Monday, December 31, 2018

Duff Review: Phoenix City All-stars "Clash Version Rockers"

Happy People Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Given the depth and variety of The Clash's formidable catalogue, it was probably a shrewd move for the Phoenix City All-stars (led by Pama International/London International Ska Festival's Sean Flowerdew) to crowdsource the selection of tracks they'd cover for their fourth album, Clash Version Rockers (winnowing the choice of all of those magnificent Clash songs down to a manageable number is no easy task). So, they informally polled their followers on Facebook to sort out what the people wanted and simply gave it to them. The resulting album is comprised of bulletproof fan favorites ("White Riot," "Career Opportunities," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," "Guns of Brixton," etc.), which definitely guarantees the album wide appeal. But if this seems like it was a safe move, the Phoenix City All-stars pulled out all the stops and delivered some fantastic re-imaginings of these Clash cuts, and their versions of the non-reggae originals, in particular, are spectacular. The Clash's beloved, almost sacred songs couldn't be in better hands.

Breaking away a bit from Phoenix City All-stars' previous mission of re-working 2 Tone, Rolling Stones, and Dexy's Midnight Runners tracks as vintage '60s ska songs, these are stripped down, '70s rockers style dub takes on Clash classics--just vocals, keys, bass, and drums (by Jewels Vass, Sean Flowerdew, Ryan Windross, and Bullit, respectively), not one note on guitar is heard on this record!--all of which were deconstructed and reassembled (with all sorts of incredible audio effects liberally applied) by ace dub mixer Al Breadwinner in his analogue studio. Their collective work makes Clash Version Rockers sound very much like it was released in the wake of Sandinista and not a new album that was recorded almost four decades on.

"Tommy Gun Dub" (the original decried terrorism and the killing of innocents, while coming dangerously close to mythologizing the perpetrators) opens just like the original with bursts of machine gun-like drumming (in this case by Bullit!) that quickly shifts into skittering and slippery Jungle-like percussion, as the bass plays the vocal line and the listener forgets the original's rockist trappings. Mick Jones' guitar solo is repurposed here by the keys and used as a marvelously triumphant (and martial-like) means to close the song. Shedding the source's fury, Phoenix City All-stars' haunted and dread-filled version of "London Calling" gives the impression that Vass is broadcasting her illicit message of resistance from a cupboard in the ruins of a building (her vocals fade in and out as if we're losing her signal--or is it being jammed by the authorities?) and drives home how the imagined dystopian/fascist/post-apocalyptic future of the original is closer to being realized than ever before.

I've never felt that "This Is Radio Clash" received as much love and respect as it's due, so it's a real treat to find it included here (its superb Don Letts directed music video--shot in the Big Apple during The Clash's famed 1981 Bond's 17-date residency for the never realized "The Clash on Broadway" documentary--features boomboxes, graffiti, breakdancing, police surveillance, "Live at Five" coverage of their Bond's shows, decaying NYC subways and neighborhoods and beautifully captures a unique time in the city when The Bronx music scene/culture intersected with The Bowery's). In contrast with The Clash's bold funk rock, Phoenix City All-stars' sensational version of "This Is Radio Clash" is more slinky funky reggae and Vass' somewhat muted/restrained vocals (she's an unauthorized voice on pirate satellite, after all) serve to further emphasize the enormous danger that comes from losing our collective hold on the truth without alternatives to the official line (insanely relevant in a time when the White House spews out lies and propaganda on a daily basis; this track was written during the Reagan years, but they have nothing on what's happening with Trump). For all his sometimes strident sloganeering, Joe Strummer knew that freedom of speech is a potent check on authoritarianism. These "Radio Clash" lyrics are particularly striking today:

"Forces have been looting
My humanity
Curfews have been curbing
The end of liberty

Hands of law have sorted through
My identity
Now this sound is brave
And wants to be free"

Towards the end of the track, Vass repeatedly sings the phrase, "Can we get the world to listen?" The answer--as ever--is far from clear ("everybody hold on tight!").

Despite its winning, ballsy punk bravado, I've always thought the self-mythologizing "Clash City Rockers" was sort of a throwaway track (and unnecessary Who rip-off)--but it's brilliant in this interpretation. As with most of the dubs on this album, the bass takes the vocal line for the verses (you'll find yourself singing along in your head, if not out loud) and gives it a seriously heavy, danceable groove. It's completely stellar!

