Sunday, January 27, 2019

Duff Review: Subject A "Writers Eyes"

The album cover features the moon over a desert landscape with mountains in the background.
Pop-A-Top Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Writers Eyes is the stellar second studio album from Subject A and one of the most wonderfully and fearlessly unique records that I've heard in some time (Subject A is a collection of terrifically gifted musicians assembled by producers/songwriters/musicians Dean Sartain and Erin Bardwell; their debut was 2016's Sleepwalkers). The sometimes genre-defying songs combine elements of ska, reggae, dub, jazz, no wave, and soul, and often include orchestral-like string backing. The fantastic resulting album is highly evocative, full of atmospheric soundscapes and cinematic visions that exists somewhere in the realm of The Specials' More Specials, The Special AKA's In the Studio, Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor's No Protection, Megative's debut, and Rhoda Dakar's Lotek Four releases.

The great title ska track features The Selecter's Neol Davies and his signature and instantly recognizable guitar work, and it's about how books (plus human beings' incredible capacity to imagine and empathize) can manifest current/past and oftentimes ugly truths, change our minds, and transport us to times and places and people accessible only through the lens of the authors and their written word. The other cuts immediately accessible to ska fans (think singers from The Go-Go's or Bananarama backed by The Specials, plus Rico and Dick Cuthell) include "Nite Life" (where the non-work hours are now spent in conspicuous consumption at the mall--"Go find that store/Go buy some more"--instead of the pursuit of a good time, nite klubbing at the Locarno) and the rambling "Road Trip" taken to break routines and habits.

On the reggae tip, "Hide Your Face" is an insistent yet wounded-sounding track, where the singer's unwilling to accept the ghosting from her partner ("You really cannot hide/All my dreams are gone/I'll find you/I'll find you/We were meant to be together"). There's also the two-versions of the same song that emphasize the different perspectives of the song's lyrics--the jazzier and remorseful "It's True" is about a relationship that's over ("First time I laid eyes on you/Thought you were the only one") and the rootsier "Rising Tide," which underscores the cyclical nature of everything in creation ("Rising tide falls into seasons/But it still remains the same"). Beginnings are always eventually followed by endings.

The magnificent, eco-minded "Vega's Strings" features a reggae bass line and percussion, jazz trumpet, slightly off piano line, and synth-like violins to create a track full of tension and uneasy beauty--appropriate for a song decrying how humans are filling the water and land with never-decomposing plastic waste on a massive scale, with the reminder that "we're not the only creatures on the land." As well, the wondrous, almost ethereal "The Earth Still Turns While You Sleep" is the sound of the universe going about its business as it always does; we're not its master by any means, but should always take a moment to appreciate its daily splendor (see album closer "Penhill Sunrise").

Writers Eyes is one of the more sophisticated, daring and rewarding ska/reggae albums you're likely to encounter. Don't miss it!

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

"Ranking Roger: Wha’ppen?" Video -- Singer Reveals Cancer Treatment and Hopes for Performing for 2 Tone 40th Anniversary Concerts and New Beat Album

The Beat's Ranking Roger singing on stage as he holds the microphone and stand.Earlier this week, a video titled "Ranking Roger "Wha'ppen" was posted on The Beat featuring Ranking Roger's YouTube channel of Roger being interviewed by music journalist Daniel Rachel (whose book Walls Come Tumbling Down contains the best oral history of 2 Tone around). During their chat in his home, Roger revealed that after his stroke last August, his doctors discovered that he had two brain tumors and lung cancer (which forced the cancellation of planned Beat tours of the US and UK). One of the tumors had to be removed immediately; the second was removed later, after he had experienced a seizure; and he is now undergoing two years of immunotherapy treatment for the cancer in his lungs.

In this remarkably candid and affecting conversation, Roger talks about how fortunate he's been to be an entertainer whose job brings so much happiness to people; how grateful he is for his fans' expressions of support during his illness; and the prospect of facing his own mortality.

