Monday, July 5, 2021

Duff Review: Bim Skala Bim "Sonic Tonic"

The album cover is a collage of pictures of the band members, plus other fellow ska musicians like Laurel Aitken and Bucket of The Toasters.

 (Review by Steve Shafer)

Bim Skala Bim's new record Sonic Tonic (Vinyl LP/digital, Jump Up Records/Specialized Records, 2021)--their 10th studio album since 1986 (!)--promises the listener an aural cure for whatever ails 'em and then delivers a collection of fantastic, upbeat songs (done in Bim's signature style: post-2 Tone ska influenced by '60s rock and '70s roots reggae) that'll put a smile on your mug, make you want to move and groove, and lend you some relief from your troubles for a spell (indeed, Bim has donated this album to Specialized Records and some of the proceeds will go to support mental health orgs in the UK). Sonic Tonic is full of exceptionally crafted and catchy songs about longing to revisit past experiences and get a charge from their emotional punch; the "soft power" of food to bring us together; the thrill of being young and rebellious; and making sure to take the time to enjoy life (it passes by quickly) and tend to your own mental/emotional health. As someone who's been following Bim Skala Bim since the late '80s (Tuba City was my intro to the band and I first saw them at NYC's Ritz in support of that terrific album on a bill with The Toasters and NY Citizens), it's particularly striking and satisfying to realize how consistently good they've been all these years (read my review of their previous album Chet's Last Call). Sonic Tonic is among Bim's finest and definitely one of the best ska albums you'll hear all year.

While the feelings expressed in album opener "Go Back" are universal--the desire to relive specific moments in our lives that were particularly pleasurable, satisfying, or momentous--I suspect its relevance and unsettling sting are stronger for the tail-end Boomers and Gen Xers who are grappling with aging bodies, lives that haven't turn out the way we'd hoped/planned (and have worn us down), the loss of family and friends, and knowing that their expiration date is closer in the rearview mirror than one would like. ("Go Back's" thematic twin is "Too Sentimental"; the singer has a hoard of images and sounds on magnetic tape in storage that remind him of what is lost and can't ever be reclaimed.) Having said all that, it's still a joyful song, since the memories are so good:

Well, I met a girl from the Ocean State
With ocean eyes, didn't hesitate
The way she smiles
The sun it shines
Forget about the rest of time
'Cause it goes so fast
Making your head spin
Remembering every place we've been

I wanna go back now
I wanna feel something, somehow
C'mon and take be back now

"Cuz a You" is about a different kind of longing, the wanderlust that drives the road warrior musician ever forward to the next destination on their itinerary:

Sinking in a couch
And felt those ants in my pants
It's true
Keep it moving

Every day moving on
Any old way
Moving on
We don't stay

Up all night and half the day
When you get me I'll be ready to go

While "Lightning" tells a tale of running moonshine, it's really about being young and daring and getting off on the thrill of driving fast and evading the law (and the music and tempo make it feel like our tires are barely gripping the road as we careen at hair-raising speeds along twisty back roads):

When they put the lightning in the jar
And it's ready for delivery
Put the bottle in the box in the back of my car
Drive it away, yeah

Let me know when you get it right
It's a fine night for delivery
I can keep it to the right in the bright moonlight
Hauling it away and

Staying off the interstate
Getting late and dark
Heart is at a higher rate
Feeling great, acting straight

No, it ain't too hard to mix it up
Do it in the back yard
Do it in the graveyard
Do it in the school yard
I don't care
I just get it there

Up to date and in your face
That's the way they are
Shoot me with your radar gun
"Thank you, son
Let's have some fun"

Staying off the interstate
It's getting late and dark
Heart pumping at a higher rate
Starting to hallucinate

Sailing through the knotty pines
Moony white and pale
Way too fast to read the signs

Drive across the county line...

The answer/cure to some of this unease, restlessness, dissatisfaction, and tension is offered in the superb track "Letting Go (The Loon)" (and its version "It's a Mix of Things (The Tinkerman)"), which serves as the thesis of the album and features guest vocals from King Hammond. For some Native American tribes in the Northwest, the loon is symbolic of harmony, generosity, and peace, and this song suggests one way to achieve it is to get together with a friend, share a bottle, talk through things/embrace those feelings, and then consciously free yourself of them.

Brain is getting thirsty
Mouth is kinda dry
I don't need no glasses
Pass the bottle, give me a try...

...Give me sense and balance
Go with what you know
Here's to getting to it
Here's to letting go

The follow-up to this advice is found in Bim's cover of Bob Marley's "Easy Skanking" (from 1978's Kaya, an album full of songs about love and love of herb) that the band contributed to Specialized Records' 2016 One Heart compilation:

Excuse me while I light my spliff
Good God, I gotta' take a lift
From reality I just can't drift
That's why I am staying with this riff
Take it easy, easy skanking
Got to take it easy, easy skanking

"Gumbo" is a fantastic, New Orleans jazz-infused, anti-racist ska track that posits that the simple act of people of all races and backgrounds coming together to share food and companionship can help allay the fears and anxieties over difference and otherness: "No us and them/Just me and you/and some tasty stew."

The final track on the album is the stellar instrumental "Last Boat to Monkville"--Madness' "Night Boat to Cairo" meets a Thelonious Monk riff--that starts off in familiar 2 Tone territory and then takes you on an unexpectedly marvelous trip (and that's Chris Rhodes of Spring Heeled Jack, The Bossones, and Toasters on those great t-bone solos). Play this one and watch the dance floor fill instantly!

For all the hype of "ska is back" lately, Bim Skala Bim's Sonic Tonic is yet more proof to add to an already stratospheric pile of evidence that it never left. It's still being practiced by one of the foremost pioneers of American ska and they're even better than ever.

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