Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: BBC (Bovell, Brown, Cobby) "Quality Weed," Leon Dinero "If You Ask Me" b/w Screechy Dan "Bandits"

The paper label of this 7" single displays the name of the song ("Quality Weed"), the group that recorded it (BBC), the label that released it (Declasse), and all of the copyright information.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

"Quality Weed" (7" vinyl single, Declasse Records, 2019) is a terrific,  amusing, pro-pot cut borne of a collaboration between Dennis Bovell (Blackbeard, Matumbi, The 4th Street Orchestra), Jimmy Brown (UB40), and Steve Cobby (DJ/producer, Fila Brazilia, The Solid Doctor). The lyrics, sung by Bovell with his almost impossibly deep voice, pretty much sum up the proceedings: "Take my advice now, now hear ye this/There's nothing wrong with cannabis/Set yourself free whenever you wanna/Avail yourself of some marijuana/Select the buds and plant the seeds/To be sure that you're partaking of quality weed..."

The track is presented in two versions, a traditional, dubby roots reggae take and a house remix on the flip side (that manages to retain its reggae flavor through the bass line and brass). With its cranked up BPM and additional percussive touches, the house version--unsurprisingly--has more life to it and is actually the better of the two. Essential for Bovell completists like this reviewer; diversionary fun for everyone else.

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This is the second Daptone single from singer Leon Dinero and producer Victor Axelrod (upon first hearing his debut from earlier this year--"Lover Like Me" b/w "Conscious is Heavy"-- you'd swear it was a lost '60s Skatalites/Jackie Mittoo 45 recovered from Studio One's vaults--it's superb). "If You Ask Me" (7" vinyl single, Daptone Records, 2019) is one of the late Dan Klein's sweet rocksteady compositions that was considered for The Frightnrs debut LP back in 2016, but put aside in favor of other material. Dinero, backed by the remaining Frightnrs, does this lovely, pleading love song justice ("If you ask me to/I would be the very best me I could be...") and this cut reminds the listener, once again, of Klein's considerable songwriting gifts. "Bandits" features Screechy Dan on the mic decrying the predatory and racist policy of allowing the gentrification of large swathes of Brooklyn by greedy landlords/real estate developers (with tacit approval from the city) and the resulting mass displacement of poor/working class people of color (from neighborhoods where they've lived for decades) over the boss "If You Ask Me" instrumental track: "From Bed Stuy to Crown Heights to Flatbush/Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, down to Red Hook/It's like bandits come in/Have the place shook/While we look as our culture get ambushed..." Like all truly great and catchy protest songs, "Bandits" moves both your body and conscience (that is, if you have one).

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Duff Review: Various Artists "Check One-2: Spirit of '79"

A harrington jacket is covered with badges for The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter, and other 2 Tone bands.Specialized Records
4xCD (2xLP to be released on Jump Up Records)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

At last, this is the 2 Tone 40th anniversary-related release that fans have been waiting for! While many of the key 2 Tone players are still too consumed with nursing past/present grievances to organize official 2 Tone concerts or make an effort to release rare or unheard material from the vaults, leave it to their progeny to do the heavy lifting to properly honor 2 Tone's legacy! Coming in at a weighty 67 songs spread out over four CDs, Specialized Record's Check One-2: Spirit of '79 is a stunningly good tribute to 2 Tone and all of its associated acts (bravo to all involved!). Honestly, there's not a bum track here.

As with all compilations of this type, it's split between bands who turned in fairly faithful renditions (despite comp producer Paul Ayriss specifically requesting participating acts not to record exact copies of the originals) and those who reinterpreted the tracks, injecting a bit of their own DNA to put a new spin on beloved, if very familiar, material. Notably, in addition to illustrating 2 Tone's enduring and global impact, a large number of the acts on Check One-2: Spirit of '79 feature female singers (Boss Riot, Malabo Ska, The Tremolites w/Valerie Etienne, The Scotch Bonnets, Third Beat Drop, The Pressure Tenants w/Eloise Berry, Project Blackbird, The Tinkerman, The Red Stripes, Erin Bardwell Collective, Well Charged, The Decatonics, The Reggaskas, RK Ska, Indeed)--finally rectifying the imbalance between 2 Tone's stated anti-sexist stance (in spite of some overtly sexist songs) and the relatively few women actually in 2 Tone bands back in the day.

Below are comments on some of the bands who went further afield in their cover versions that are worth calling out (and in no way is meant to slight the many acts on here who recorded really excellent covers that didn't stray too far from their source, including Napoleon Solo, Boomtown United, Boss Riot, Erin Bardwell Collective, The Porkers, The Bishops, Hub City Stompers, Rude Boy George, and others).

