun/And I got and fight the enemy/There's a very good chance/That maybe it's the end of me." But then there's the upbeat "Do The Monkey" (detailing the indignities the monkey in the zoo must suffer to get on); "London" is a really lovely, New Wave-tinged, unconventional tour of London ("Saw the queen and changed the guard/Breaking in, it wasn't hard/I just used my Oyster card/Had to beat the Scotland Yard/When I tried to steal the crown/The Beefeaters came and cut me down"); while the awesome "Rats and Mice" is about taphophobia, a fear that was much more widespread during the Victorian age ("Please build my coffin air-tight/But leave me for the rats and mice/And put me in a shallow grave/In case there's been a mistake/And I'm still alive!"). As you might infer from all this, Mark Foggo's Skasters' Ska Pig Returns seems like a blast--'cause it is!

Lee "Scratch" Perry Heavy Rain (LP/CD/digital, On-U Sound Records, 2019): This is the wild and massively good dub version of Perry and Adrian Sherwood's recent collaboration Rainford (reviewed by the Duff Guide here)--that actually overshadows its source material (and they include a few new cuts, too!). Heavy Rain plays to Perry and Sherwood's strengths as versioners; they're masters at revealing the dub versions not represented by, or hidden within, the official version (even if they created it in the first place). Perry and Sherwood have made space for the Rainford tracks to recombine, mutate, and augment--and their work reimagining the songs and adding effects, and blips and beeps both natural and synthesized is nothing short of brilliant. The deserved attention-getter is the incredible "Here Come the Warm Dreads" (the dub of one of Rainford's best tracks, "Makumba Rock"), with Brian Eno (get the punny title of this track now?) working his magic on everything coming out of your stereo's right channel. Perry's anti-capitalist/greed broadsides are largely traded in for the truly great Vin Gordon's melancholy, yet all-vanquishing trombone lines--and Gordon's playing is nothing short of magnificent on the now jauntier "Crickets in Moonlight" (original: "Cricket on the Moon"). Perry's "Autobiography of The Upsetter" is transformed into "Heavy Rainford," a wonderful conversation between a bluesy harmonica and reggae trombone (Vin Gordon, again!). The three new tracks that they slip in here are of the same calibre and fit in seamlessly. "Dreams Come True" is a slumberous cut that creates a musical twilight zone between the real and imagined (and this is apparently some of what Perry sees: "Mick Jagger/Tripe and banana/Rolling home from work work/Feeling kind of peckish/Flying to his home/To have his favorite dish/Ackee and saltfish"). "Above and Beyond" features both violin and sax lines ebbing and flowing over a strutting riddim, while "Mind Worker" (Perry: "I move brains and I transfigurate minds") has these amazing jazz piano breaks in the midst of a serious reggae groove. Heavy Rain has to be the best reggae album of 2019 and is certain to go down in history as another Perry/Sherwood masterpiece.

+ + + + 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part IV: Vin Gordon

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez may be more familiar to ska and reggae fans than Vin Gordon (AKA Don D., Jr.), there's no doubt that they've heard Gordon's trombone playing, as he's performed on hundreds of crucial ska, rocksteady, and reggae recordings (that's him on the foundational "Real Rock" riddim with Sound Dimension) and helped establish the classic and enduring Jamaican ska and reggae trombone sound, along with Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, who were fellow alum of Kingston, JA's Alpha Boys School's music program under bandmaster Lennie Hibbert. (Gordon's Discogs entry is over 20 pages and includes his work on classic releases for just about every significant reggae artist you can imagine, including Lee "Scratch" Perry (he both performs and has writing credits on Scratch's latest albums, Rainford and Heavy Rain), Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Aswad, Coxsone Dodd (he was Studio One's main trombonist), The Heptones, The Ethiopians, Culture, Big Youth, Horace Andy, Mad Professor, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Andy, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Max Romeo, King Tubby, The Skatalites, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, Alton Ellis, The Revolutionaries, and many more--he even recorded a ska LP during the 2 Tone era, which I picked up in the late '80s). Having said that, the number of albums released under Gordon's own name are relatively few, given his talents and the scope of his career.

