Monday, June 1, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Victor Rice "Drink"

The album cover features simple illustrations of two fish surrounded by air bubbles.
Easy Star Records
LP
2020

Victor Rice's Drink is the second album in a planned trilogy of what Rice calls his "samba-rocksteady" instrumentals (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of his first LP Smoke). Recorded in Belgium with Nico Leonard (Pyrotechnist, The Moon Invaders, Pum Pum Hotel studio) and New York with Ticklah (Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and Easy Star All-Stars) at the controls and members of The Moon Invaders, Tommy Tornado, Mr. T Bone, The Slackers, The Scofflaws, and others performing, Drink is yet another top-notch album from Victor Rice and filled with evocative tracks expressing a gamut of moods. Indeed, as Rice comments in the album's press materials, “Most of these songs were written during a difficult period in my life, and there was a lot of drinking involved, so they were made under the influence of red wine. Once the sequence of songs were finished, it felt like a story arc, from the first glass to the last."

Within this context, one can infer what each song's rhythms and melodies might be meant to express. Drink opens with "La Mura" ("The Wall"), which has a bit of a dramatic spaghetti Western reggae edge to it--we're on a long, never-ending slog and soon hitting our limit--and the horns convey increasing tension as the song unfolds. "Simão" ("Simon") features a series of elaborate rock guitar riffs that seem to be in an increasingly heated conversation with the more restrained horns (but, it turns out, is named after Rice's cat), while the stately and cinematic "The Demander"--which refers to Rice's first car that he sometimes drove "recklessly"--has echoes of Prince Buster's "Gangsters" and "City Riot" (and sounds very much like Prince Busters' All Stars--which, of course, was comprised of many of The Skatalites). Like the meme of the cartoon dog drinking coffee while the room around him is ablaze, "This is Fine" is bright and chipper on the surface, but in denial of something more ominous--and "Bebida" ("Drink") sounds delightfully carefree, like when you have a good buzz going at an outdoor cafe and all your troubles recede from your thoughts. "Arouche" is refined, but busy--and refers to the slightly seedy, downtown São Paulo neighborhood known for its nightlife (where Rice lives). There's a nobleness to "Five," as if someone's valiantly grinding it out each workday until quitting time (so they can finally live at happy hour). "Madrid" has a muted, almost downcast melody, but with a stinging guitar solo (what went down here?). Last call is where we are with the dubby "Time to Go"; things have gotten pretty fuzzy and sloppy, and it's time to pour oneself into a cab.

While one is certainly sad for what Rice went through, his rough patch inspired the creation of some wonderful music. Will Comer round out this trilogy?

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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Ska Jazz Messengers "Introspección"

The album cover features an illustration of a parrot in flight.Liquidador Music
LP/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Even though their home country has been in the midst of economic collapse, political chaos, and social unrest (and, no, I'm not referring to the United States here), Venezuela's Ska Jazz Messengers led by Rafel Frías have managed to pull off a minor miracle with the release of their debut album Introspección--an impeccably produced record filled with gorgeous and superbly crafted ska-jazz tracks.

Many of the songs on Introspección are in an elegant Skatalites/Jamaican jazz vein--see the magnificent "Tunja" mixed by Victor Rice; The Mighty Vikings' cover "Up and Down" with Jump with Joey's Joey Altruda on guitar and double bass; their single "Mil Veces No" (which we reviewed previously); and "Asian Moon" with Desorden Publico's Horatio Blanco on vocals and guitar, and Ego-Wrappin's Takeshima Satoru on alto sax. Others veer into the sophisticated jazz-pop-reggae that Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra does so well, such as the lush, bossa nova-tinged "Una Hermosa Noche" and moody "Bajo la Lluvia" (both with famed Japanese reggae keyboardist Hakase-Sun); the sultry "Cuando te Miro" (which incorporates a bit of Roberta Flack's "Where is the Love?"), and the hopful and ethereal "Al Mundo Recrear" ("Recreate the World")--both showcase SJM's Ruthsy Fuentes' wonderful vocals; and a jaunty version of Emerson Kitamura's "Dokoyukuno" with Kitamura also on organ. Following the mad success of their cover of Pharell William's "Happy," Ska Jazz Messengers tackle another chart-topping hit with their winning version of Bruno Mars and CeeLo Green's "Forget You," which is recast as the pop-jazz-reggae "Sigueme" ("Follow Me"). But the best cover on the album is their take on Carole King's '70 soft rock smash "It's Too Late" with The Delirians' Angel Salgado on vocals--it's absolutely phenomenal.