Recorded before his stroke and subsequent health issues, the second album from The Beat featuring Ranking Roger titled Public Confidential is being released on February 1st, 2019 and already has been very favorably reviewed in Mojo (I pre-ordered my copy today and will post a review soon after I receive it). Here's the video for the fantastic lead track off the album, "Maniac." Roger also has been working on his forthcoming autobiography, which focuses on the early days of The Beat.

Roger's been on doctor's orders to rest for six months, but hopes/intends to be well enough to participate in some of 2 Tone's 40th anniversary concerts and events this year. He noted that there's nothing physically wrong that would prevent him from singing, he just probably won't be able to run around the stage with as much incredible energy and spirit as he has in the past.

We wish him all the best as he undergoes his treatment and very much hope that he will be in enough good health soon to be able to perform on stage and share his joy, love, and unity once again with his fans.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Specials Preview "Ten Commandments" from New "Encore" Album

(By Steve Shafer)

As we edge ever closer to the release date of The Specials' Encore (out on February 1, 2019 on CD and LP from UMC), the band is previewing a remarkable second song from the album, a response of sorts to Prince Buster's over the top and wildly misogynistic (so much so that you think it has to be parody, though many would miss the distinction) "Ten Commandments," which was released and re-issued several times from 1963 to 1967. While The Specials' track shares the same title as Prince Buster's song, it's not a cover with new lyrics. The Specials' version is a spoken-word answer record to Buster's original with a new instrumental track beneath it (that opens with a similar drum roll) and features Saffiyah Khan listing her version of the commandments from a feminist perspective.

Khan, of course, became a potent symbol of progressive resistance when she was participating in a counter-demonstration against the racist, right-wing, and Islamophobic English Defence League in Birmingham on April 10, 2017 and was photographed smiling and relaxed as EDL leader Ian Crossland was angrily in her face after she intervened to stop a number of EDL goons from harassing a fellow counterprotester who was wearing a hijab. Khan's popularity rose even further in certain circles when photographs of her from different angles revealed she was wearing a Specials t-shirt to the counter-demonstration--which led to her being invited by the band to pen the lyrics for and perform on this recording.

This is not the first answer record to Buster's "Ten Commandments." Buster himself released “Ten Commandments (From Woman to Man)” featuring Princess Buster in 1967, which pushed back hard--for the 1960s and within the confines of marriage--against Buster's sexism ("Commandment One: Thou shall have no other woman but me. Two: Thou shall not provoke me to anger or thou will have no peace at night..."). Khan's commandments, listed below, powerfully and unequivocally refute all of the limitations and expectations that our patriarchal and chauvinist society would impose on her body and volition, solely on the basis of her gender. Her assured declarations of independence and take no prisoners support for women's rights are thrilling to behold. Yet, it's incredibly depressing to realize how little has changed at a societal level--these same ugly and pernicious attitudes towards women were prevalent when The Specials debuted four decades ago. In fact, apart from the references to femi-nazis, femoids, the internet, and YouTube, these spoken word lyrics could have been written back in 1979. Khan and The Specials remain true to 2 Tone's ethos, it's the world that never quite got the message.

The Specials back Khan with an orderly, brisk reggae skank that emphasizes the rock solid bass line (Khan says it's from Dawn Penn's "No No No"), but never distracts the listener's focus from her spoken word lyrics. But on the periphery of the entire song there are swirling, dubby synth effects and during interludes between the verses, there are descending, minor-key violin lines--all suggesting a lurking danger and barely contained chaos, like the bottom could fall out at any moment. It's as if Khan's thoughts, will, and voice keep the demons at bay; but in their absence, a terrible darkness seeks to fill the void.