UK reggae producers/musicians Al Breadwinner and Nat Birchall (a celebrated jazz performer in his own right) had this in mind as they were planning their next Sounds Almighty album of roots reggae instrumentals with Gordon--and decided to turn it into a full-on Vin Gordon album instead. What's wild is how this record came together. Birchall composed the instrumentals for the album, and then he and Breadwinner recorded the rhythm tracks (Birchall on bass, piano, percussion and Breadwinner on drums/percussion, guitar, organ, and piano). Then Vin Gordon joined them in their analogue studio, listened to each cut a few times and came up with his horn lines on the spot (in old school Studio One fashion), which were then recorded in a day--and the horn melodies were added later by David Fullwood (trumpet), Stally (bari sax), and Birchall (tenor sax). The result, Vin Gordon's African Shores (LP/CD/digital, Tradition Disc, 2019), is a phenomenally good and moody roots album that's similar in sound and vibe to King Tubby's and Lee "Scratch" Perry's mid-'70s output--and showcases Gordon's virtuoso, improvisational playing floating over razor sharp riddims. All of these tracks are relatively spare and uncluttered--allowing for ample space between the notes--and feature almost hypnotic bass lines and beats. The majestic "African Shore" and its "Gold Coast Dub" evoke unending, wide screen coastlines of an extraordinary continent that is the ancestral home for the African diaspora and whose resources, natural and human, were wickedly exploited by white Europeans. "Styler Man" is a ringer for a classic Skatalites tune ("Dubbing Style" is its pair), while "Spill Over" is funky reggae like Jackie Mittoo used to do. I have no idea what the mysterious "Gusum Peck" refers to (its companion "Voodoo Man in Dub" suggests something to do with syncretic religion), but it sounds fantastic, in all senses of that word. Like its title suggests, "Sa La Vie" features a gorgeous, laid-back, "come-what-will" melody (and pace) that's the perfect closer to an album that somehow frees the listener to slow down and experience whatever feelings, memories, or dreams this set of songs conjures up whenever they're played. Here's hoping that Birchall and Breadwinner keep on collaborating with Vin Gordon and showcasing the exceptional talents of this true legend of ska and reggae.

+ + + +

Monday, January 6, 2020

In Memory of Jason Lawless/Benefit Show in Celebration of His Life

Illustration of Jason Lawless by CHema Skandal. 
If you're connected to the US ska scene--particularly in Southern California--you've most likely learned the awful news via social media that long-time ska fan, record collector, promoter, DJ, and blogger Jason Lawless (nee Sirota) passed away around New Year's Day at age 41 (Lawless had a long history of complex medical and financial issues). Lawless was a vital and beloved fixture on the LA-area ska scene--and was also connected to many ska fans and players around the world.

I didn't know Jason well and had never met him in person, but was a big fan of all of his efforts to big up the ska scene through his Lawless Street blog, Dancing Mood ska forum, and Moondust Records label.

Back in October of 2011, I published an interview with Jason about his Reggae 69 Fan Club and the launch of Moondust Records. And in December 2012, as part of The Duff Guide to Ska's "2012: The Year is Ska" series, Jason was kind enough to share his thoughts on his five favorite ska releases of 2012; the top five ska shows he attended; the best ska merch he spotted; his ska regrets over that past year; and his ska hopes for 2013. Both posts might provide a bit of insight as to who he was as a person and as massive fan/supporter of ska.

I offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends. May he rest in peace.

+ + + +

If you're anywhere near the LA area, a show in honor of Jason's life will be taking place on Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm at Boomer's Cocktails in Long Beach, CA. All details are below.

Soulside Productions in Sympathy presents:

Jason Lawless Benefit Show: Celebrating the Life of Jason Lawless

Live performances by Greg Lee (Hepcat), Chris Murray, Jesse Wagner (The Aggrolites), Los Aggrios, Jah Faith, Swinging Johnny, Queen P., and The Lawless All Stars (featuring members of Western Standard Time, See Spot, The Debonaires, The Expanders, The Aggrolites, Ocean 11, The Allentons, Capsules, and Mobtown).

Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm

Boomer's Cocktails
5456 East Del Amo Boulevard
Long Beach, CA

Donation required for entry--and all donations will go to Angel City Pits Dog Rescue.

This is a 21+ event.

