Monday, January 14, 2013

Duff Review: Sammy Kay and The East Los Three EP

Panic State Records/Whatevski Records (CD EP/digital)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Sammy Kay (Krajkowski) first became well-known on the NYC ska scene as a member of the Brooklyn rocksteady crew The Forthrights, but broke away a year or so ago to roam the US, opening for ska acts like The Skatalites, The Snails, and The Slackers, while road-testing his new tunes. In the process, he discovered that he kind of liked being rootless, so he's become based both in LA and Brooklyn (and when he's in one place, he's usually pining for the other). This has led him to form two backing groups: when he's out in Cali, he plays with The East Los Three; and when in the NYC area, he plays with The Fast Four. Got it?

Probably the best way to describe how his very exceptional, self-titled Sammy Kay and The East Los Three EP sounds is that it's like Tom Waits fronting the Stubborn All-Stars. That is, it's a potent and winning mix of vintage ska/rocksteady heavy laced with elements of Americana (blues, country, rhythm and blues, early rock, and folk). This combination of styles works particularly well given the main theme that connects all of these songs: you can't always get what you want (but if you try sometimes, you might get what you need). They're about having the grit to keep on standing up to follow your passion when life keeps smacking you down; trying to find love and happiness in messily imperfect relationships; and accepting that ephemeral relationships and profound loss are sometimes the price for doing what you have to do with your time on Earth.

"Something, Someday" is a heartfelt hymn of support to all the down-but-not-out nobodies who have a dream and are going to do their damndest to follow it and make their lives meaningful: "You're gonna be something, someday/(Something, someday)/Oh, you've got that attitude/Something like that P.M.A./You're always in the right mind, yeah/Everything's gonna go your way...You pray to old St. Joe/with all of your working class woes/You think it's kind of funny, yeah/You're turning that rebellion into money." Those last four lines of lyrics are obviously a loving nod to Joe Strummer and his magnificent "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais." But Strummer's disdain for the music industry and wannabe punk bands (not in it for the music, just the money) is turned on its head here, as it's now referring to the struggling underground musician striving to earn an honest living off the life's blood of youth culture (but you still sense the unease in that economic equation).

The fantastic traditional blues standard (I was unfamiliar with it until now) "My Babe" (which you could imagine Laurel Aitken singing in the early 60s) is about a girlfriend who won't "stand no cheating...or none of that midnight creeping," but "when she's hot, there ain't no cooling" and "she really loves me." Most of us can't ask for more than that, really. Things turn a bit sour (you can hear it in the dissonant organ line) on "Maybe...(I'll Take You Back)"--whose theme and vocals echoes the teen melodramas of 60s groups like The Shangri-Las: "She's in love again/with somebody else/She wants to spend her time/with somebody else/You're gonna need me girl/when he says goodbye/But I won't be there, girl/So, kiss me goodbye/Tell me you love me/even if far and wide/And maybe I'll take you back...again/Tell the me reasons/why you so cruel?/Why you do the things/that you do/Maybe I've let you down/ but baby, you, too/So, please don't take me back...again."

"Bye Bye"--probably my favorite song on the EP--is a groovy rocksteady cut that justifies the singer's guileless wanderlust: "I'm sorry baby/I just can't settle down/I gotta keep on moving/to the next town/Like my daddy before me/I was born a rolling stone/Music is my healing/the road my home..." I particularly like the bridge: "Can't keep dancing to the same song/Can't keep playing to the same drum." No hard feelings, babe. It's just how I'm hardwired and who I am.

The funky reggae "Jaguar Season" (think Caroloregians) is a boastful, tongue-in-cheek verbal assault (in the vein of the Prince Buster/Derrick Morgan or the Stubborn All-Stars/Hepcat/Dr. Ring Ding attack and answer records) on a certain former band and one of its new members. Listen and decipher the goings on for yourself.

"Lorimer" (which refers to a subway stop in Williamsburg on the L train) is a hopeful, evocative song (you can easily conjure up a short black and white film about it in your mind and cast your own real-life characters in the parts) about trying to win over someone else's girl: "The sun goes down on Bedford Avenue/and I see the wind keeps blowing me/so close to you/You see tonight's not the night, girl/for your foolish games/I see you tired, tired/of waiting around/for what's his name/Walking up towards Union Avenue/I see the moon sits high, girl/as you wait to do/Refreshing faces rise from subway lines/Darling, one more kiss, girl/you could be mine."

The EP closes with the folky secret track "See You Soon," recorded live and unvarnished with just Sammy and his guitar. It's a mournful tune about great loss and sacrifice that feels quite timeless--it seems like it could be written about the Civil War, Vietnam, or the "wars on terror" in Iraq/Afghanistan (and you can think of this as the postscript to the young men who didn't heed Strummer's pleas in "The Call Up," but had the dumb luck to survive the bloodshed that their brothers-in-arms did not):

"The siren screeching close to dawn
Broken tide from the long storm
The heroes rise, they take appraise
Just another line in history's page

War is over, the battle's done
Tell me soldier, which side you on?
The victors sing a lullaby
Just tell me why you left that night

I'm looking for these hopes and dreams
Another way to look at things
The streets are no longer paved with gold
See ya soon, that's what I've been told"

The Sammy Kay and The East Los Three EP is a surprisingly mature and thoughtful collection of really stellar songs. Make sure to track this down. You need this music.

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Click here for an interview I did with Sammy Kay back in 2011 that provides some interesting background on this fella (as well as his days with The Forthrights).

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ruck said...

Not to imply that you didn't already know this, but for anyone who doesn't, "My Babe" is an old-school blues song that's been performed by almost every great blues artist in existence at some point or another. In fact, there's an amazing version that was put out years ago on the "Super Blues" album that has several of 'em doing it at once.

This is not to denigrate anybody's talent or abilities; rather, the wording of your review made it kinda sound like Sammy wrote "My Babe," when it's been around since long before he was born. Credit where credit's due, etc.

Okay, I'm done being a wanky nitpicker, I promise.

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Ruck. I know very little about blues music (and I'm working off digital music files for the review, so I don't actually have the CD and credits, etc. in front of me).

I will amend the review accordingly--and really appreciate you pointing this out.

Keep on nitpicking!

TFG said...

Hey - Tom from Whatevski here. The EP was a co-release by Panic and Whatevski. We do physical releases now, which is exciting. Keep on the look out for the new record which will be crowdfunded through Big Tunes.

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Tom! I'll alter the post so it is more clear that it is a co-release from the two labels. - Steve

TFG said...

Thanks! That was a bit self-serving, of course, but we're very psyched to be doing physical releases, finally! PS: Email me at get ~ and can I set you up with a review account if you'd like to check out more tunes.