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Monday, May 18, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin and Horseman "The Model" b/w "The Model Dub"

The cover features a cartoon illustration of an old computer terminal with depictions of Prince Fatty, Shniece, and Horseman on the screen.Evergreen Recordings
7" vinyl picture sleeve single/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Originally slated for release this past April for Record Store Day 2020 (that is until the coronavirus pandemic hit), Prince Fatty's terrific cover of Kraftwerk's "Das Model" featuring Shniece Mcmenamin and Horseman will now be issued on July 3, 2020. This track, of course, was first released on Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine in 1978, but went stratospheric when re-released in 1981 as the B side to the "Computer Love" single during the height of synth-pop in the UK. (The song has been both criticized for objectifying women and interpreted as a commentary on the commodification of desire, as well as the male gaze and scopophilia.) The wonderful simplicity of "The Model" has lent itself to being easily recast in many genres (name a style of music and there's been a cover version of it done) and its immediate catchiness makes "The Model" an ideal and enduring pop song. In Prince Fatty's boss reggae version, the synths remain artificially chilly and the riddim is rigidly martial, but Shniece's vocals are mighty alluring and Horseman's toasted commentary provides humanizing depth ("She's a modeling queen/'Cause she nice up the scene"). While it was recorded well before Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider's death this past April, this single serves as a fantastic tribute to this incredible musician who was an essential part of one of the most influential bands of all time.

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Reissue of "Absolute Beginners" Soundtrack (Tracks by Jerry Dammers, Laurel Aitken, Smiley Culture)

The cover illustration features a trumpet player; a 1950s teenage couple dancing; and a club singer (Sade) performing--while the background portrays a street riot..
The soundtrack for "Absolute Beginners"--Julien Temple's 1986 film adaptation of Colin MacInnes' cult novel about teenagers and mod culture in late '50s London--is being reissued on July 17, 2020. What's particularly noteworthy for ska/reggae fans is that this soundtrack featured the first post-Special AKA recording by Jerry Dammers (the epic, jazzy "Riot City"), in addition to songs by Laurel Aitken ("Landlords and Tenants", which utilizes The Ethiopians' "Everything Crash" riddim) and Smiley Culture ("So What?").

The CD version of "Absolute Beginners" will include all 22 songs from the soundtrack (the 1986, 1991, and 2010 editions were truncated) and the gatefold, double LP of the album will be available once again (previously, only certain runs of the 1986 LP were issued in this format).

While the film itself received mixed reviews, the soundtrack is excellent.

The track listing is below:

‘Absolute Beginners’ – David Bowie
‘Killer Blow’ – Sade
‘Have You Ever Had It Blue?’ – The Style Council
‘Quiet Life’ – Ray Davies
‘Va Va Voom’ – Gil Evans
‘That’s Motivation’ – David Bowie
‘Having It All’ – Eighth Wonder ft Patsy Kensit
‘Rodrigo Bay’ – Working Week
‘Selling Out’ – Slim Gaillard
‘Riot City’ – Jerry Dammers
‘Boogie Stop Shuffle (Rough And The Smooth)’ – Gil Evans
‘Ted Ain’t Dead’ – Tenpole Tudor
‘Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu)’ – David Bowie
‘Napoli’ – Clive Langer
‘Little Cat (You Never Had It So Good)’ – Jonas (24)
‘Absolute Beginners (Slight Refrain)’ – Gil Evans
‘Better Git It In Your Soul (The Hot And The Cool)’ – Gil Evans
‘Landlords And Tenants’ – Laurel Aitken
‘Santa Lucia’ – Ekow Abban
‘Cool Napoli’ – Gil Evans
‘So What? (Lyric Version)’ – Smiley Culture
‘Absolute Beginners (Refrain)’ – Gil Evans