Disc One
The Inflatables "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend": Dammers' dark no-wave jazz/reggae/pop gem is revved up to ska speed, giving it a sharper edge that underscores the lyrics' manipulation and duplicity even more than the original.
Detroit Riddim Crew "Three Minute Hero": The Selecter's frenetic, aggro frustration at punching in and out of soul-crushing, dead-end jobs is traded in for a more laid-back, but equally insistent rocksteady reading of this cut.
King Hammond "Murda! (Exodus 20:13)": The King delivers a bold Motown-ish take on The Selecter's cover of Owen and Leon Silvera's 1962 Blue Beat single; the Biblical reference, of course, relates to the sixth of the Ten Commandments--"Thou shall not kill"--and the song's original lyrics paraphrase part of Psalm 55 ("If I had a pair of wings, I would fly away...").
The Crombies "Click Click": This one's got even more menace and out-of-control-ness than The Beat's, as someone contemplates ending it all via a solo round of Russian Roulette.
The Communicators "The Selecter": Neol Davies and John Bradbury's seminal 2 Tone track that triggered the creation of that magnificent band is transformed into an awesome 2 Tone medley that weaves back and forth from this song to bits of "Three Minute Hero," "Do the Dog," "Rat Race," "On My Radio," "Nelson Mandela," and more.

Disc Two
J. Navarro and The Traitors "Ghost Town": Like their counterparts in Coventry, these boys from Detroit know what it's like to live in a formerly prosperous, but now decaying motor city; though their anger and dismay doesn't seethe and simmer, but boils over.
The Skapones "Do the Dog": Paul Willo and Co.'s take on The Specials' rendition of Rufus Thomas' "The Dog" is all "keep it cool, boy" swinging jazz, that is until the abrupt body blow shift to ska punk that knocks you off your feet, creating a tension and contrast appropriate for a song about all of theses factions itching to maim and kill each other.
Andy Keys Clark and Friends "Rasta Call You": Imagine this Rico cut in Maroon Town's hands or if the Potato 5 circa True Fact had covered it; the beat and sound are dance foor big, and the tempo's brisk.
Third Beat Drop "It's Up to You": The Specials' red or blue pill choice posed to its audience ("Take it or leave it we'll carry on regardless/If you don't like it you don't have to use it") about standing up to racism/fascism in one's everyday life is reframed as a seductive dare to do the right thing when white supremacists come for you.
Gruppo Sportivo "Mirror in the Bathroom": This radical, rock reworking of one of The Beat's signature tunes by this revived New Wave-era band probably shouldn't work, but succeeds brilliantly.
Vieja Skina "Nite Klub": Terry Hall's bile is drained away and substituted with a kind of louche joy; no one gives a damn if you have a job or future, which is freeing in its own perverse way.
The Pressure Tenants featuring Eloise Berry "Do Nothing": Laurel Aitken's former backing band delivers a wild soul/pop/dancehall reworking of one of Lynval Golding's finest moments; though the nonchalance at how things are is replaced by a knowing and weary sadness.
Heavensbee featuring Mista Rhee "Inner London Violence": These moonlighting Rude Boy George/Bigger Thomas members enlist The Boilers' Olivier Rhee (!) and his toasting skills for a UB40-like take on the Bad Manners classic about the veritable "Clockwork Orange" urban war zone right outside one's door.
Project Blackbird "Easy Life": This is an incredible jazz-AM pop version of The Bodysnatcher's brightest moment--about feeling some ambivalence over the choice between surrendering to sexist gender roles or mustering the will to fight for real gender equality.
The Tinkerman "Friday Night Saturday Morning": Ayriss took his own advice and he and his band mates created a gorgeous, lush, and ultimately very lonely rendition of Terry Hall's song, with lots of ice rink organ, synth washes, and dub effects--all to emphasize how leisure-time fun isn't really possible when there's no purpose to, or way forward in, your life.

