Friday, August 7, 2020

Duff Review: Prince Fatty and Shniece Mcmenamin "Funkin' for Jamaica (N.Y.)"

The cover features a silhouette of a woman wading in calm ocean waters, with the sun setting in the background.Evergreen Recordings
Digital single
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

"Funkin' for Jamaica (N.Y.)" is Prince Fatty and Shniece Mcmenamin latest effort in their ongoing collaborative project of creating reggae versions of their favorite soul songs from the '60s, '70s, and '80s (see my review of their recent Disco Deception EP). This extraordinary, ecstatic 1980 funk-jazz-soul track was originally written and recorded by jazz trumpeter Tom Browne and singer Toni Smith as a tribute to Browne's hometown of Jamaica, Queens (and was #1 for a month on Billboard's R&B chart and made the top 10 UK singles chart). While "Funkin' for Jamaica" has been sampled and covered by many hip-hop and soul artists, Prince Fatty and Shniece Mcmenamin's recording is believed to be the first reggae version (and with a song title like this, it certainly calls out for one). Both renditions open with a high, sustained trumpet note, but the Friday night, good times funk and magnificent jazz improvisations at the edges of the original are traded in for a more sedate, late night, "Quiet Storm" riddim track--though Shniece's showcased vocals give Smith's impressive (Chaka Khan-ish) take a run for their money.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Duff Review: Detroit Riddim Crew "Do Something" b/w The Skapones "The Girl Inside"

The cover artwork features both the American and British flags with a checkerboard pattern over them; and both band's logos.Abbey Productions
7" picture sleeve single/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

It's absolutely fitting that the boss new release from the Detroit Riddim Crew and The Skapones is a split single. Not only is this format a throwback to the DIY 1980s, the sounds captured within will remind one of that era in ska, too (if I told you that both songs are from one of Unicorn's Skankin' 'Round the World comps, and you didn't know better, you'd believe me). The Detroit Riddim Crew's  awesome "Do Something" is a heady mix of Gangster Fun (also from Detroit!) and The Toasters circa Skaboom!--and is a call to action to get involved (vote, volunteer, advocate) and change what's wrong in the world around you: "Get off the ground/Quit doing nothing/Put down the bacon/Get off your ass/Do something!" (A portion of the proceeds from this single will go to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.) The UK's Skapones are heavily 2 Tone-influenced (their singer Paul Willo, of course, wrote The Specials' biography and runs their fan site) and their poignant track "The Girl Inside" is about loving someone who's struggling with addiction and other demons, and the heartbreak of not being able to fix it for them: "I pray for your strength to find/The hell that you go through...The girl inside has no idea/Of why she keeps holding on to her fears/You're so far away from me/But come what may/I'll love you 'till my dying day." Hopefully, we'll see more of these kind of singles from Abbey Productions in the future!

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Duff Review: Mato "Also sprach Zarathustra" b/w "Maiden Voyage"

The artwork reproduces the paper label of a vinyl single with the printed information of this release (this Stix logo, a take on the Stax logo, features a hand holding a joint).Stix Records
7" vinyl single
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Mato is the stage name for the French producer Thomas Blanchot, who transforms classical, hip-hop, and pop works into wonderful reggae/dub creations. This incredible single is spun off his 2019 digital-only album Classical Dub (check out his rendition of "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" from Bizet's opera Carmen that is around the 1:36 mark in this video!) and features Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra," which, of course, is forever associated in popular culture with Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi movie 2001. This version dispenses with the widescreen grandeur of the original, but holds onto its dramatic flourishes in an endearingly '70s cheesy fashion--the results are a cross between the theme for the Bigfoot/UFO obsessed In Search Of... TV show and a classic King Tubby dub production. The flip side unexpectedly contains an out-of-this-world version of Herbie Hancock's 1965 jazz classic "Maiden Voyage" (over the sea, as opposed to space, time, and existence), making this one mighty double-A sided single.

[This 45 is available through www.juno.co.uk.]

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Duff Review: Max Romeo "Revelation Time"

The album cover features a painting of Romeo and incorporates a hammer and sickle under the title of the album,
VP Records/17 North Parade
CD/LP
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Even though Max Romeo's Revelation Time was issued as a series of singles for the Black World label prior to the record's release in 1975, according to Steve Barrow's 1999 liner notes for Blood and Fire's Open the Iron Gate, 1973-1977, Romeo always intended these to form a concept album that would help support political efforts to alleviate the dire income inequality present in post-colonial Jamaica: "It came from 1972, when we had a revolutionary movement, with Mr. Michael Manley trying to change society from capitalism to socialism. At the time I was socialist-minded--beca’ it’s the only form of poor people government, socialism. So, bein’ a socialist, that album was actually fed into that area; it was helping to project awareness among really uneducated people." And, at least in artistic execution, Romeo wildly succeeded. Recorded at Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark (with "Scratch" as engineer) and at Randy's Sound Studios, and produced by Clive Hunt, Pete Weston, and Lee "Scratch" Perry (for "Three Blind Mice"), Romeo's absolutely stellar, highly melodic roots reggae tunes presented within lean arrangements focus one's attention on his uncompromising lyrics railing against poverty and injustice (with Old Testament-style retribution to come). The album packs a series of mighty wallops that still land on their targets to this very day.