Here are Khan's spoken word lyrics for "Ten Commandments":

The commandments of I, Saffiyah Khan
Thou shall not listen to Prince Buster
Or any other man offering kindly advice in matters of my own conduct

You may call me a femi-nazi or a femoid
And then see if I give a stinking shit

Pseudo-intellectuals on the internet
They tell me I'm unhappy because I'm not feminine
Failing to consider that I may be unhappy 
Because it's 3 am and I'm in the depths of YouTube watching them whining 

Thou may catcall me on the street
But thou should take note that I'll catcall you right back
To tell you that you look pretty sexy, too, in your joggers, or your suit, or your newfound look of confusion

Girls should not turn on each other or use man-made ideals like pars
Don't you realize you're only making a fool of yourself when you ask, "why don't you wear make-up?"
Is that what it takes to impress a bloke whose brain is made up of promises of curvy size zeros and anti-gravity tits

Thou shall not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short
She walks home, streetlights illuminating her as a target
But she started it because she looked at him
And he finished it because he wanted to
And they'll bring out her skirt as Exhibit A before the judge

And she should have the right to say
Thou shall not tell me what to wear
Nor how to wear it

I shall not be the icing on your cake
And I shall not be the candy on your arm
But I shall be seen
And I will be heard!

The commandments of I, Saffiyah Khan

This is a profound and affecting track that makes its points spectacularly well. Bravo to all involved.

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The first track The Specials previewed off Encore was "Vote for Me," which we reviewed in December.

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Update (1/24/19): Check out this fantastic interview with Terry Hall and Saffiyah Khan about this track and much more:

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Update (1/24/19): Make sure to read this really excellent article about The Specials (which Lynval Golding and Saffiyah Khan were interviewed for) in Billboard by Ken Partridge.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska: 2018 Year-End Roundup, Part 3

Editor's note: I'm still playing catch-up with several 2018 releases that I didn't get a chance to review before December 31...

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Buford O'Sullivan and the Robots "Rico Beat" b/w "Stolen Soul (The Exhumation Ska)" (digital single, Sullico Music, 2019): These are two new and very welcome sides of top-notch traditional '60s-styled instrumental ska from trombonist Buford O'Sullivan (Easy Star All-stars, The Scofflaws, Brooklyn Attractors, NYC Ska Orchestra, The Huffers, and more). "Rico Beat" is, of course, a bright and bubbly tribute to the beloved Skatalites/Specials trombone legend (the doubled trombones are a lovely touch), while the mysterious/dark arts track "Stolen Soul (The Exhumation Ska)" sounds like a primo Scofflaws track, back when Drance and Rice were among their number. Rumor has it that these tunes may be pressed on vinyl some day--and they're more than worthy of a physical release.

The Crombies Wee Beasties (3" mini CD, Jump Up Records, 2018): This collectable throwback to the 1980s (yes, these odd mini CDs were actually a thing back then -- I.R.S. Records made them for The Beat's "I Confess" and "Save It for Later" singles) features Chicago's kick-ass 2 Tone band on a mix of seven previously unavailable live cuts and harder to find tracks (like their great version of Bob Marley's "Hooligans" for the Specialized One Heart charity album and related single, which also found its way onto the Pressure Hop Jump Up/Ska Brewing sampler given away at the 2017 Supernova International Ska Fest). Of the live recordings, their rendition of Madness' "The Prince" is pretty spectacular and it's kind of funny to hear them play a bit of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" while fruitlessly waiting for beer to make its way to the stage before launching into The Specials' "Hey Little Rich Girl." Technical note: You'll need a CD player with a tray to play this; forget about sticking it into a computer disc drive! And for those still sporting flight jackets, there a nice Crombies patch included with each mini CD.

