Monday, November 23, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Bionic Rats "Alive in Dublin"

Self-released
Digital
2020

The cover features the band's logo--a stylized image of a rat--with a crowd of music fans in the background.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

For music fans, there's nothing as satisfying as a fantastic live recording of one of your favorite bands in top form, is there? Alive in Dublin, the outstanding new album from The Bionic Rats recorded at the end of last summer at the Lost Lane before everything went pear-shaped, certainly fits this bill--and serves as both a Bionic Rats greatest hits collection and celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the release of their debut album in 2009. I've long been drawn to The Bionic Rats' catchy, sing-along 2 Tone-influenced ska songs, as they're oftentimes quite funny, cheeky, and downright rude, but also genuine, insightful, honest to a fault, and coming from folks with their hearts and minds in all the right places (they're fiercely anti-racist--see "Half a Mind" and "Don't Be Giving It All That."). 

In this generous set, The Bionic Rats play songs about lurching from personal crisis to personal crisis ("Another Fine Mess"); waiting for a girl who's never going to call ("Bored to Tears": "Sitting at home pulling the balls off me jumper"); "buying local"/Irish pride ("Brand New Geansai"--the Irish word for jumper/sweater); how capitalism grinds us up while making someone else rich ("I'm Doing Good"); challenging Christians to actually do what Jesus is said to have preached ("Seen and Not Heard": "You know actions/Speak louder than words...I feel Christians/Should be seen and not heard"); unapologetically loving/playing reggae ("Red, Gold, and Green": "Reggae is the pallet that I paint with/Red, gold, and green/Talking about the things I bear witness to/On and off the Liffey’s quays/I’m not Jamaican/Dublin born and bred/I don’t wanna be a natty dread/I’m not a Rastaman and I have no God/I am, what I am, I am"); telling all the haters trying to bring you down to sod-off ("Twisted Little Fuckers": "You's can all see them/I am not alone/They're the undead/I feel sorry for their children"); loving the vinyl single life ("Hooked on 45s"); being on the hunt for ecstasy ("Annie Oakes"); and more--all concerned with trying to get by in life, not being evil, and having a bit of fun while doing so. With 16 tracks selected from all four of The 'Rats' studio albums (including T.B.R., which I reviewed a few years ago), Alive in Dublin is a stellar overview of the band for newbies, and long-time followers are sure to have some of their most beloved cuts included here. For those us of us not yet lucky enough to be able to catch The Bionic Rats live in person, this should tide us over until that great day finally arrives. 

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For those interested, Bionic Rats' singer/guitarist Del Bionic does a live streaming set via FB every Sunday at 9:00 pm (UTC).

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: The Uptones "Get Out of My Way" and Various Artists "415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
The cover illustration features stylishly dressed young men and women dancing.

  • Inspired to form after catching an English Beat show in San Francisco in 1981 (the same Beat tour that compelled a certain Rob Hingley to assemble The Toasters on the other side of the continent), The Uptones--comprised of a bunch of high school friends from Berkeley--became one of the biggest and most influential live bands on the Bay Area punk and new wave scene (see the 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace review below). The Uptones' reel-to-reel studio recordings from sessions in 1982 and 1983, and an EP issued on 415 Records in 1985, were played regularly on local commercial radio, and they opened for touring acts like Madness, the Go-Go's, X, Oingo Boingo, UB40, Billy Idol, Fishbone, The Untouchables, and--in full circle--The Beat. The excellent new Uptones' CD Get Out of My Way: The Early Recordings (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020) gathers all of their existing recordings from the first half of the '80s, the aforementioned studio tapes recorded while they were still in high school, plus their K.U.S.A. EP, fully documenting the heyday of these first wave American ska pioneers. (The only other album that captures the band from this period, and awesome tracks like "Radiation Boy," "Big Time," and "Outback," is the terrific The Uptones Live!! 924 Gilman, recorded at the second of two reunion shows there in 1989 with Operation Ivy--Tim Armstrong was one of their biggest fans--and released in 1995.)