Disc Three
Woltka Trawolta "Hands Off...She's Mine": Instead of trying to keep pace with The Beat's manic pace, this one heads in the opposite direction, giving it a lovely reggae skank, though the delivery comes across as more sincere, instead of The Beat's "spoof" on the fragile male ego, jealousy, and ridiculous notions of male "ownership" of women.
Well Charged "Street Feeling": This is less tightly wound and brighter than the original, but just as sharp, about someone striving to become hard in order to survive in the world outside one's home; and it's one of my favorite Selecter tracks.
The Feckin Ejits "Rat Race": Roddy Radiation's tune is presented as dirty punk rock, quite appropriately, as capitalism is an ugly, rigged game.
Martyn Callwood "Why?": Golding's stark original is compellingly fleshed-out musically--though the question about the senselessness of real-life racial knife attack he experienced remains the same.
Too Many Crooks "Concrete Jungle": Roddy's tale of struggling to evade endemic urban violence is recast as a cool Northern Soul/Dexys Midnight Runners track.

Disc Four
Orquestra Brasileira De Musica Jamaicana "Ghost Girl from Ipanema": At first, it may seem odd to incorporate sections of "The Girl from Ipanema" into The Specials' searing swan song, but if you think about it, both Thatcher's government and the girl walking to the beach in Rio wouldn't give the youth the time of day. (Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra should considering doing this version in addition to their "Ghost Planet"!)
Bim Skala Bim "Lorraine": Bim shaves off a bit of the domestic violence-y edge of this admittedly catchy and never meant to be serious Bad Manners tune by having a female singer respond to/question/make light of some of the more egregious statements; plus they present this track via their fantastic trademark sound, which is always winning.
Beat Bahnhof "Ska Wars": Arthur Kay's 1979 single is refashioned as a 1980s computer game-y, New Wave-influenced ska; offbeat, but it does the job well.
RK Ska "Run Me Down": I've been a fan of The Higsons' great funk cut since first hearing it in the early '80s on the New York City area radio station WLIR (which played it frequently), but didn't realize it was a 2 Tone release until years later (it's certainly an outlier on the label); and I love it as a ska song, too.
Subject A "Stereotypes": Taking up where The Specials' extended version left off (see The 2 Tone Story), this is a terrific, chat-filled dub.

All in all, Check One-2: Spirit of '79 reminds one of all of the brilliant original material (and choice '60s JA covers) recorded by the 2 Tone acts, much of which still holds extraordinary power and relevance four decades on. Of course, 2 Tone was always more than a label and roster of acts. It was a look, a scene, an attitude (tolerance, unity), and a movement that was part musical, part political (anti-racist, pro-democratic socialist-like governmental policies). Even if some of the original bands have lost the thread of all this, the fans haven't. Chrysalis, the songwriters, and the bands may own their respective copyrights, etc., but 2 Tone isn't really theirs. The spirit and message of 2 Tone belongs to--and lives on in--the fans and these bands.

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Proceeds of Check One-2: Spirit of '79 support three UK charities: the Teenage Cancer Trust, the National Foundation for Youth Music, and Tonic Music for Mental Health.

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Read Duff Guide to Ska reviews of other Specialized releases:

Boss: Tribute to the Original Sounds 7" singles
"Gifted: A Ska Tribute to The Jam" LP
Specialized: "A Modern Take on Specials Classics" 7" EP
Specialized II "Beat Teenage Cancer" 7" singles
Specialized III 7" singles and another Specialized III 7" single

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Barbicide "Fresh Cuts" and The Twilights* "Hear What I Say"

Editor's note: Back over the summer, I featured these bands (along with the mighty Beat Brigade) at my occasional Electric Avenue ska night at Characters in midtown Manhattan--and I'm a big fan of both acts.

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Barbicide, for those of you who've never stepped foot in a traditional barber shop, is the blue disinfectant, fungicide, and virucide that barbers dip combs, scissors, and razors into to kill off fungi and all sorts of nasty viruses. But Barbicide is also the name of a fantastic, NYC-based, modern/third-wave ska band (featuring two former members of Mephiskapheles, Brendog Tween on guitar and vocals, Mikal Reich on drums, plus Jerica Rosenblum (Hard Times, Scofflaws, Defactos) on keys and vocals, and Irena Jaroszewska on bass and backing vox) that has just released their dynamite debut EP, Fresh Cuts (digital, Pass the Virgin Music, 2019). It wouldn't be too far afield to compare Barbicide's sound and vibe with the kind of ridiculously catchy songs Reich and Tween wrote for Meph's The DEMOn tape and God Bless Satan (think "Eskamoes" "Doomsday," and "Saba"), but this is by no means a retread--yes, their music is immediately accessible, but it's wonderfully unique and bent.