Throughout, Romeo's fantastic singing is impassioned, but not overly dramatic, which makes boldly revolutionary tracks like "Warning Warning" all the more chilling (particularly, if you're a predatory capitalist):

Your life here on earth has been filled with luxury and pleasure
You have made yourself fat for the day of slaughter
You've not paid the men that work in your fields
The cries of those that gather your crops
Have reached the ears of Jah, Jah Almighty

Heads a go roll down Sandy Gully one of these days...


In a similar vein, the tremendous "Revelation Time" is less Biblical apocalypse and more Workers of the World Unite in its message (that also addresses police corruption and anti-Rasta discrimination):

Revelation time
Wedge up your hammer!
Sharpen up your sickle!

The simplest thing is,"bang, bang, bang"
What is this on our little island?
If every man was equal, you see
There would be none of this poverty

And they could not trim
Dreadlocks, in prison, prison
Victimization would have to stop
They could not trim
Dreadlocks, in prison, prison
Liars and thieves would not be cops

The mesmerizing, bare-bones "Blood of the Prophet" conveys the hardship of metaphorical exile and continuing to pay for the Biblical sins of one's forefathers and mothers, even though one leads a righteous life:

Rachel mourns for her children
They have killed the prophet
And burned down the altar
Whooah, what a slaughter!
The blood of the prophet
Is on the shore of Babylon
Whoah, what a woeful situation!

But I and I and I and I and I and I and I
Have done no wrong...

"Open the Iron Gate" presses the case that Babylon is out of control and deliverance is sorely needed ("I want to survive this armageddon/Poverty and frustration/What a wicked situation/Jah, Jah, open up the iron gate/And let your children repatriate"), while "Tacko" calls out the "fools" who reported/believed Rastafarianism was finished because Haile Selassie had died. "Three Blind Mice" is about the ridiculousness of a police raid on a party: "The police checked the deejay/Tell him to turn off sound/The crowd never like that/Them start gathering 'round...Let the music play!"; this single ended up being a hit for Romeo on Perry's Upsetter label.

Most poignantly, Romeo's grappling with all of the needless suffering inflicted by the powers that be on his fellow human beings leads to the most empathetic song on the album, "A Quarter Pound of I'cence," which expresses the anxiety, desperation, and restlessness that comes from living in a mad, oppressive economic system--and the longing for a temporary escape by getting high:

There ain't no peace in this part of town
I can't stand this roaming, this roaming around
I have the urge to go out of my mind
There must be some peace, some peace I can't find


Romeo's studio work with Perry on Revelation Time led them to expand their collaboration on War Ina Babylon. While side A of that record is brilliant (as is Perry's production), and the title track and "I Chase the Devil" are bona fide roots reggae classics, Revelation Time is a consistently better album start to finishFollowing the smash international success of War Ina Babylon in 1976, the previously JA-only Revelation Time was issued (with alterations in tracks and running order) in Canada in 1977 as Warning Warning! on Surface/Jam Sounds; in the USA in 1978 as Open the Iron Gate on United Artists Records as part of their incredible "Anthology of Reggae Collectors Series"; and in the US and UK in 1999 as Open the Iron Gate, 1973-1977 on Blood and Fire Records. Yet, the delayed release of Revelation Time outside of Jamaica ended up putting off many listeners and unfairly diminished the public perception of this record, as it seemed to be a throwback in the progression of roots reggae and its stripped down sound was so radically different from Perry's rich and masterful War Ina Babylon production.

While the Blood and Fire version of this album is a must have (the mastering is extraordinary and it includes the essential "Melt Away," "Valley of Jehosaphat," and "Fire Fe The Vatican" tracks), VP's CD edition includes additional dubs, like "Heads A Go Roll" and "Hammer and Sickle," and equally great and politically-charged contemporaneous singles, including "Socialism Is Love" and "Black Equality" (note: the LP doesn't contain these bonus tracks). If you're interested in Max Romeo's masterpiece Revelation Time, copies of both should be acquired.

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Monday, July 20, 2020

Duff Review: Los Aggrios "Alcohol" b/w "Manten La Fe"

The cover features an cartoon skinhead with a lemon head smiling, winking, and waving.Steady Beat Recordings
7" picture sleeve single/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Los Aggrios' dynamite second single is anything but bitter (the band's name in English--as the cover artwork might infer--is The Sour). "Alcohol" is not a cover of The Special AKA track of the same name, but rather a bright, Harry J Allstars-like swig of late '60s instrumental skinhead reggae that sounds like what it feels like to be relaxed, happy, and carefree when you have just the right buzz on. "Manten La Fe" ("Keep the Faith") has a similar vibe, but with an organ melody that just as effectively could be a vocal part (and a terrific sung song at that--surely, a great set of lyrics could be derived from the tune's title). Keep your eye on this excellent LA-based band.