    The first half of Get Out of My Way reveals that, despite their youth, The Uptones were a surprisingly good and accomplished act pretty much from the get-go. They wrote their own 2 Tone-influenced ska tracks like "Get Outta My Way" (a pointed message to the poseurs and conformists taking up space on the dance floor: "Who do you think you are, some kind of a cop?/Why did you come at all unless you plan to dance til you drop?") and "Out to Sea" (an anti-war/military-industrial complex song written at a time when Reagan was greatly increasing Cold War military spending and involving the USA in conflicts in Lebanon, Grenada, and Central America; the band is from the hotbed of liberalism, after all), and the ska-rock "K.U.S.A." (which pushes back against the media's outsized influence on our lives). But there's also reggae with "Your Hit Parade" (a broadside against the music industry) and Northern Soul with "Searching for Some Soul" (which swipes a bit from The Jam's "Start" and more from The Beatles' Rubber Soul) in mix. The K.U.S.A. EP is a more polished and mature affair, with soul, funk, rock, and new wave influences significantly more prominent in this great set of songs. The only downside is that there's not much space allotted for ska. Both Marc Wasserman's Ska Boom! An American Ska and Reggae Oral History and Aaron Carnes' In Defense of Ska forthcoming books spill a fair amount of ink on The Uptones (Wasserman devotes a whole chapter to them). So, it's a bit of fortuitous timing to have Get Out of My Way available to listen to while you read about the crucial role The Uptones played in the early development of ska on the West Coast.
  • The album cover features a white brick wall with the spray-painted image of a policeman holding up his arm and blowing a whistle.
      415 Records was a San Francisco-based indie label that was founded in 1978 in support of the local punk and new wave scene, and went on to partner with Columbia Records in the early '80s for higher-profile releases by Romeo Void, Translator, Wire Train, and Red Rockers. (415 is both San Francisco's area code, as well as the California penal code section for "disturbing the peace.") The fantastic new compilation 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020) collects 21 key releases from many of the more underground groups on the label--most of which have been out-of-print for decades--while offering the listener access to a segment of the vibrant and eclectic late '70s/early '80s SF underground music scene that rivaled anything going on in New York or LA at the time. Tracks from The Offs and The Uptones will be of most interest to Duff Guide to Ska readers. The Off's "Everyone's a Bigot"--from the debut 415 single in '78--is a dark punky, funky ska cut that bluntly and provocatively highlights how hatred and discrimination are endemic in all human beings (read my review of The Offs' wild First Record), while The Uptones' ska-rock anthem "K.U.S.A." expresses dread over how mass media has the extraordinary power to shape people's thoughts and behavior to sometimes nefarious ends. Other outstanding (non-ska) tracks here come from Pearl Harbor and The Explosions (the poppy new wave "Drivin'"), VKTMS (the sharp, melodic punk blow-off "No Long Good-byes"), Pop-O-Pies ("The Catholics Are Attacking"--not sure if this one's satire, but it's definitely catchy!), The Units (synth-punk gems "High Pressure Days" and "Warm Moving Bodies"), The Readymades (the swaggering punk tribute to the label/scene, "415 Music"--"What are we?/White boys making white noise!"), and Monkey Rhythm (the post-punky "This Must Be the Place"). If you were a non-mainstream teen during this era and pine for those incredible, but long-gone left-of-the-dial sounds, this compilation is for you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The New Normal Collaboration "Quarantined on Easy Street"

The cover illustration features a man sitting under a palm tree on a desert island. A sign in the sand states that people should keep 6 feet apart, and a message in a bottle floats in the water near the shore. In the distance, a city is visible across the water.