Fresh Cuts is an EP of protest songs--three of them essentially anti-love along with a more traditional anti-war track--from musicians experienced enough to have seen some dreams dashed and life mow them down a few times, but they're stubborn bastards; beaten up, battle-scarred, and all the wiser/wise ass/cynical for it (Gen Xers are, after all, at the helm here). The frenetically upbeat (check out those amazing "hey-hey-hey's"!) lead track "Unlove You" is about actively extracting oneself emotionally from a relationship gone bad ages ago ("Well, it's been a long time since you broke my heart/But it ain't been long since I cried/And it feels so good getting over you/Like Lazarus when he undied"); here, the opposite of to love is to unlove. This is followed by a film noir-ish portrayal of a not-exactly-healthy-for-you girlfriend with "Jezebel" (the second Biblical reference on the EP; she, of course, was the pagan, Baal or Satan/demon-worshipping, Christian-corrupting, sexually promiscuous temptress; you can take the musician out of the satanic ska band, but can't take the satanic ska out of the musician...), but at least the singer knows the deal: "Jezebel, you're my gallows/Jezebel, you're my femme fatale/You came from somewhere deep and dark/A creature from down below/Jezebel, you're my gal." "I Don't Remember" is the back and forth tale of a marriage gone south. The wife (Rosenblum) recounts the good and bad ("Do you recall we had ten kids/Ten piles of laundry all covered in skids/Do you recall all the money spent/Have a stack of bills, not one red cent"); while the husband (Tween) mostly doesn't have a memory of anything, but finally fesses up that he remembered that he "had it all" before he lost himself in booze. It's tragically funny and all-out brutal.

Barbicide's EP bows out with a brilliant, heartfelt cover of P.F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction" (covered most famously by the likes of The Turtles and Barry McGuire), which is an apocalyptic, anti-war, anti-nuke, and anti-racist protest track from the 1960s that captures all of America's contradictions in a nutshell--and is still incredibly relevant today. Some of the lyrics are worth quoting here: "Think of all the hate there is in Red China/Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama/You may leave here for four days in space/But when you return, it's the same old place/The pounding of the drums, the pride and disgrace/You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace/Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace/And you tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend/How you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction." (Even this song has cutting Biblical references about Christian hypocrisy: "You're old enough to kill, but not for voting/You don't believe in war, what's that gun you're toting?/And even the Jordan river has bodies floating...") Barbicide's Fresh Cuts is an immensely good EP--and highly recommended!

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If you're craving the sweet, late-'60 sounds of rocksteady (with lots of echo effects rolled in), you'll find The Twilights*' Hear What I Say (CD/digital, self-released, 2018) most satisfying. This 10-track album features The Twilights' really splendid, sing-along original cuts standing tall and proud alongside their marvelous takes on several rocksteady and roots reggae classics--notably Delroy Wilson's evergreen "Dancing Mood," Ken Boothe's version of Edward Heyman and Victor Young's pop standard "When I Fall in Love" (and its wild dub version, "When I Fall in Dub"!), and The Heptones' "Hypocrite." (The band, from Easton, PA, is Danny Kru Schurtman on lead vocals and melodica, Scott DeDecker on keys, Rebecca Pagliarulo on guitar and vocals, Edmond Cho on bass, guitar, and vox, and David Best on drums.)

Most of The Twilights*' own material is concerned with one's psychological mood--particularly the desire to achieve some semblance of emotional equilibrium. The musically bright, sing-song-y "Rainy Day" (which features an unexpectedly fantastic, effects-filled bridge) has lyrics that express longing for an end to episodes of depression ("In sad times, I have prayed for rain...Hide in corners/To feel gray...For the last time, let me shine again/Brighter than your mighty sun...It's going to be a rainy day/'Cause this shit's gotta change!'). The opening chords of "Gold" quote Freddie McKay's "Picture on the Wall," but then shift to a brisk, almost jaunty riddim reflecting the determination of the chorus: "Gold is in my eyes/Stars are in my head/I push it, I push it/I push until I'm dead"; but then doubt and insecurity seep in during the verses: "Things are not the way I've always dreamed/Feel away, cast away at sea/Pushing hard, 'cause that's how I still believe/People made boring by machines...Waking thoughts, you're still in my dreams/Everything's exactly what it seems...Don't go, don't go/Hold me, hold tight!" I particularly like the claustrophobic and unsettling "Panic Attack" ("Panic attack, deception's over me/Panic attack, it's something, can't you see?/No one takes it seriously...") with its choice use of off-kilter toy piano here. The album is capped off with a fierce, live, dubby version of Lee Perry and Max Romeo's "Chase the Devil" (one of the greatest songs ever written) that is simply epic! Keep your eye on this band!

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