Yellow Cap Too Fucked To Go (CD, Pork Pie Records, 2018): First off, if you're a fan of the fantastic late '80s/early '90s German ska scene/sound (think The Busters, No Sports, The Frits, Skaos, The Butlers, El Bosso und die Ping Pongs, The Braces, Blechreiz, etc.), then you're pretty much guaranteed to love Yellow Cap's supercharged, good times 2 Tone/modern ska. The cover illustration of Too Fucked To Go depicts a rude boy splayed on his back, his brew in hand pouring out onto the ground, and, most alarmingly, his body is literally breaking up -- but there's a look of utter bliss on his face. And this image pretty much sums up the themes of many of the superb songs on the record (all in English): Enjoying life to the fullest (maybe too much--see the catchy title cut) and pursuing relationships, even if everyone is very flawed and everything is in shambles around you. Songs of indulgence and excess (gotta get it all in before your time's up) include "One More Night in Rio" ("It's that marvelous city, where I lost myself/Can't sleep a minute, I fear being left on the shelf") and the magnificent mini-epic of never-ending partying in "God Knows" ("Where are the pills that kill the pain?/Why do I smell like a dog?"). The sweetly sincere trad ska tune "Ain't Enough Flowers" (" show how much I care") is countered by the more sour (but musically cheery) I-can't-do-anything-to-please-you "Rain Is Falling," and the stomping album opener "Better Man," about opposites attracting, but not enough for them to go the distance ("If I am Russia, you're the CIA/If you're the mountain, I'm the beach holiday"). Other notable tracks are the wonderful deejay clash-like boasting in "Rookie," a moody cover of the "Theme de Fantômas" (from the 1960s French TV and film series about a blue-masked criminal mastermind), and an incredible plea for empathy for migrants/refugees/less-fortunate fellow human beings told from the points of view of the human trafficker, refugee, and town resident in "Safe and Sound": "Should I be afraid that my paradise might change?/Better take the first step that strangers are no longer strange/'Cause I know there are other people running after a dream/Just need to know there's somebody to listen/And I hope you will be safe and sound on the other side of the street/And I hope that this never happens to you." In short, live your life to the extreme, but never lose your humanity.

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Read Part 1 of The Duff Guide to Ska 2018 Year-End Roundup

Read Part 2 of The Duff Guide to Ska 2018 Year-End Roundup

And more reviews are TK.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska: 2018 Year-End Roundup, Part 2

Editor's note: I'm still playing catch-up with several 2018 releases that I didn't get a chance to review before December 31...

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Napoleon Solo Open Channel D (LP, Jump Up Records/Pork Pie, 2018): This terrific Danish band formed in the wake of 2 Tone and was a vital part of brilliant late '80s UK/Euro ska scene (The Trojans, Laurel Aitken, Bad Manners, Potato 5, The Loafers, The Deltones, The Busters, The Frits, and more). Anyone familiar with and a fan of Napoleon Solo's previous releases (their essential How To Steal the World EP was produced by Buster Bloodvessel and their great soul-ska debut album Shot! was released on Buster's short-lived Blue Beat Records) will definitely want to pick up their new one, as they've only gotten better with time. Open Channel D is packed with powerhouse, hook-filled 2 Tone tracks--two of the best ones are proper studio recordings of demos from 1984 that only recently saw the light of day on Jump Up's Early Recordings: First Demos 1984/1984 (proving that a great song in 1984 is still a great song in 2018!). Top cuts include the cocky, I-don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think mission statement in "All I Need" ("I want to live my life/Just the way that I do/I want to get my kicks/Until I'm black and blue/I don't say my life's complete/But it's all I need"); desperately seeking human contact and a cure for intense loneliness via a telephone chat line (anyone remember those from the 1980s?) in "0059" ("Somebody talk, somebody answer me/Somebody please make me feel alive"); and the ecstatic feeling of being head over heels in love and wanting everyone to know how how good you have it in the swaggering "See Her." Even though it was written when they were young pups back in '84, the upbeat but bittersweet "Nobody Told Me" contains the hard-won wisdom of the middle-aged that only comes through living your own life (that often doesn't work anywhere near where you anticipated): "Nobody told me life is like this/Always saying goodbye/Nobody told me life is like this/Always wondering why/Well, you start somewhere and you'll end somewhere/And in between you just go/Nobody told me life's like this/But now I know." It's a "Once in a Lifetime" for the ska set.