Self-released
LP/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

    As we face the prospect of a particularly bleak and deadly plague winter season--especially here in the USA--I don't need to remind you how the global covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone in myriad ways, forcing us to adapt our lives and livelihoods (if you still have one) as best we can until science can save us. Musicians, of course, have been hit very hard by the necessary public health restrictions; fortunately they've had some means of staying sane and keeping the creative juices flowing, thanks to current technology. Bi-coastal friends John Roy (Unsteady) and Allen Teboul (Clockwork Trio, The Slackers, The Allentons, Chris Murray) decided to use their covid time on a long-distance musical project that evolved into an album's worth of tracks involving almost three dozen top ska musicians working remotely from all over the US, as well as the UK and Brazil. The stellar result is The New Normal Collaboration's Quarantined on Easy Street, a ska/rocksteady/reggae concept record about life under covid-19 lockdown, and all of the critical, existential issues dogging the USA that have come into much sharper focus--and been exacerbated/exploited by Trump--during this time. 

Quarantined on Easy Street is almost evenly split between vocal tracks and superb instrumentals (like the jazzy, heroic-sounding "Hazard Pay" and "Barrio Bridge"--the latter a Facebook page for people living in several Hispanic neighborhoods in San Diego and a resource/means of connection during the pandemic), the majority of which were written by Roy (with several of the vocalists contributing lyrics). King Django starts the record off with the phenomenal "Learn or Burn," which posits that we're not going to be able to fix all that ails our broken society until we find a way to truly care about each other--and that can only be achieved through "Love, my brothers and sisters, it's so simple/Learn to love one another...and teach love." After a wicked melodica solo, Django sums up the last year in America under the chaos president: 

"Some selling hate
And enough people buy it
Better feed each other with love
As a steady diet

Everywhere is disquiet
Some start a riot
While some decry it
Some just want peace and quiet

Some of them pimp out the nation
And promote separation
Some spread disinformation
While some take dictation

Some of them deal with predation
And they cause starvation
Some of them push conflagration
While they sip their libation

Some of them run plantation
And then they beg for donation
Then they take vacation
And they talk reparation

Through some a dem rich, but dem gwan like a witch"

"Nobody Did It" is about how many on the right have adopted the stance that they're not responsible for any of their actions/choices--anything that doesn't pan out in their favor/comport to their version of reality is a result of them being victimized by the weirdly powerful left (Roy sings, "There's always a hand to help you/But still you always refuse/You can't always play the victim/You won't be excused"). A fantastic duet of sorts between Mark QMaxx Lyn (Slackers) and Dunia Best (Dubistry), "Great Divide" is an anti-racist plea for unity (Lyn toasts, "You’re on one side and I am the other/I’m not your enemy, I’m just your brother"). "Mile in Their Shoes" decries the shocking lack of empathy that's evidently rampant in large swathes of the country in reaction to the massive Black Lives Matter protests over the past summer ("Do you think others deserve all of this suffering?/You close your eyes and pretend it's not happening/You've been blinded by your hypocrisy/'Why are there protests?' It's a big mystery/You don't want to hear just where they're coming from/Them--are the people taking your freedom"). "Connected" celebrates the shared human experiences that have the great power to bond and heal us--exactly what we all need in isolating times like these ("You could be near me or a thousand miles away/It doesn't matter where or when/With every note we sing and every note we play/Music makes us whole again"). 

