Monday, December 23, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part II: Isaac Green and The Skalars, Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, and The Void Union!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Isaac Green and The Skalars: Skoolin' with The Skalars (Clear vinyl LP/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2019; first issued on CD by Moon Ska Records in 1996): Back in the early '90s--when I was running the Moon promotions office from a desk in my kitchen at night/on weekends and the seeds of the mid-'90s ska boom were just taking root--I used to field these phone calls from this kid in St. Louis, who would chat me up about all things ska. But more importantly, he'd pump me for info about the working mechanics of the underground music scene--like how doing you go about booking a show, promoting a band, releasing a record, etc. A few years later, a single shows up, I'm hearing about Isaac Green and The Skalars from other Moon acts on tour playing St. Louis (including, of course, Moon head honcho Bucket of The Toasters)--and maybe half a year later, I'm hiring a graphic designer to come up with the cover for their debut album on Moon and sending their master tape to our pressing plant. It's not every day that someone actually uses the (limited) knowledge you share with them, but Isaac Green took it ran with it, practically willing this band into existence (note that his role in the band onstage was MC/moves and as band manager offstage)! Isaac Green and The Skalars' best known track is "High School," thanks to their excellent music video (directed by Drew Sentivan of The Fiascos in collaboration with Crazy Duck Productions for Moon) that was shown nationally on MTV's alternative music video channel M2. I was a bit shocked when I listened to the album recently and realized that it wasn't Jessica Butler's voice I was hearing (I had forgotten that it was sung by Amy Scherer, but she left the band after the album was released, so Jessica recorded a new vocal track for the music video). There are a host of other really great songs on The Skalars' debut, including another fantastic moody reggay-ish cut, "Don't Count" ("...on getting what you want/But appreciate it, when it comes"), which is almost a companion piece to the unsettling uncertainty conveyed in "High School"; the rhythm-and-blues goes ska versions of the Marvelettes' "Beechwood 4-5789" and Wynonie Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes," as well as a gorgeous cover of The Heptones' "I Love You" (there were three female vocalists/brass players in the band!); and some more really fine originals, particularly The Skatalites'-like "Special K," and the swinging "Phat Steaks." This first-time-on-vinyl edition of Skoolin' with The Skalars was released to coincide with a rarely offered reunion show The Skalars played in Chicago in November that didn't disappoint (they were terrific live in the 1990s, too!). Depending on your age, this LP is a great excuse to be introduced to the band or reminded why you loved them so much way back then (it's hard to believe that 23 years have passed since Skoolin' was released and it's now a Third Wave classic!). If you can find it, The Skalars' sophomore album for Moon Change Up is pretty killer, but came out in '99 when the bottom fell out of the ska scene in the U.S. and few bought/heard it...

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan "Share My Love" b/w "Cool and Deadly" (7" vinyl single, Liquidator Music, 2019): Brooklyn's Top Shotta Band--helmed by trumpeter/producer djMush1, who was previously in The Slackers and Murphy's Law, and fronted by dancehall veteran Screechy Dan, known for his work with Vital Crew/Big Yard/Shaggy Posse, under his alias Leon Dinero, and with Megative on their amazing debut album--have a terrific new single out in advance of their forthcoming Spread Love LP, to be released in 2020. Both cuts have a tremendously good vintage Skatalites/Don Drummond ska vibe and sound to them, with Screechy Dan making his pitch for why he should be her man in "Share My Love" and boasting of his prowess and resilience in "Cool and Deadly" ("I'm a champion/I'm nobody you can stomp on/But you can keep your eyes on/A conqueror, that's what I am!"). Keep and eye out for their album and go their shows if you have a chance, as they're stellar live.

The Void Union Return of the Super Vape (CD/digital/Red vinyl LP, Jump Up Records, 2019): The last time we heard from the Boston-area super-group/musical collective that is The Void Union was back in 2011, with their superb, second album Higher Guns (read our review of it here). While they may not be the most prolific act out there, The Void Union make up for it with consistently top notch music, through and through, as heard on their new (and the Lee Perry punning) Return of the Super Vape. As always, The Void Union plays a mix of vintage jazzy/big band JA ska, rocksteady, and modern ska--and there's a wonderful variety of sounds, since just about everyone in the band is a gifted songwriter and contributes at least one track to the recording (just another reminder of how there is strength in diversity). Many of the cuts here are concerned with women--setting up a rendezvous with one (the sing-along "Kassablanca" with Mr. T-Bone on guest vocals), loving them ("Mi Corazon" and "Mine"), being confounded by their ways ("Allora"), and being so head over heels that you can't imagine life without her (the ethereal "Build a World" with Jr. Thomas on lead vocals, Dave Hillyard on sax, and backing vocals with Hepcat's Alex Desert, Western Standard Time's Chiquis Lozoya, and The Expanders' John Butcher). As well, there are some amazing instrumentals, including the sprightly, keyboard-focused (of course) tribute to The Upsetter "Dread Perry" and the really lovely "Wash Yo' Hands," which gives the chance for the horn players to show off their chops. But, perhaps the best track is the razor-sharp commentary on our post-truth America (thanks to the willful ignorance, gaslighting, and propagandizing of the MAGA hatters, the entire GOP, and the nation's "president"--the long-term consequences to our democracy be damned), the "Shame and Scandal"-like "The News Cycle" (with The Pietasters' Steve Jackson at the mic): "I posted on my page today/I knew it wasn't true, but I like it anyway/I argue with another, about a baby didn't know I had/He said, you made a mockery of mom and dad/We won the news cycle/We won the news/Fuck everybody else/Fuck everybody else...I didn't verify your Lincoln quote/I didn't exercise my right to vote/I can't acknowledge my most fancy fears/Because I'm drowning in them Liberal tears..." (though one doubts that there will be the change of heart that takes place just before the end of the song: "I smacked my television set last night/Strapped my life up to some dynamite/Now that I've got clarity, I don't consent/No need to make America great again").

