Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Duff Review: Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra "Tombstone"

The cover features silhouettes of a group of cowboys and the a group that represents the band in a desert setting. The sun sets in the background behind them.
Vintage Vault Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After releasing two Skatalites tribute albums, the magnificent Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra--an incredibly gifted platoon of ska and jazz musicians led by Eitan Avineri (The Allentons)--have finally recorded an album of their own ska-jazz-big band originals (mostly written by Avineri), plus one Chris Murray cover that's been part of their live set for several years now. And, boy, it's been worth the wait. Tombstone is packed with memorable songs, features impeccable and compelling performances, and is one of the best sounding ska records in recent memory. It's a class album from start to finish.

As its title and cover art suggest, Tombstone has a loose Hollywood Western movie theme to it. Lead track "Monolith Ska" is one of several dramatic widescreen cinematic cuts (also see "Naftuli")--music that can fill the vast expanse of Monument Valley (featured in many of John Ford's Westerns), while "Tombstone" (which sounds a bit like The Specials "Vote for Me" in parts) has some menace to it, which is appropriate, since it was the location of the notorious Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Ford made a movie about it, too: My Darling Clementine). "Nostalgic Ska" is bright and chipper; "Grizzly Ska" is majestic; "Fortified" is a lovely jazzy reggae cut that could have come off Ernest Ranglin's Monty Alexander-produced Below the Bassline album; and "Sunrise from the East" is an awesome spaghetti Western ska track via the Far East.

Interestingly enough, the two cuts that don't really fit in with the theme of the album--but are great, nonetheless--are the two vocal cuts. Having said that, they're both about picking yourself up when you're in the dumps and seizing the fleeting day. It's wild to hear Chris Murray as a crooner fronting a big band singing "Moment" from his album Raw (key verse: "Hope and dreams are what we're made of/And those dreams should never die/It was given, this reason for living/Each moment the present no future can buy"). And we veer into Dean Martin/Rat Pack territory with "Habit of Happiness," co-written by The Aggrolites' Jesse Wagner and Avineri. Wagner urges the listener to rewire their brain to help survive this insane ride we're all on:

When the times, they seem tough
And you feel you've had enough
You give up and say there's nothing else that's left
To do
Oh, that ain't you
Let there be
An extraordinarily
Create that habit of happiness!

Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra's Tombstone is one of the best ska albums released in 2021, and will be high up on ska fans' playlists for years to come.

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