Friday, March 6, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Red Stripes "Made in Hong Kong"

The cover features a 1950s-style illustration of a boy and a girl playing a record on a turntable.Mod Sound Records
CD/LP/digital (available in the USA through Jump Up Records)

Digital release: March 30, 2020
Vinyl release: April 6, 2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

For their terrific second album Made in Hong Kong, The Red Stripes made the inspired choice of enlisting the great King Zepha (who released one of 2019's best ska albums himself) as producer and guest performer. Recorded exclusively on analogue gear with the band performing live together, King Zepha has captured The Red Stripes at their best and given these traditional-leaning ska tracks a warmth, clarity, and vibrancy that helps showcase the band's formidable chops and their collection of incredible new songs. (The Hong Kong-based Stripes are all British, Canadian, and Aussie ex-pats: Fred Croft and Sarah Watson on vocals, Matt Davis on drums and marimba, Paul Stripe on bass, Peter Longe on guitars, Billy Goldring on keys and vocals, Cameron Otto on tenor sax, Simon Nixon on trumpet, Hugo Busbridge on t-bone and vocals, and Maninder Kalsi on percussion.)

With its great sing-along chorus, "Innocent" is partly about being in the privileged position where you can follow your dreams beyond your birth country's borders and contrasting that against the experience of migrants who are pursuing similar goals, but being treated as menacing invaders by heads of state; it's also commentary on being led to disaster through governmental austerity policies: "A great many tears cried all the years/We sang and danced in a fire of fears/It made the London train go off its rails/From a dog that's starved at his master's gate/Predicts the ruin of the welfare state/They look at you as the whole thing slowly fails." So, the chorus of, "Innocent/You may be innocent," is a subtle, but cutting barb aimed both at Trump and May/Johnson for their heartlessness and cruelty toward the most vulnerable among us. The infectious and compelling "Do the Ska" is akin to Byron Lee and The Ska Kings' "Jamaica Ska" (of course, most famously covered by Fishbone and Annette Funicello) and features the lyric, "When you dance the ska/You forget where you are!" While music (and dancing to it!) always offers an escape from one's troubles and day-to-day dreariness, one wonders if this also is a furtive reference to wanting a temporary reprieve from the HK police clampdown in reaction to the roiling pro-democracy protests...

"Mercy (Show a Little...)" is a sensational Motown-influenced ska stomper about knowing things are coming to an end and the singer insisting on exiting on her own terms: "Let me down slow!" While it sounds like a ska song (a lovely one at that), thematically "Don't Build Twice" is more of a calypso track, as it's a humorous cautionary tale that urges the listener to not make the rash, ill-considered decisions that the song's protagonist does (in this case, building one's house illegally on government land, which inevitably will be razed, and need to be rebuilt elsewhere; love the marimba on this track, too). With its unusual yet winning mix of rhythm and blues, melancholy '70 AM pop, and reggae, "Train Wreck" is about the arc of a relationship--it starts out rocky (and maybe always is), but finally clicks and feels really good ("Only bright days spent in the sun/Even though it was mid-December/And you/You had a smile/Woah, that would knock me off my feet!"), but by the end of the song, another more devastating realization is dawning: "Could it be you're pulling me down?" The album closes with the fantastic instrumental "Made in Hong Kong Dub," which opens with video-game sounds and effects hinting at factories and warehouses constantly buzzing with manufacturing and commercial activity, has an awesome, driving bass riff, and features King Zepha on melodica.

The Red Stripes' Made in Hong Kong is not be missed--do everything you can to track this one down!

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