Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Players Band "SKAMÖRGÅSBORD"

The cover features a close-up on the keys of an electric piano, which have the title of the album overlaid on them.


(Review by Steve Shafer)

I'm not sure how I missed The Players Band's previous albums during the first half of the 2000s--SKAMÖRGÅSBORD is their fifth release!--but I'm grateful for finally being clued in on this really excellent band. Comprised of members of Baltimore and Washington, DC-based ska and reggae acts (The PietastersThe Scotch BonnetsKill LincolnJah WorksBumpin Uglies, and Unity Reggae), this supergroup plays a mix of '60s ska, rocksteady, reggae, and post-2 Tone/modern ska masterfully--and the diversity of ace musicians involved in this group is their secret weapon, as it results in a compelling variety of songwriting styles and musical sounds.

SKAMÖRGÅSBORD is almost evenly split between fine originals and nicely selected covers that blend together well. Their version of Peter Gabriel's Stax-inspired and sexual innuendo-filled 1986 hit "Sledgehammer"--with Lady Hatchet on vocals--is positively epic; the horn section shines here, as it does throughout the album. In The Players Band's hands, The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" (a song from Exile on Main Street, which equates having sex to a high) becomes an interesting hybrid of Eagles-ish California rock married to reggae. Their marvelous and vibrant cover of Jackie Mittoo's classic "Hot Milk" shifts some of the keyboard melody to the horns, while Harry J All Stars' enduring skinhead reggae hit "Liquidator" features jazzy improvisational solos in breaks floating over that riddim that just won't quit. The Skatalites' "Nimrod" (AKA "Dreams of Fueman") has some nice spaghetti-Western reggae touches, and if you didn't know who was playing, you'd swear that their blistering take on Nat Adderley's jazz standard "Work Song" was by Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.

On the original material tip, the driving modern ska track "Player's Anthem" incorporates all sorts of Baltimore references and name checks ska bands from both Charm City and The District (much like The Toasters' "East Side Beat," though without the street menace and police oppression): "Rolling down Fayette, cruising with my baby/Warm summer night, ska music in my tape deck/Pump it up loud, so the people on the street/Can hear I'm rocking steady to The Mobtown Beat/Going down to Greektown, music in the park/Jah Works are the headline, jamming after dark/Now it's EST and I'm feeling alright/It was hot with The Scotch Bonnets on the stage that night..." The rocksteady track "Wet Noodle" expresses frustration with how the right wing is seemingly hell-bent on tearing apart the country with division and racism ("This situation is out of control/Two minutes to midnight...Why, oh why is it so hard to speak liberation and truth?/You spread so much misinformation/And hatred passed down to our youth"--note the Doomsday Clock reference in there), but seeks some sort of path forward ("Let's find a table and hash things out, once for all"), even at the risk of things being unproductive (see the song title). As its name suggests, "Jackie Mittoo" is wonderful tribute to the Keyboard King with Natty Roc (of Jah Works) on vocals: "A big star creator/A musical innovator/He was a trailblazer/The common denominator/Sound champion/Radio station/Studio One was the foundation/And Jackie, he just a play 'pon the ivory." However, the best of the original cuts has to be the awesome Toasters-doing-their-version-of-ska-punk "Get in the Van" with The Pietasters' Steve Jackson on vocals. It's an anthem for all of the bands who put up with all of the miserable indignities of getting from point A to point B in exchange for the chance to play their music and have some fun: "Hours later, stumble back to the place we call home/Don't know its name, gotta check it on my phone/Never worry, nevermore/8 AM time to rise, hit the road, yeah, more in store/Do it again, do it again/Gotta get in the van...Ready to ride/Do it again/If you wanna live high, you gotta do it again!" To cap things off, the album also features several superb dubs by Victor Rice (who also mixed the record), particularly "Sledgehammer Dub" and "Hot Milk Dub."

All in all, The Players Band's SKAMÖRGÅSBORD is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying album that offers the listener much to feast on.

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