Even if you're a vinyl purist, spring for the CD in addition to the LP, as the bonus cuts are essential! The killer dub of "This is Radio Clash" has more bite and menace (and sounds like it could have come from Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor's No Protection; check out that viscera rattling atomic blast effect). Vass makes a very persuasive case for forgiving her father's non-violent crimes in "Bankrobber" (no jury would convict). And even though I desperately want to hear her sing the entirety of "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," it's a really interesting choice to have Vass stop her vocals after the "...and if they've got anything to say, there's many black ears here to listen" lyric. In depriving the rest of the song of all of Joe Strummer's pointed commentary about the '78 reggae and punk rock scenes, lack of unity between black and white youth, and soullessness of our fame-obsessed culture, it casts the track in a new light--changing its meaning to make it about black music fans enjoying the performance of and message in reggae music, and then focusing the listener's attention solely on Phoenix City All-stars' deft versioning of Strummer's remarkable music.

Anyone who still fervently holds the belief that The Clash are "the only band that matters" will definitely need--and completely love--this record.

+ + + +

To read more about Phoenix City All-stars, check out The Duff Guide to Ska reviews of their Two Tone Gone Ska, Skatisfaction, and Searching for the Young Ska Rebels albums.

+ + + +

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Duff Review: Boss: Tribute to the Original Sounds w/Kingston All-Stars featuring Stranger Cole "Step Up," Keith and Tex with Akasha "Stop That Train" b/w The Crombies "Rough and Tough," Arthur Kay and The Clerks "Sea Cruise"

Specialized/Jump Up Records
7" vinyl single EP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The latest Specialized four CD compilation assembled by Paul "Willo" Williams Boss: Tribute to the Original Sounds (to benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust, National Foundation for Youth Music, and Tonic Music for Mental Health) has yielded its quite good abridged vinyl version. This year's Specialized project is focused on honoring and covering 1960s Jamaican musicians and their songs, and the approach on this EP is split between traditional and more 2 Tone leaning sounds. In a weird, postmodern move, you have still-active originators Stranger Cole and Keith and Tex essentially paying tribute to themselves (as well as their peers). The Kingston All-Stars (a supergroup comprised of Sly Dunbar, Ansel Collins, Mikey Chung, Linford Brown, Jackie Jackson, Robbie Lyn, Everton and Everald Gayle--who, in various incarnations, have worked with Bob Marley’s Wailers Band, Studio One’s Sound Dimension and Soul Vendors, Lee Perry’s Upsetters, Peter Tosh’s Word Sound and Power Band, and Toots and the Maytals) back Stranger Cole on a great, moody original ska cut "Step Up" (" the light"). Chicago's Akasha support Keith and Tex on a faithful rendition of their indestructible and enduring 1967 take on The Spanishtonians' "Stop That Train." The Crombies (also from Chicago--Jump Up is located in the Windy City and the band's label, after all!) turn in a raucous and threatening version of Stranger Cole's 1963 rude boy anthem "Rough and Tough." First generation mod/musician Arthur Kay and his Clerks cover "Sea Cruise" (a rhythm and blues/proto-ska track written by Huey "Piano" Smith, but a hit for Frankie Ford in 1959; Jackie Edwards covered it in 1964; and, of course, Rico Rodriguez was backed by The Specials for his 1980 2 Tone single featuring this song) and their rendition is lively and completely winning. While nothing here is a radical, rule-breaking interpretation of a beloved ska or rocksteady classic, the performances are rock-solid and enjoyable--and it all goes toward some very worthy causes.

+ + + +

Read The Duff Guide to Ska review of the previous Specialized record Gifted, which was a ska tribute to The Jam.

+ + + +

Friday, December 14, 2018

Duff Review: Various Artists "Rudies All Around, Volume 1"

The cover illustration depicts a Jamaican couple dancing in front of a cloud from an explosion.Happy People Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Sean Flowerdew compiled Rudies All Around, Volume 1--a truly ace survey of current international ska acts--as a means to help promote and support his very worthy ongoing enterprise/labor of ska love, the London International Ska Festival (2019's edition is slated to feature Georgie Fame, Misty in Roots, Keith and Tex, Rudy Mills, The Steady 45s, Chris Murray, King Zepha, Masons Arms, Le Birrette, Erin Bardwell Collective, The Indecision, and many more to be announced over the coming months)--ska fans have the added benefit of encountering/being turned onto a host of incredible bands with minimal effort.