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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Duff Review: The Blackstones and The Officinalis - "Change of Plan" b/w The Officinalis "Santantonio Special"

The cover artwork features an illustration of an aloe vera plant, which also is the name of the record label that issued this single.Aloe Vera Records
7" vinyl single/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is the third single from Italy's finest purveyor of vintage mid-'60s ska sounds bar none, The Officinalis (Latin for plants used for medicinal purposes). For the A side, they team up with The Blackstones, a UK-based reggae vocal trio that had some success in the late '80s and early '90s (and were notable for being one of the last acts that Coxsone Dodd recorded prior to his death in 2004; their album Tribute to Studio One was issued in 2005--since I never can get enough of the "Real Rock" riddim, I have to point out that their "Don't Chuck Badness" is a great cut off this record). "Change of Plan" is a beautiful--if heartbreaking--plea to a wayward partner, full of absolution and hope: "But, if you love me true/All you have to do/Is come on home." The falsetto harmonies, which may remind one of The Melodians, The Mighty Diamonds, The Techniques, Carlton and the Shoes, and others, are spot-on and splendid. "Santantonio Special" is an incredible, minor-key, mid-tempo, spaghetti-Western-ish original instrumental that sounds like a cut Prince Buster Allstars (essentially The Skatalites) would have recorded back in the day (speaking of Prince Buster, make sure to check out The Officinalis' stellar tribute to him, "The Champ," off their second single). This record is a knockout--don't miss it!

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Huge thanks to Sergio Rallo for the recommendation!

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Duff Review: Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra "Tunnel Vision"

The cover features a steam locomotive with a large trail of smoke pouring from its smokestack.Self-released
Digital single
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra's previous releases have been focused almost exclusively on covers of classic Skatalites cuts, this new digital single is the first to feature one of the band's original songs. And what a fantastic track it is! Typically, Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra blends '60s ska and Jamaican jazz with '40s style American big band jazz, but on this outing they mix in some reggae and the results are outstanding. The tune is wonderful, the arrangements are compelling, and the musicianship is absolutely top-notch. Word is that this is the first in a series of forthcoming singles and I suspect that you won't want to miss what's coming next down the line.

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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Duff Review: Brixton Sounds "Sonidos de Brixton" b/w "Me Perdi"

The artwork is a reproduction of a Steady Beat Recordings paper label for a vinyl single.Steady Beat Recordings
7" vinyl single/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This stellar new single from Oaxaca, Mexico's Brixton Sounds contains two original tracks of '60s ska and Jamaican jazz with hints of cool jazz, bossa nova, and samba--all impeccably performed and produced--and will remind one of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Jump with Joey, and the originators, The Skatalites. A theme song of sorts, "Sonidos de Brixton" is an elegant, almost cinematic instrumental with a lovely melody in the repeated chorus, while the moody "Me Perdi" ("I Got Lost") features the gorgeous and expressive vocals of Alondra Hernández. It doesn't get much better than this.

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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Duff Review: The Lions "The Loser"

Names You Can Trust
7" vinyl single/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

It's hard to believe that it's been five years since The Lions released their magnificent Soul Riot (here's some of what I wrote about it back then: "I am in awe of this record. Like Fishbone's Truth and Soul or Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, The Lions' absolutely phenomenal Soul Riot is full of songs of defiance, despair, anger, and pure joy (where love and lust are concerned) that reflect the Black American experience--as the nation's horrific legacy of slavery continues to play out in so many devastating ways (in particular, see "When It Rains," "At a Loss," and "Going Nowhere")). Fortunately, they're finally back with a superb new single, a cover of Derrick Harriott's perfect 1967 rocksteady hit "The Loser." The Lions' take on it at first seems pretty faithful, but when you hear the Impressions-like harmonies in the chorus and other responses, Alex Désert's silky lead vocals, and Black Shakespeare's deft deejay commentary, it all ascends to the next level.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Duff Review: The Equators "Nice to Be Nice"

The cover features an illustration of someone dancing next to the sun.Self-released
Digital single
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Equators, of course, are the all-Black Birmingham-based ska band that pre-dated The Beat, opted to sign with Stiff Records rather than 2 Tone, backed Desmond Dekker on some of his 1980 Black and Dekker album, inspired The Untouchables to form, and released one incredible album (Hot) in 1981, just as 2 Tone was flaming out.

The Bailey brothers (Don, Rocky, and Leo) reformed the band with several new members in 2017 and released the digital single "Bed of Roses" (about the difficult experience of immigrating from the Caribbean to the UK in the 1960s). The Equators' excellent new single "Nice to Be Nice" is much more upbeat--they're pitching it as this summer's anthem and certainly have made a strong case for it. It's a sweet, crisp, and brisk ska track that's about nothing more than the minor miracle (particularly these days) of how a beautiful day can make you happy: "Feeling nice/Feeling really good/As I walk through my neighborhood/No dark clouds in the sky/Make everybody feel so nice." Put this on if your mood needs a boost.

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