The album finishes with "Reasoning," which expresses the hope that truth will eventually triumph over falsehoods and propaganda ("Full of hate with no reason/There's no light in their eyes/And their hearts have been hardened/By a network of lies/Let your voice be your weapon/Let your shield be your words/Let there be no confusion/Let the people be heard"), and that there will be a reckoning for those who chose to weaponize the pandemic for their own political ends, and not do all they could to protect us and save lives ("Will there ever be justice/for the thousands of dead?"). I'm all on board with these sentiments, but with the stark reality that over 70 million Americans voted for four more years of lies, conspiracy theories, white supremacy, self-dealing, corruption, incompetence, and lawlessness, it's going to be a long, hard slog back toward anything remotely resembling a civil society striving for "a more perfect Union." Quarantined on Easy Street is one of the albums to play to keep your spirits up until we all get there.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Jah Jazz Orchestra "Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Comprised mainly of Swiss and French jazz musicians with a serious love of '60s-era Jamaican music, Jah Jazz Orchestra is a superb ensemble that is as equally comfortable playing ska, rocksteady, and reggae as they are jazz. Their Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra (Vinyl LP/CD/digital, Brixton Records, 2020; available in the USA through Jump Up Records) is a magnificent debut, warmly and vibrantly recorded, and full of both '60s JA ska classics and well-chosen American jazz standards. Jah Jazz Orchestra's musicianship is off the charts (they make it all seem so effortless) and their improvisational skills are formidable. They're easily in the same league as Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (when TSPO is in a ska-jazz mood), Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra, NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, and Jump With Joey. Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra opens with a terrific version of The Skatalites' "Ska La Parisienne" (which I was first introduced to back around 1989 at a Scofflaws gig)--and they also cover Lloyd Knibb's "King Solomon." Other highlights are a knockout take on Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus," which is full-on jazz in its first several measures, until the rocksteady rhythm section kicks in, and the tune's incredible melody is explored by a variety of instruments. Dizzie Gillespie's pioneering Afro-Cuban jazz cut "Manteca" (co-written with Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller) is repurposed as "Manteska" and transformed into a breakneck speed ska track that keeps the original's wonderful shifts to jazz-lounge--of course, TSPO also recorded this for their live 2006 album Gunslingers (it's right up their alley). Jah Jazz Orchestra also cover Gillespie's "Tin Tin Deo" (composed by Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller), which I was first introduced to by TSPO (for better or worse, most of my knowledge of jazz standards has come through ska). Duke Ellington's "The Mystery Song" is recast as a fantastically slinky and sophisticated reggae-jazz cut. One of the most radical reimaginings is Jah Jazz Orchestra's cover of Fats Waller's "St. Louis Shuffle" (renamed "St. Louis Skank"), which they've turned into a sprightly skinhead reggae instrumental that would've made Jackie Mittoo proud. Without a doubt, this is one of the best ska records of 2020--one that I'll be revisiting many, many times.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Green Torrejas "Green Torrejas" b/w "The Prisoners" and Stop the Presses "Dub in the Bank"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
The paper record label includes the imprint name (Canana Records), as well as an illustration of bandoliers.
  • The two skinhead reggae tracks featured on Green Torrejas' outstanding new single "Green Torrejas" b/w "The Prisoners" (Vinyl single, Canana Records, 2020) are directly inspired by the "spaghetti Western" films that comprise Italian director Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, For a Few Dollars More in 1965, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 1966), along with their accompanying soundtracks by Ennio Morricone. Of course, these very same movies and others of their ilk captivated many of the early reggae originators, like Lee "Scratch" Perry and The Upsetters, The Crystalites, The Hippy Boys, and others, who produced a number of incredible "Western reggae" sides in response (which are collected on the excellent Trojan comp For a Few Dollars More: 28 Shots of Western Inspired Reggae). As the Green Torrejas hail from Buenos Aires, Argentina, it should be noted that their country has its own version of the cowboy in the gauchos, who evoke mythic/heroic qualities similar to their American counterparts (surely the spaghetti Westerns were popular there...). Green Torrejas' sound is in The Upsetters' mold--their instrumentals are keyboard-focused, musically quote bits from Morricone's Dollars' scores, and feature the requisite gunshots, ricochets, and other dramatic movie sound effects. "Green Torrejas" ("Green Fritters") is a moody theme song of sorts that conjures up images of cowboy anti-heroes battling/evading corrupt forces in unforgiving desert landscapes and beat up frontier towns, while "The Prisoners" is proudly defiant, as if our protagonists have escaped from the hands of the law or grips of the black hats. This is a great single worth tracking down (Canana Records is based in Mexico, so it'll be an import if you don't live there).
"Dub in the Bank"
  • Brooklyn-via-Miami's Stop the Presses have issued two stellar, Agent Jay-crafted dubs of tracks from their terrific 2019 Money in the Bank album: "Dub the Presses" b/w "Hugo Dub" (digital, self-released and lathe cut single, Revolution Vintage; both 2020). If you've never heard them, Stop the Presses makes bright, catchy, new-wave tinged ska and reggae that leans more toward Santigold than No Doubt (and their recent album includes a great ska cover of Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party"). "Dub the Presses" is a version of "Stop the Presses"--which is about pushing back on those who pump out disinformation and propaganda while denouncing journalism attempting to report truth as "fake news": "The lies you're spreading, the beds they wetting/We're ready to throw this whole thing out." "Hugo" is a searing portrait of someone who's gone through a bitter break-up, but was no angel himself in the process ("Spit out the nails that have been spoken/Now start choking on your own spit"); its dub sheds some of the biting commentary to focus on the cut's rather sweet melody. I'm kicking myself for missing out on the now sold-out lathe cut Dub in the Bank single, but maybe Sammy Kay will do another batch someday?

