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. (Also, there's a hidden, bonus track on the CD--a mildly ska-ified cover of Camper Van Beethoven's jangly 1985 left-of-the-dial hit "Take the Skinheads Bowling," which seems appropriate, as it's a nonsensical song that's perfect for a time when nothing in the world makes sense.)

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 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.

+ + + +

1 comment:

D J Stefano said...

A bang-on account of a superb piece of work that says everything about where we really are today. This band are wonderful lyricists, musicians and astute observers. Buy it and find out for yourself!