The Trojans Top Hits (CD, Gaz's Rockin' Records/Cadiz Music, 2018): This 18-track compilation offers a completely stellar overview of The Trojans' extensive catalogue. (For some key background info on amazing The Trojans and their fearless leader Gaz Mayall, see The Duff Guide to Ska review of the book "Gaz's Rockin' Blues: The First 30 Years."Top Hits contains songs from 1987 (their first single "Ringo") through 2013 (their most recent LP, Smash It) released on seven Trojans albums, plus several 45 and 12" singles--and there is extraordinary high-quality control throughout (actually, when I was looking over all of their releases, I kept spying many additional tracks that should have been included here; this easily could have been a double or triple album). Guest musicians on some of these tracks include Gaz's friend Prince Buster, Rico Rodriguez, Jennie Bellestar (on one of my favorite songs "Mixed Feelings"), and Zoe Devlin Love. Gaz provides extensive liner notes (that are focused mainly on all of the musicians that comprised the three iterations of the band). If you're not acquainted with The Trojans' sound, its traditional '60s ska mixed with heavy doses of reggae, Japanese, and Celtic music (and the lyrics of theirs songs are often very eco-minded). All in all, this is a fantastic intro to/survey of this exceptional band.

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Make sure to read The Duff Guide to Ska: 2018 Year-End Roundup, Part 1!

And there will be several more 2018 releases reviewed in Part 3 TK!

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska: 2018 Year-End Roundup, Part 1!

Editor's note: Below, please find links to almost all of the releases that The Duff Guide to Ska reviewed over the past year. I would have loved to have written up many more records, but just didn't have the time (though I'll have some short write ups of a few additional 2018 albums posted shortly).

Perhaps you'll find something that you missed or have a gift card waiting to be put to use and just need some recommendations as to what to pick up (there are loads of fantastic records to chose from!).

As always, thanks for reading The Duff Guide to Ska!

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(All reviews by Steve Shafer)

Horace Andy and The Welders/Big Youth and The Welders: "Straight to Hell" and "Pair of Dice" b/w "Asylum Seekers" and "Christmas in Ladbroke Grove"  (Fe True Records, 12" vinyl EP/digital, 2017)

The Autocratics: The Autocratics (Ska in the World Records, CD, 2017)

Le Birette: Gal Songs Only  (Self-released, LP/digital, 2018)

Boomtown United: Boomtown United (Self-released, digital, 2018)

The Busters: Straight Ahead (Ska Revolution Records, CD, 2017)

Classy Wrecks: Bedrocksteady  (Self-released, digital, 2018)

Rhoda Dakar: "A Change is Gonna Come (#Never Again)"  (Self-released, digital, 2018)

Rhoda Dakar: The Lotek Four, Volume II (Self-released, 7" vinyl EP/CD, 2018)

Eek-A-Mouse: "Ganja Smuggling" b/w "Smuggling Dub" (Greensleeves Records, 7" single, 2018)

The English Beat: Here We Go Love! (Here We Go/Megaforce Records, LP/CD/digital, 2018)

The Far East: "Far East Ride" b/w "Rain On My Party" (Channel Tubes, 7" vinyl single/digital, 2018)

Caz Gardiner: "Stop" (Self-released, digital, 2018)

Desorden Publico: Bailando Sobre Las Ruinas (Jump Up Records, LP, 2017)

The Dirty Notion: How The Story Goes (Abbey Productions, digital EP, 2018)

DJ Spooky: Phantom Dancehall (VP Records, LP, 2018)

Heavyball: Black Eye Diaries (Magnetic North Melodies, LP/CD/digital reissue, 2018/2015)

Heavyball: When Can You Start? (Magnetic North Melodies, LP/CD/digital, 2017)

Heavy Manners: "Blue Beat (live)" b/w "Ska Jam" (Jump Up Records, 7" vinyl single, 2018)

Hepcat vs. Victor Rice: Dub Outta Nowhere (Hellcat/Hepcat, 2xLP, 2018)

Hub City Stompers: "Haters Dozen" (Altercation Records, CD, 2018)

King Kong Girio: "When the Needle Drops" (Self-released, digital, 2018)