As with most carefully selected comps (and Flowerdew is particularly plugged into the global scene), there's a pretty wide variety of ska styles represented on Rudies All Around, Volume 1, which ensures that most listeners will find something to please them (though there's not much ska-punk--which is okay by me). On the traditional ska tip, things kick off with New Zealand's Atushi and The Moisties' "A Sound Of The Ska," which seems like it's been delivered to us in the present via a time machine from JA in 1964. Italy's all-female Le Birrette showcase their fantastic Deltones-y ska on "Mr A." Channeling Dr. Ring Ding, Masons Arms' "Von Vorn" is an incredible, amped-up Spirit of '69 skinhead reggae track in German. Mexico's Travelers Allstars' "Learned Lesson" is a great Jackie Mittoo-like instrumental, while Argentinians Los Aggrotones tread on great Western reggae territory with "Riding to Sonora." Italy's Uppertones joined by American Aggrolite Jesse Wagner do a fun rendition of the 1950's novelty song "El Cumpari," and the legendary and late Rico Rodriquez is featured on Pama International meets Manasseh's excellent futuristic sci-fi (via the 1970s) "Disobedient Dub" (from their Trojan Sessions in Dub album).

For those looking for 2 Tone/modern ska sounds, there's loads to like here. Ireland's Bionic Rats' phenomenally catchy "No Bottles No Milk" is about trying to get by in life with what (little) you've got (had to look up a lot of Irish slang to completely understand this one). Phoenix City All-stars' extraordinary dubby and haunted version of The Clash's "London Calling" drives home how the imagined dystopian/fascist/post-apocalyptic future of the original is closer to being realized than ever (I can't wait to hear the rest of the album this comes from, Clash Version Rockers!). "When It Rains" from the amazing Lions (whose members include Alex Desert and Deston Berry of Hepcat) is about how America's legacy of slavery continues to play out in all sorts of horrifically racist ways (and comes from their superb Soul Riot album--read our review of it). South Korea's The Rulerz's "Angels With Dirty Faces" may remind one of Euro-ska of the early 1990s. Capone and the Bullets (Scotland) turn in a great, deranged ska cover of Kraftwerk's "Das Model" (and emphasize the predatory creepiness of its lyrics), while The Scotch Bonnets (USA) transform The Ramones' punk anthem "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" into a mellow(er), but still very spirited rocksteady track. Dan P and The Bricks (USA) raucous and infectious "The Show" is about becoming an obsessive ska fan/musician. Italy's Miserable Man's broken-hearted acoustic-y/campfire ska song  "Heart in a Fire" is offbeat and completely winning. One of our favorite earworm cuts on the comp comes from Canada: King Kong 4's phenomenal "Profile of a New Elite" (think late '70s Elvis Costello meets The Specials), a cheery, but dark tale that points out how racists/fascists aren't born but raised.

Really, every song on Rudies All Around, Volume 1 is top-quality and I was introduced to a slew of bands that I had never heard from before. So, mission accomplished!

+ + + +

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Duff Review: The Toasters "Ska Jerk" b/w "Ska Finger" and "Bits and Pieces"

What Happened for the Reason for Screaming Records/Tighten Up
7" orange vinyl single with picture sleeve

(Review by Steve Shafer)

According to Bucket's liner notes, the organizing theme for this new single from The Toasters is to highlight what he feels is the less-acknowledged American soul and blues influence on the 1960s Jamaican musicians who created ska (a point he explicitly emphasized in his song "Chuck Berry" from 1996's Hard Band for Dead). To support/celebrate this connection, this single features The Toasters' previously unreleased cover of The Capitol's 1966 hit "Cool Jerk," presented here as "Ska Jerk"; this lively version with Jack Ruby, Jr. toasting at the mic was originally recorded sometime post-Don't Let The Bastards Grind You Down for a compilation that was never realized. The flip side contains the Bar-Kays' 1967 track "Soul Finger," which was, of course, re-named "Ska Finger" and appeared on The Toasters' 2002 album Enemy of The System. The real gem--and probably the best cover The Toasters have ever committed to vinyl--is their blistering take on The Dave Clark Five's "Bits and Pieces" (1964), which was one of several incredible tracks on their underrated One More Bullet (2007). (Toasters' completists will want to know that 500 copies of "Ska Jerk" were pressed with five different cover/vinyl color combinations--the iteration reviewed here and picked-up via Jump Up Records features actress Natalie Wood on the picture sleeve.)

The only bum note to this 45 is how it reminds one that while The Toasters' album/EP reissue program has been in full effect over the past several years (and they're almost always touring some part the globe), they haven't released any new music since 2013's stellar "House of Soul" single (read The Duff Guide to Ska review). Surely, with all that's going on these days (Trump, Brexit, the rise in white nationalism/nativism/authoritarianism, catastrophic/life-ending climate change, extreme economic inequality, etc.), there's more than enough to write about?