+ + + +

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part III: Babylove and the van Dangos, Catbite!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Babylove and the van Dangos The Golden Cage (LP, self-released, 2019): The excellent sixth album from this Danish neo-trad ska/rocksteady/soul powerhouse of a band is a sharp critique of what it's like to live in a society where the accumulation of wealth, status, and power is everything--conveying great unease, ambivalence, sorrow, and indignation about the way things are through a collection of catchy and seemingly chipper tunes written mostly by vocalist Daniel Broman (that often sound like the singer is trying to woo a lady not decrying extreme income inequality or the spiritual emptiness of materialism). The record starts with one's end in "No God Above the Bottom Line" (think of how the sunglasses in the movie "They Live" reveal that "This is your God" is printed on all of those dollars) and that the ritual of publicly commemorating your own death is often the last opportunity to show off your deep financial resources: "It's the coins that we place on your eyes/And the check you write us to cry/The champagne you never get to taste/So, let's chuck another nugget on the scales and pray that we'll be fine/Because there's no god above the bottom line." "Golden Cage" points out the grievous damage that our unfettered capitalist system inflicts on the souls of the rich, the lives of the poor, and the very planet that sustains us ("Some may win but many must lose/I see dead eyes and expensive shoes... and when the sea's rising/and when the fields burn/What you gonna buy with the money you earn?"), while "Her Dress Is New" observes how women are confronted by a King Solomon-like choice between work and life when making a go of it in the corporate world ("She can't afford a boyfriend/To take time from her career/'Cause she's climbing up that ladder/And it's slippery up there"--shades of Perry/Romeo's "War Ina Babylon" in that last bit: "It sipple out deh"). One can't help but assume that "Lazy Little Me" is an autobiographical track--the singer can't fathom employing his talents "to write songs in a factory/Churning out generic bullshit for an industry/That's just looking for a hit..." He finds fulfillment and can eke out a living writing ska songs instead (rejecting capitalism's sirens' call to commodify his art), though not everyone has the luxury of opting out of the system in this manner (see the drug dealers and street kids depicted in "Cigarette Boy"). Of course, wealth's close companion is power (a currency of its own used to achieve/maintain wealth and social/political control). "Sledgehammer" addresses the Trumpian outrage machine that keeps manufacturing enemies and threats in order to manipulate followers for his own ends and prevent them from developing empathy for and solidarity with anyone outside the cult of MAGA dead-enders ("You've got to give the people what the people want/And keep their eyes off what it is they really need/You've got to keep them hungry, you've got to keep 'em mean/You've got to starve out compassion and keep feeding the greed..."). And the rise of authoritarian leaders around the globe is noted in "Old Man Trouble," which reminds the listener that the fascists are always with us, lurking, waiting for things to fall apart just enough so they can make their move ("It's the same old faces/In the same old lines/And the same old hatred/Trickling down through time/It's the same old bodies/In the same old graves/And the same old feelings/Making us their slaves/Oh and it's the same older leaders/It's the same old lies/And we say we won't forget/But my how time it flies..."). The Golden Cage also features love songs, mostly about relationships going bad ("The Cracks," "Bleeding Me"), but there's some happiness to be had (see "You Do, So I Do"), and several fine instrumentals (particularly, "Mexiskaner"). The choice of album cover artwork may be intended to remind one of the 1968 version of "Planet of the Apes" and all of its pointed commentary on humanity's tendency toward cruelty, selfishness, and self-destruction (much of it by Rod Serling). At the very opening of the film, as astronaut Charlton Heston prepares to return to Earth after they've been away six months but 700 years have passed on the planet, he wonders, "Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?" (And later in the movie there's this passage read from the sacred scrolls of the apes: "Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.") If you like sweet-sounding ska music to pack a lyrical wallop and speak to what's going on in the world around us, then The Golden Cage is for you.

Catbite Catbite (Pink, yellow, or splatter vinyl LP/digital, Bad Time Records, 2019): On Catbite's debut album, they sport this incredibly appealing and melodic 2 Tone-New Wave-power pop sound that's both retro and completely fresh. I hear echoes of Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Specials, The Selecter, King Kong 4, King Apparatus, and others (and you'll bring your own set of bands to the table after listening to this record), but this set of songs is fully theirs. Just about all of the lyrics on Catbite are about one's oftentimes complicated feelings for others--and the music (as well as Brittany Luna's singing) does an ace job of expressing the range of emotions behind them. The record races out of the gates with "Come On Baby" ("...let's have some fun!"), which is about the blast of out-of-controlness that hits you when you fall for someone hard (""I'm scared of losing/Like I've lost my mind/That's how I feel whenever I'm not near you")--it captures the same intense, ragged desire/longing/euphoria as X's cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless." "Amphetamine Delight" compares the joys of being with someone to the rush/high of speed. The brashly unapologetic "As You Will" is about using revisionist history as a coping mechanism ("'Till I change memories to what I want 'em to be/I'm not lying if I'm lying to me/Take it as you will/But that's how it's gonna be"). "Can't Give You Love," with all of its '60s girl group-like touches, is devastatingly beautiful in its sharp clarity and honesty: "Is it bad/That I don't think of you when I'm out with my friends?/I keep my thoughts to myself lately/And let them fill up my head/Wish that I could change/And be the flirt that you want/But it's not written in the stars for us/And I can't give you love." I bet Costello wishes he could still write such a hook-packed song like "Sneaky Feelings" that would fit right in with tracks from his late '70s glory days; and the conflicted-ness about where one's true emotions lie is pitch perfect ("I can't let those kind of feelings show/I'd like to get right through to the way I feel for you/But I still got a long way to go..."). Don't let Catbite pass you by--and make sure to keep an eye on what this wonderful band does next.

+ + + +