The Last Poets (with Prince Fatty and Nostalgia 77): Understand What Black Is (Studio Rockers, 2xLP/CD, 2018)

Maroon Town: Freedom Call (Brixton Records, LP/CD/digital, 2018)

Matamoska: "Beer Goggles" b/w "Doom Boogie" (Steady Beat Recordings, 7" vinyl single, 2018)

Megative: Megative (Last Gang Records, LP/digital, 2018)

Jackie Mittoo: Showcase (17 North Parade/VP Records, 7" vinyl EP, 2018)

NY Ska Jazz Ensemble: Minor Moods (Brixton Records, LP, 2018 reissue)

Pama International: Trojan Sessions, Trojan Sessions in Dub (with Manasseh) (Happy People Records, LP/CD, 2017/2018)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: The Black Album (Upsetter Records, 2xLP/CD, 2018)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Game of the Throne (Byrd Out, 12" vinyl EP, 2018)

Phoenix City All-stars: Clash Version Rockers (Happy People Records, LP/CD/digital, 2018)

The Porkers: "Make Hey" b/w "Emulsified" (Radley Records, 7" vinyl single, 2018)

Prince Fatty with Omar and Fatlip: "Sunshine" b/w "Sunshine Dub" (Evergreen Recordings, 7" vinyl single, 2018)

The Process: Who Is That Mad Band? and Dub World (Temple Gong Recordings, CD/digital, 2016, 2017)

Reggae Roast Soundsystem featuring Tippa Irie: "Real Reggae Music" (Trojan Reloaded, 7" vinyl single/digital, 2018)

Duke Reid/Roland Alphonso: "Judge Sympathy" b/w "Never To Be Mine" (Trojan Records, 7" vinyl single, 2018 reissue)

Victor Rice: Smoke (Easy Star Records, LP/digital, 2017)

Rudeboy: The Trojan Records Story (documentary)

Sandii and Dennis Bovell: "Hula Dub" (Mana Pacifica, 7" vinyl single, 2017)

The Selecter: Live at the Roadhouse (DMF Records, 2xLP+DVD/CD+DVD, 2018)

The Skatalites: Hi-Bop Ska (Jump Up Records, 2xLP, 2018 reissue)

Dele Sosimi Meets Prince Fatty and Nostalgia 77: You No Fit Touch Am in Dub (Wah Wah 45s, LP/digital, 2016)

Soul Radics: "Two Devils" b/w "Stormy Weather" (Grover Records, 7" vinyl single, 2017)

Soweto: Turn On the Music Again (Liquidator Music, LP/CD, 2017)

Joe Strummer: Joe Strummer 001 (Ignition Records, 4xLP/2xCD, 2018)

Super Hi-Fi: Blue and White (Very Special Recordings, LP/CD/digital, 2018)

Super Hi-Fi: "I'm Only Sleeping" b/w "Hole In My Life" (Electric Cowbell Records, 7" vinyl single, 2018)

The Toasters: Frankenska ("Shots in the Dark" appreciation)

The Toasters: "Ska Jerk" b/w "Ska Finger" and "Bits and Pieces" (What Happened for the Reason for Screaming Records/Tighten Up, 7" vinyl single, 2018)

Various Artists: Boss Tribute to the Original Sounds (Jump Up Records/Specialized, 7" vinyl EP, 2018)

Various Artists: Drink the Ska (Jump Up Records/Ska Brewing, LP, 2018)

Various Artists: Gifted: A Ska Tribute to The Jam (Jump Up Records/Specialized, LP, 2018)

Various Artists: Recutting the Crap, Volume 2 and The Future Was Unwritten (Crooked Beat Records, 2xLP, 2018)

Various Artists: Rudies All Around, Volume 1 (Happy People Records, LP/CD/digital, 2018)

Various Artists: Trojan 50th Anniversary Picture Disc (Trojan Records/Sanctuary/BMG, LP, 2018)

Wild Man Riddim: Worldwide Frequency (Brixton Records, digital, 2017)

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Look for additional reviews of several 2018 releases soon...

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