+ + + +

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Duff Review: Heavy Manners "Blue Beat (live)" b/w "Ska Jam"

Jump Up Records
Limited edition 7" vinyl single

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Released to coincide with a Thanksgiving weekend tribute show (date and venue etched in the runout groove of side A) in honor of Heavy Manners' co-founder and bassist Jimi Robinson, who unexpectedly passed away this past July, this single features two live cuts from this Chicago-based band's heyday in the early 1980s! Information about these tracks' provenance is lacking, but it seems likely that they're the same cuts featured on the long-out-of-print 1996 compilation CD of Heavy Manners' output, Heavier Than Now.

The Robinson-penned "Blue Beat" takes a propulsive 1950's rhythm and blues/early rock 'n' roll sax riff and marries it to a brisk ska beat (much like what the 1960s JA originators did); this terrific version was recorded for a 93XRT "Sunday Night In Concert" performance and proves that the band were formidable and fun in front of an audience (Robinson sings: "The blue beat, ska beat riddim won't let me go!"). "Ska Jam" (titled "Rude Boy Jam" on their career retrospective comp) was written by singer Kate Fagan and recorded live in the recording studio. It's a ridiculously catchy New Wave ska song (a style of ska I like to refer to as Square Peg ska) urging ska fans of every stripe to join the Heavy Manners party ("Every rocker grab a rock/And get up, join the ska jam/Every ska fan, make this a ska land/Get up, join the ska jam/And the girls say/We are the rude girls/We all love the ska jam/And the boys say/We are the rude boys/We all love the ska jam!"). It's a blast to hear this pioneering ska band in action (who were directly inspired by 2 Tone--Robinson had visited London in 1980 at the height of the ska craze and worked on starting Heavy Manners upon his return) and a wonderful and fitting remembrance of such a key player/musician in the history of American ska.

All sales of this single will benefit Robinson's family.

+ + + +

For more on Heavy Manners, read The Duff Guide to Ska review of their 2010 12" single featuring "Get Me Outta Debt"/"Fight the Good Fight."

+ + + +

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Duff Review: Rhoda Dakar "The Lotek Four, Volume II"

7" vinyl EP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is the second--and really superb-- crowdfunded EP from the always extraordinary Rhoda Dakar and her boss band (Louis Vause on piano and Paul Tadman on bass--both of the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra; Lenny Bignell of Pama International and The Sidewalk Doctors on guitar; Mark Claydon from The Get Up on drums; and Terry Edwards of The Higsons and sometime Madness collaborator on horns). On The Lotek Four, Volume II, the soul influences that were quite present on Dakar's debut EP are even more pronounced--to great effect--on this set of really fine originals, all co-written with various members of the band (full disclosure, I was a supporter of this release; also, make sure to read our Duff Guide to Ska review of Dakar's first EP).

EP opener "Comfort Zone" is a fantastic jazzy-soul-ska cut that wouldn't have been out of place musically or thematically on The Special AKA's stellar In the Studio (Dakar's vocals, of course, were essential to the success of that album). The song's about going through life on auto-pilot--detached, ambivalent, without enjoyment; doing what you have to in order to get by ("The 9 to 5 is no good for me/Just busy keeping myself fed/To make a buck don't get me horny/I'd rather stay at home in bed...Save up that cash for that one rainy day/When the worst comes, I'll be up anyway..."). It's comfort zone as trap not refuge. "Welcome To My Themepark" is a Madness-y pop piss-take on the gentrification of Brixton, though it could just as easily apply to any formerly vibrant and funky urban neighborhood ruined by real estate developers' greed (huge swaths of Manhattan and Brooklyn have been transformed into playgrounds solely for the rich and fabulous). Dakar alternates between being an amusement park barker ("Ladies and gentlemen, by visiting Brixton police station at the end of your stay, anything of which you have been robbed--with the exception of your dignity--will be returned. Thank you for coming!"), and lamenting what has been lost: "It used to be a real town/Was a good life, not a fake one/And we lived that real good life/With our husbands and our wives."

The straight-up Stax-like "Back for More" finds the singer repeatedly trying to exit an emotionally abusive relationship: "You bide your time/I come back for more/Like a fool, I'm back for more." But the repeated chorus ends on a defiantly optimistic note: "I'm not coming back for more/I'm not coming back..." Everything ends too quickly with the ethereal "Love Notes (From Your Soul Team)," a wonderfully radiant, spirit-lifting track that is a sure-fired cure for anyone's blues. It also serves as a reminder of how vital close and caring friends are for staying sane and making it through this life: "You're on the same team/Not sure what it means/But you've faith in the friends who make it seem alright/We're your soul team/Here to stop you feeling sad/Takes a whole team/To antidote the bad/We're your soul team/Best support you've ever had/Sending love notes..." This is soul-pop perfection.