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin "Disco Deception" EP

Evergreen Recordings
Vinyl/digital
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As of late, Prince Fatty has been mining his and his collaborators' shared love of soul music (for instance, see the awesome covers of The Temptations' "Get Ready" and William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You've Got"). Of course, since black American musical forms like rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, and early rock 'n' roll significantly influenced the Jamaican musicians who created ska and its descendants (and there were a host of soulful rocksteady and reggae singers, like Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, Phyllis Dillon, Susan Cadogan, Marcia Griffiths, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, and many more), it makes sense that many soul songs are ripe for being repurposed as reggae cuts (and there are numerous examples of such from the '60s onward). Rocksteady and reggae's slower tempos open up the space for soul singers to do their thing over tight, propulsive Jamaican grooves custom-made to pack dance floors--and the tracks on Disco Deception will do just that. For his latest release, Prince Fatty and singer Shniece Mcmenamin (of The Drizabone Soul Family, who's also worked with Chaka Kahn, Chic and Nile Rodgers, Sister Sledge, Aswad, Mungo's Hi-Fi, and The Last Poets) select some incredible tracks to cover: Lyn Collins' 1974 hit "Take Me Just as I Am," Gwen McCrae's 1974 single "90% of Me Is You," LaVern Baker's "Love Me Right" from 1957, "Fever"--first recorded by Little Willie John in 1953 who had a #1 hit with it, and Tina Turner's "You Got What You Wanted" from 1968. As always, all of the performances captured on Disco Deception are top-notch; Shniece's singing is never short of spectacular (and she makes it seem so effortless); and Fatty's production is impeccable. "Take Me Just as I Am" (with the great Horseman toasting), "90% of Me Is You," and "Love Me Right" are particularly wonderful and effective, though their stellar version of "You Got What You Wanted" ("...now you don't want what you got") has moments that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. It's hard to match Turner's heart-wrenching performance (and, given her abusive relationship with Ike Turner at the time, horrifically true to life), but Shniece comes tantalizingly close.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Players Band "SKAMÖRGÅSBORD"

The cover features a close-up on the keys of an electric piano, which have the title of the album overlaid on them.

Self-released
CD
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I'm not sure how I missed The Players Band's previous albums during the first half of the 2000s--SKAMÖRGÅSBORD is their fifth release!--but I'm grateful for finally being clued in on this really excellent band. Comprised of members of Baltimore and Washington, DC-based ska and reggae acts (The PietastersThe Scotch BonnetsKill LincolnJah WorksBumpin Uglies, and Unity Reggae), this supergroup plays a mix of '60s ska, rocksteady, reggae, and post-2 Tone/modern ska masterfully--and the diversity of ace musicians involved in this group is their secret weapon, as it results in a compelling variety of songwriting styles and musical sounds.

SKAMÖRGÅSBORD is almost evenly split between fine originals and nicely selected covers that blend together well. Their version of Peter Gabriel's Stax-inspired and sexual innuendo-filled 1986 hit "Sledgehammer"--with Lady Hatchet on vocals--is positively epic; the horn section shines here, as it does throughout the album. In The Players Band's hands, The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" (a song from Exile on Main Street, which equates having sex to a high) becomes an interesting hybrid of Eagles-ish California rock married to reggae. Their marvelous and vibrant cover of Jackie Mittoo's classic "Hot Milk" shifts some of the keyboard melody to the horns, while Harry J All Stars' enduring skinhead reggae hit "Liquidator" features jazzy improvisational solos in breaks floating over that riddim that just won't quit. The Skatalites' "Nimrod" (AKA "Dreams of Fueman") has some nice spaghetti-Western reggae touches, and if you didn't know who was playing, you'd swear that their blistering take on Nat Adderley's jazz standard "Work Song" was by Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.

On the original material tip, the driving modern ska track "Player's Anthem" incorporates all sorts of Baltimore references and name checks ska bands from both Charm City and The District (much like The Toasters' "East Side Beat," though without the street menace and police oppression): "Rolling down Fayette, cruising with my baby/Warm summer night, ska music in my tape deck/Pump it up loud, so the people on the street/Can hear I'm rocking steady to The Mobtown Beat/Going down to Greektown, music in the park/Jah Works are the headline, jamming after dark/Now it's EST and I'm feeling alright/It was hot with The Scotch Bonnets on the stage that night..." The rocksteady track "Wet Noodle" expresses frustration with how the right wing is seemingly hell-bent on tearing apart the country with division and racism ("This situation is out of control/Two minutes to midnight...Why, oh why is it so hard to speak liberation and truth?/You spread so much misinformation/And hatred passed down to our youth"--note the Doomsday Clock reference in there), but seeks some sort of path forward ("Let's find a table and hash things out, once for all"), even at the risk of things being unproductive (see the song title). As its name suggests, "Jackie Mittoo" is wonderful tribute to the Keyboard King with Natty Roc (of Jah Works) on vocals: "A big star creator/A musical innovator/He was a trailblazer/The common denominator/Sound champion/Radio station/Studio One was the foundation/And Jackie, he just a play 'pon the ivory." However, the best of the original cuts has to be the awesome Toasters-doing-their-version-of-ska-punk "Get in the Van" with The Pietasters' Steve Jackson on vocals. It's an anthem for all of the bands who put up with all of the miserable indignities of getting from point A to point B in exchange for the chance to play their music and have some fun: "Hours later, stumble back to the place we call home/Don't know its name, gotta check it on my phone/Never worry, nevermore/8 AM time to rise, hit the road, yeah, more in store/Do it again, do it again/Gotta get in the van...Ready to ride/Do it again/If you wanna live high, you gotta do it again!" To cap things off, the album also features several superb dubs by Victor Rice (who also mixed the record), particularly "Sledgehammer Dub" and "Hot Milk Dub."

