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.

No comments: