Thursday, January 7, 2021

Duff Review: The Co-operators & Friends: "Beating the Doldrums"

The pencil drawing features a figure hunched over playing a melodica in a recording studio with instruments and gear strewn about, and plants growing everywhere.
Waggle Dance Records
Digital, 2020
LP, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As I sit here typing out my review of The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums, I worry that I won't do this phenomenal and beautifully crafted album justice. Not only have ace musician/producer Eeyun Purkins and his crew of exceptional collaborating singers and players created a collection of stellar ska and roots reggae songs, they've managed to adroitly articulate all of the injustice, absurdity, violence, oppression, suffering, and dread that many people experience while simply trying to get by in this day and age. The Co-operators & Friends' Beating the Doldrums delivers relatable glimpses into everyday lives that are sharply and unfussily portrayed--and, at times, are almost poetic in their imagery. And the music is highly melodic, always memorable, and absolutely magnificent. 

A common thread in many of these songs is the challenge of trying to survive in the big city. The majestic reggae track "Gentrification" is both celebration of the vibrant multicultural communities that thrive in less-wealthy urban neighborhoods (expressed through the fantastic diversity of food, like Joe Stummer's "Bhindi Bhagee") and staunch defense against greedy real estate developers intent on destroying it all just to line their pockets. (It's so catchy that I woke up this morning with this track running though my head.)

Down on the city’s street
I can hear the distant beat
Of the soundsystem
Rocking the bass and drum

Cramped from the tower blocks
Down to the squats and shops
Buy Ackee caliloo
Bhaji, Dahl and samosa, too

Rich in culture and community
Next door neighbours like family
And I loved it that way
Before the money men came to play

Gentrification (Invasion, invasion)
Gentrification (Invasion invasion)

You talk with scorn uptown
About how things are going down
You talk about our streets in fear
Dangerous 'cos you're not welcome here

You come to take life blood
From the place you call the hood
You're sending in the law
Looking for papers, drugs and more

Joe Yorke's transcendent falsetto on this tracks and others is something to behold and, as I've previously noted in another review, similar in calibre to The Congos and Junior Murvin. 

The urgent ska cut "Sleepwalkers" conveys how urban life can be bleak and soul-crushing (and suggests that escaping to the country may be the only salvation); Kitma delicately sings, "Even when the sun shines, it's raining/So we stay here in the cage, and fire, dazing/And the smoke clouds up my face/I'll sleepwalk back to bed/And dream about the right way/I've got to out of this place." In the mournful "Agony," Lintang sings about how she is left despondent and almost paralyzed by how our system of living has failed so many people in myriad ways: "Agony, agony got me front, left, and sideways...everything seems broken." "Concrete, Steel and Stone" (released as a single on Happy People Records--read my review of it) features Perkie's gorgeous vocals (delivered quite gently, as she's bearing bad tidings that we know in our hearts are true), which float over a brisk ska beat and express profound sorrow and regret that we live the way we do--out of synch with nature and the world around us, in a prison of our own making (that may be turning into a tomb): "Cars cross fibres, thread veins, sew layers, vessels of busy brains/We don't always notice our chains/So, we don't make change/We stick to the root we feel most comfortable in/But is this your skin?" Lives are off-kilter or becoming increasingly untenable.

But not all is unbearable. 

The bright Spanish-language "Florecer" (to thrive or flourish) sung by Elio AM sounds like something that could have come off The Clash's Sandinista (which I've been listening to a lot, since it was just the 40th anniversary of its release), and the sprightly ska of "Pocket Change" (are you down on your luck and asking for some or is it all you have to get by on?) features some great guitar and keyboard solos. And there's the righteous reggae cut "The Thief & The Liar," about a reckoning for corrupt politicians, who ignore their responsibility to serving the public good at their own peril. Perkie's delivery is fantastically laid-back and confident--world-weary, but determined to set things right.

We could spend our time waiting for them to save us
It's like wasting your days waiting for the bus
The first one doesn't come, and the second one's too late
So, it's best to walk your own way and seal your own fate...

...Bring another log for the fire
And throw on the Thief and the Liar

Can you feel the flames burning?
Bet you wish you weren't a politician
You call us criminals, but you're the crooks that throw the book for all the liberties that you took
You dig your own grave, hard and dogged Thief
The wolves are hungry, looking for something to eat
And they're coming for you, live or dead
It's all on your own head, you made your own bed...

Joe Yorke sings about the casual violence encountered on nighttime transport after the pubs close down is given--in a gently parodic fashion--Homeric epic poem status in the delightful "War on the Nightbus" (shades of "War ina Babylon"):

It was night then and the moon was low
Im was on the night bus moving so slow
Packed in like sardines, tight we were tight
Somebody tell me please did the city sleep that night?

Down in St Paul’s they were dancing til the morning
But on the top deck they started warring
They a shout and they push and push come to shove
Down the stairs he fell, crashing down from above

War, war, war on the night bus
Ism and schism, they fight and they fuss

He was loud and his mouth ran so fast
He stayed on the bus and I saw it sprint past
But he didn’t stay long, the eviction came firm
After he tumbled down the stairs he landed on the curb
I saw a look of shock glimmer in his eyes
As the fists and the kicks silenced his cries
He had it coming I have to say
But I just can’t take the conflict these days

It's brilliant.

For all the longing to flee the concrete jungle, life in the country is not necessarily idyllic. In the gorgeous "High on the Mountain," Beanie sings about someone who couldn't make the escape with her--the loss she feels even in such an awe-inspiring place: "Oh, I wonder if you ever think of me/Or if time's blown your memory/As I listen to the breeze blow gently through the trees..." In the beautiful, dream-like track "Turnpike Town" with vocals by Joe Yorke, this hidden, semi-mythical spot in the countryside may not be the hoped for Zion: "You might get chased by a pack of dogs/Or you might just be fine, who knows?...You could say that it's a refuge from Babylon's cruel embrace/But we all know liberty lives in a long forgotten place." Perhaps it's best to seek a balance between city and country life?

There are no answers offered in Beating the Doldrums. Yet the emotions and many of the experiences expressed in these songs are shared by everyone--and The Co-operators & Friends' music that expresses all of these hopes, fears, and blues, is in a language that unites us, can be a companion that sustains us in our darkest hours, and has the potential to save us from ourselves. 

The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums is, hands down, one of the best records I've heard in recent memory.

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