All in all, The Players Band's SKAMÖRGÅSBORD is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying album that offers the listener much to feast on.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Jerry Dammers Working on New Album!

Details are scant, but according to a March 29, 2020 article in the British version of GQ, Jerry Dammers is in the midst of (finally!) recording a new album. This long read, titled "The Origins of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ (and Why It Eerily Resonates Today)," provides an in-depth look into the political and economic circumstances that led to the widespread rioting in 1981 that occurred just as "Ghost Town" climbed to the #1 spot on the UK charts. But this piece pretty much buries the lede by leaving news of Dammers' forthcoming album to the very last paragraph:

"Jerry Dammers is in the middle – or thereabouts – of recording a new album, down in his studio in South London. He has hours of material “in the can”, as he says, but needs time to get it into shape. With all his DJing work cancelled for the time being, he is wisely using this period to try to finalise output he’s been tinkering with for years. “I’ll get there in the end,” he says. “I’m not a perfectionist but I want this to be good. I think it is good, but I want to give it my best shot. Once and for all.” I spoke to him for this article a few days ago and he is as disconcerted by the current crisis as all of us. Up until the lockdown he had been working late most nights, regularly seeing the crazies who still stalk the streets in the early hours in these desperate times and still freaked out by the desolation. “It’s quite spooky walking about at night. I would come back from the studio in the middle of the night and worryingly there would be the odd lunatics walking the streets. It’s only the most extreme people who appear to still be out there. It’s strange times.”"

What's most frustrating is the lack of any info regarding what this album might consist of--tracks Dammers recorded about a decade ago with Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell or the Sun-Ra inspired free form jazz of The Spatial AKA Orchestra or something else entirely? Many fans want to know!

May Dammers use his time during the lockdown wisely and work expeditiously.

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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Jump Up's Chuck Wren: Cancel Record Store Day 2020!

Two rude boys dance on a city street at night.In case you missed it, earlier this week, Record Store Day announced that RSD 2020 was being postponed again (it was originally to take place on April 18th, but was moved to June 20 due to the coronavirus pandemic) and will now be spread out over three "drops" on August 29th, September 26th, and October 24th (RSD will be announcing on June 1st which releases will be available when).

Chuck Wren's Jump Up Records was participating in RSD 2020 with the release of The Skatalites' Ska Voove LP (see all other ska-related RSD releases here), but is now calling for the event to be outright cancelled this year. For what it's worth, I completely agree with Chuck--scrap the event, keep people safe and healthy, do some sort of pre-orders through the independent record stores' websites, and help all of the participating shops and labels make some money during a time when the economy is going south quickly.

Chuck's statement is below: 

"CANCEL RECORD STORE DAY! STORES, LABELS, DISTRIBUTORS: Record Store Day just rolled out a new set of release dates and canceled RSD for June (which was bumped from April). The new set of dates will fall in August, September, October, and then Black Friday RSD in November. From what I understand, distributors were told this last week, but had to keep quiet about it. Then RSD decided the new release dates for all the labels and artists that were accepted, but much like the bump in the date to June, never actually talked to any smaller label from what I can tell. The idea of multiple dates is their way to "help" stores under the falsehood that it will help with social distancing. 

However, as someone who has witnessed the insanity at multiple taste-maker indie-stores for 15 years and have personally participated as a label for the past two years, the whole concept of RSD making FOUR EVENTS (which is based around people mobbing a store) is a bad idea during a pandemic. How is this not obvious? RSD still refuses to allow stores to bend on their iron clad rules--to do something like take pre-orders to their store fan base. This would also mean sales way before these "now pushed back even further dates" and put money in bank accounts when it counts. NOW. On the label end, especially a micro-indie label like myself (can you be more micro than a ska label?), I'm not sure how RSD thinks I can sit on a record until October (a date they gave me, they never asked if this date worked, by the way). This means that the money I put up in December of 2019, I won't see until January 2021. Can you tell me how this helps stores or labels at this point? 

WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR: 

Labels who might be doing a RSD release, reach out and let me know if you are thinking of pulling your release. 

Stores: Would a pre-order thing be better, and what do you think of these new dates and the headache of four events, ordering, budgeting, implementing social distancing? (All to be possibly stuck with product you placed on order before a pandemic, which is now spread out over a longer period of time...) 

Anyone you know with a label or record store that is doing a RSD release, please show them this message. I would like to hear more voices on this issue. I think RSD has pretty much jumped the shark. For the safety of music fans and to help brick and mortar record shops now, we think the event should be completely canceled and the product should become available to stores immediately for curbside sales to help them weather the coming months. If this action is not taken, record stores will shut its doors in massive numbers. June 20 was the last hope for many. If you cared about music fans, you would not risk their lives four times in the tail end of 2020, when many health experts fear a second wave of infections. 

I need to feed my family and put money back in the bank. RSD doesn't seem to care about small labels. Otherwise, they wouldn't continue this event. Cancel it. Keep people safe. Let labels and stores move on.

As a label that came up with a Ska At Home campaign and donated the proceeds of close to 100 masks via my Threadless shop, I don't want any fan of my product to risk exposure with this RSD nonsense!

Save Record Stores NOW. Save lives and cancel RSD. 

-- Chuck Wren, Jump Up Records. Since 1993."

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Georgetown Orbits "The Ska-Jazz Single"

The Georgetown Orbits' logo--a G with a ring around its center, like a satellite orbiting a planet--is surrounded by laurels.Self-released
Digital single
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The magnificent new digital single from Seattle's Georgetown Orbits pays tribute to Jamaican ska's roots in black American jazz (that was readily evident in many of the recordings of The Skatalites and other ska musicians who attended the Alpha Boys School--most of whom started their professional careers playing jazz) by covering classics from two of that genre's greatest composers/musicians: Jelly Roll Morton and Charles Mingus. The Ska-Jazz Single features The Georgetown Orbits beautifully covering Morton's "New Orleans Bump" and Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" in a 1960s trad ska style that would make Tommy McCook and company quite proud--and showcases The Orbits' formidable musicianship in the process. These recordings are very well done, indeed.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Dendrites "Lunchin' with The Dendrites"

The cover features a line illustration of an outstretched hand with the EP's title printed above it.Self-released
CD/digital EP
2020

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Lunchin' with The Dendrites is the absolutely brilliant new EP from Denver's Dendrites that packs quite a wallop in its six tracks of strikingly original ska and jazz. "Dujack," with all of its menace (played by these wonderfully gifted musicians), could be the instrumental theme song for an imagined 1950s or 1960s private eye TV show, as it's in the vein of iconic tracks like "Peter Gunn" (written by Henry Mancini) or "Ironside" (composed by Quincy Jones); the music promises thrills, action, and conflict. "No Money No Sunshine" is an awesomely twisted you're completely bad for me but I can't help but love you mid-tempo ska song: "Baby, your dark cloud's been hanging over me/And I don't miss the sun/'Cause I hate to say, I love you more every single day/...Your vampire ways." I'm not sure if she's literally undead, but it's kind of not good either way.

"Snap Patch" is an easy-going jazzy/funky instrumental, while "Xaasj" (a species of large cacti found in northern Mexico) is a Mexican-ska-jazz blend, cinematic in scope, evoking the high drama of spaghetti Westerns. Perhaps the best cut on the EP, "Bottom Feeder" is an incredible, bright, dubby ska instrumental with these nagging minor-key chord progressions full of apocalyptic "Man at C and A"/"Ghost Town"-type dread (that Jerry Dammers did so well). Equally appropriate for Earth Day or the global COVID-19 pandemic, the sing-along "Don't Wanna Go" is an eco-ska song for environmental end times (it's the cut that should follow "Enjoy Yourself," when that track's lyrics are no longer relevant), which laments what we've done to trash the place, so much so that we have to abandon the mother-ship: "I'm not packing my suitcase 'cause I wanna go/Not packing my bags for a weekend show/I'm packing up 'cause we all gotta leave/'Cause the place we call home's a catastrophe...I'm packing now baby 'cause it's all gonna blow/Well, I tried and I tried and I tried to live green/Beam me up, Scotty, I don't wanna leave."

Lunchin' with The Dendrites is a real gem of an EP and, it almost goes without saying, is one of the best ska releases of the year.

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