Monday, September 20, 2021

Duff Review: John Bunkley "Sunshine and Chocolate"

The watercolor painting on the cover depicts Bunkley dancing face to face with a woman in a dress on the hood of a car.
Cover watercolor painting by John Bunkley
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Long-time ska fans will know John Bunkley as the lead singer from the fantastic late '80s/early '90s Detroit ska band Gangster Fun. Bunkley recorded two albums with that band--both essential first generation American ska records (Come See, Come Ska in 1989 and Time Flies When You're Gangster Fun in 1992; their ska "hits" were "Mario's Hideout," "I'd Buy a Gun," and "Fat Lady Skank")--and if you were into swing in the late '90s, he also was in The Atomic Fireballs (something I learned in Kenneth Partridge's Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing). Bunkley is back in the ska fold with a magnificent new six-track EP of rocksteady songs "about people breaking up with me," as he commented during a recent show with Bim Skala Bim in Brooklyn. Co-produced and co-performed by Eric Mazurak (of The Tellways), Bunkley's Sunshine and Chocolate (Vinyl/digital, Paradise Valley Records, 2021) is a beautifully crafted collection of hook-packed love songs. And everything just works--the contrast of Bunkley's wonderfully gruff and expressive voice with the shimmering music; the many fantastic small details, like the deft touches of organ, percussion, and guitar licks, and how the back-up vocals (some by Rachel Stokes of The Tellways) provide just the right punctuation and bursts of emotion; and the confidently intentional and unfussy arrangements of each track.

In "Sunshine and Chocolate," love is chemical and triggers the pleasure zones in our brains that bring us immense joy and satisfaction. Bunkley sings: "You so, so high baby/That's how you make me feel/I know I'm not that crazy/I know this love is real/You know you've got me sweating/And working overtime/I'm spending all my spare change/My nickels and dimes/You're like sunshine and chocolate/Melting in my pocket..." Whereas, the super catchy "Addicted" posits that love is a drug to consume (and illicit at that): "This love has been tried and convicted/Arrest me, 'cause I so addicted/Don't want to be your defendant/I'm so addicted."

Sometimes, as in the upbeat "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," you have to work a long week for love (in a song that reminds me of XTC's "Earn Enough for Us" without the anxiety): "Monday, landlord says he needs the rent/Tuesday, work twelve hours, just have it spent/Wednesday, digging holes, long days in the ditch/Thursday, kisses from my love, now I feel rich!" Other times, you have to be optimistic and keep trying to find it; and occasionally you luck out, stumbling across it (as in "Once in a While I Find Love"): "The game begins when you throw the first pitch/And I'm begging you--please--with this/A prospector looks for gold until he's rich...I live my life on kisses and hugs/I'm high on this and you are my drug/I take my time with pushes and shoves/And once in a while, I find love." The EP closes with "Stars," a hopeful, but dark around the edges, lullaby of sorts for grown-ups: "And there are no monsters outside my door/'Cause the stars are shining on me."

Don't sleep on John Bunkley's Sunshine and Chocolate--it's one of the best records I've heard all year.

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