On the sleeve's liner notes, Dakar thanks her supporters for their leap of faith in funding both EPs in advance--well prior to hearing a note. And, once again, Dakar and Co. have delivered on their promise to their fans and then some. This is one small, but mightily impressive release.

+ + + +

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Specials Preview "Vote For Me" From New Album "Encore"!

Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter (l-r)
(By Steve Shafer)

To help whet fans' appetites for the new Specials' album Encore (to be released on CD/LP on February 1, 2019 from UMC), the band is previewing their terrific song "Vote For Me" on their YouTube channel and FB page.

Upon first listen, it's sort of a shock to hear the opening bars of "Vote For Me" musically quote a bit of "Ghost Town" and then settle into the moody, minor-key territory staked out by The Special AKA's In the Studio (think the reggae and jazz of "Racist Friend," "Alcohol," and "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend," plus a bit of Rico's Jama; there's also a wonderful, Madness-like bridge with strings in there, too!). On one hand, it makes sense for the remaining Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter--joined by top collaborators Nikolaj Torp Larsen on keys, Kenrick Rowe on drums, and Steve Craddock on guitar) to go this route--they're essentially time traveling to pick up where The Specials left off with More Specials and the Ghost Town EP--which is exactly what Jerry Dammers and John Bradbury did with The Special AKA after Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding left The Specials to form Fun Boy 3 (some of the songs that appeared on The Special AKA's In the Studio were written before the split for The Specials' then-planned third album; and it should be noted that Panter, Golding, and Radiation did guest perform on a few In the Studio tracks).

So, in some sense, "Vote For Me" is a safe move, reminding the listener of Specials' sounds and songs of old that are ingrained on fans' hearts and minds. Yet, it's also sort of audacious, given how The Specials' dissolution was driven in part by dissatisfaction with the musical direction Dammers had taken with More Specials (he was the band's primary--though by no means sole--songwriter and arranger), as well as his leadership style (his given nickname "The General" was not meant to be endearing). Whether intentional or not, with "Vote For Me" they've validated Dammers' vision for the evolution of The Specials' post-"Ghost Town" music that was realized through In the Studio. It's just a shame that Dammers, Staples, Radiation, and Bradbury (RIP) couldn't be back for the ride, as "Vote For Me" successfully keeps faith with The Specials' collective sound and mission.

Lyrically, "Vote For Me" is pointed commentary on the corruption, lies, self-dealing, and moral bankruptcy of political leaders in England and America during this dreadfully bleak age of Brexit and Trumpism ("You tore our families apart" has to refer to the absolutely horrific, repugnant, racist, and inhumane Trump policy of sometimes permanently separating migrant/asylum-seeking kids from their parents at the US-Mexico border)--it continues the kind of "government leaving the youth on the shelf"/should be serving the greater good and needs of the people criticism expressed back in '81. And it's fantastic how the chorus references Queens, NY's bruddah's The Ramones and William Shakespeare (and Bob Marley's nod to the bard in "Get Up, Stand Up") to hammer home its point about political deception.

Every vote for you, do you promise
To be upright, decent, and honest
To have our best interests at heart?

You understand why we don't believe you
You're way too easy to see through
Not the best places to start

There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach
And all that glitters isn't gold

You're all so drunk on money and power
Inside your ivory tower
Teaching us not to be smart

Making laws that serve to protect you
But we won't ever forget that
You tore our families apart

There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach
And all that glitters isn't gold

So, every vote for you, do you promise
To be upright, decent, and honest
To take away all of the fear?

You said you wait for us to elect you
But all we'll do is reject you
Your politics bore us to tears

There are no rocks at Rockaway Beach
And all that glitters isn't gold

"Vote For Me" is a powerful and more than credible opening salvo from The Specials' Encore. Based on this track, it seems like fans' expectations for the new album should be high.

+ + + +

For more on the new Specials' album, check our "Everything We Know About The Specials' New Album Encore" post from earlier this fall.

In addition, you can read The Duff Guide to Ska's write-up of the reissue of The Special AKA's In the Studio from a few years ago.

Lastly, unlike the some of the stone-filled beaches I've seen in England, New York City's Rockaway Beach is pretty much all sand and you can take the A subway line to get there.

+ + + +

+ + + +