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: The Bartenders "Tańcz I Klaszcz" b/w "Cebron" and Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16 "Love Will Tear Us Apart" b/w "Version"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • The cover illustration features a woman's legs dancing on the Moon with two sets of hands clapping.
     While The Bartenders' songs on their sensational new 45 "Tańcz I Klaszcz" ("Dance and Clap") b/w "Cebron" ("Onion") (Vinyl single, Bad Look Records, 2020) are sung in Polish--which might be a perceived barrier for some non-Polish speakers--their music is in the unmistakably universal (and accessible) language of ska. "Tańcz I Klaszcz" is a driving, Motown-like ska track that sure delivers on what's promised (commanded?) in the title/chorus (I wish I knew what was being sung about in the verses--it sure sounds like there's drama and heartbreak in there). In contrast, "Cebron" is a lovely and slightly mysterious jazzy ska cut with a great horn riff. This single is very much worth tracking down--be sure to keep The Bartenders on your radar.
On a side note, this year The Bartenders also released a tribute album to a fantastic all-female, pop, big-beat, and ska Polish group called Alibabki that was founded in 1963 and performed up through the late-'80s. Of note to Duff Guide to Ska readers, in 1965 they released the Jamajca Ska EPwhich contained pop-ska originals (like "Echo Ska") and covers ("Wash Wash Ska," a version of Byron Lee, Keith Lyn, and Ken Lazarus' "Jamaica Ska"), and clearly had a big impact on The Bartenders. More recently, Alibabki released a postcard Flexi ska single backed The Bartenders called "Już Nie Twist."
  • The paper label of the single features the name of the artist, the song title, and the imprint, Happy People Records.
     Joy Division's Ian Curtis was such an enormous fan of reggae that his bandmates, who formed New Order after Curtis' death by suicide in 1980, covered Curtis' favorite reggae track--Keith Hudson's "Turn the Heater On"--during their 1982 John Peel session for the BBC's Radio One (the EP of this session is very much worth obtaining). In fact, there's a lyric in Curtis' most iconic Joy Division track "Love Will Tear Us Apart" ("Why is the bedroom so cold?/You've turned away on your side...") that was no doubt inspired by Hudson's song ("Turn the heater on...Tonight/For I feel so cold at night/With you by my side will be all I need"). With this Ian Curtis--Keith Hudson connection in mind, it makes sense that a few reggae covers of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" already have been recorded (by Jäh Division and Italee), though Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16's is the best I've heard by far. Originally released on the 2018 Scotch Bonnet compilation Puffer's Choice, Volume II, Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16's killer roots reggae version of "Love..."--with echoey, almost jungle-sounding percussion that honors the original and gives what could have become too much of a dirge some life--is now available as a single with an exclusive dub mix on the B-side (Vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020). This version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" checks all of the right boxes and then some for anyone who loves both their post-punk and roots reggae like I do.