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska Winter 2019 NYC Ska Calendar #10

...and Happy Hanukkah and Happy Kwanzaa!
Friday, December 20, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

The Slackers, The Pietasters, Mephiskapheles

Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY

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Saturday, December 21, 2019 @ 6:30 PM

Hub City Stompers Record Release Party w/The Rudie Crew, 45 Adapters, Damage Done

Berlin Under A
25 Avenue A
New York, NY

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Sunday, December 22, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Barbicide, The Joint G, The I in Team

The Cobra Club
6 Wyckoff Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Tuesday, December 24, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Roots Reggae Xmas featuring Vic Ruggiero, Anant Pradhan, plus DJ Vic Axelrod

Mama Tried Brooklyn
787 3rd Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, December 27, 2019 @ 8:00 pm
Saturday, December 28, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Steel Pulse

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Saturday, December 28, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

Holiday Party w/Rude Boy George, The Rudie Crew, The Band Called Fuse

Four City Brewing Company
55 South Essex Avenue
Orange, NJ
(It's about a block from the NJ Transit station!)

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Friday, January 3, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

The Skatalites, The Du-Rites

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, January 24, 2020 @ 9:00 pm

Caz Gardiner

The Parkside Lounge
317 East Houston Street
New York, NY
2 Drink Minimum/21+

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Saturday, January 25, 2020 @ 9:00 pm

Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7

200 N 14th Street
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, January 31, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

158 Ludlow Street
New York, NY

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Friday, May 22, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Madness (40th Anniversary Tour), The English Beat (featuring Dave Wakeling)

Manhattan Center
311 West 34th Street
New York, NY

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019!

Editor's note: Here's a recap of all of the music and books I reviewed this year (click through the links to read 'em)--and I still have a big pile of records to write-up over the next few weeks. So, look for more posts, each containing a bunch of short reviews of releases deserving of your attention and support!

(All reviews by Steve Shafer)

Laurel Aitken and The Skatalites: Ska Titans (LP, Black Butcher Classics, 2019)

Barbicide: Fresh Cuts (Digital EP, Pass the Virgin Music, 2019)

The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger: Public Confidential (CD/LP, DMF Records, 2019)

Dennis Bovell: Babylon: The Original Score (Digital, Old School, 2019)

Susan Cadogan: "Breakfast in Bed" b/w "Don't Burn Your Bridges Behind You" (Digital, self-released, 2019)

The Captivators: Need a Lift? (Digital EP, self-released, 2018)

Catbite: "Amphetamine Delight" (7" flexi disc, Bad Time Records, 2019)

Danny Rebel and the KGB: "Spacebound" (Digital, self-released, 2019)

Daytoner: "Feel Like Jumping" b/w "Perfidia" (7" vinyl single, Friday's Funky 45/Cabin Pressure, 2019)

Kevin Flowerdew: Memoirs of a Ska Librarian: The History of Rude Skazine (5 zines printed on glossy paper, Do The Dog Music, 2019)

Flying Vipers: Nervous Breakdub (Digital, Music ADD Records, 2018)

The Frightners: "Make Up Your Mind" b/w "Make Up Dub" (7" vinyl single, Mad Decent, 2019)

The Frightnrs: "Never Answer" b/w "Questions" (7" vinyl single, Daptone Records, 2019)

Le Grand Miércoles: "Lone Gunman Theory" b/w "I've Got to Surf Away" (7" vinyl single, Liquidator Music, 2019)

JonnyGo Figure: Crucial Showcase (12" vinyl/digital, Bent Backs Records, 2019)

K-Man and The 45s: Stand with the Youth (CD/digital/LP, Stomp Records, 2019)

King Kong 4: Songs for Olly (Digital EP, self-released, 2019)

King Zepha: King Zepha's Northern Sound (CD/digital/LP, Happy People Records, 2019)

Zara McFarlane with Dennis Bovell: East of the River Nile (12" vinyl EP/digital, Brownswood Recordings, 2019)

The Mad Geezers: "The Donkey" b/w "The Snake Charmer" (7" vinyl single/digital, Swing-A-Ling/Names You Can Trust, 2019)

Madness: "The Bullingdon Boys" (Digital, self-released, 2019)

Madness: "One Step Beyond" (Shaped 7" picture disc, Union Square Music/BMG, 2019)

NY Ska Jazz Ensemble: Break Thru (CD/digital, Brixton Records/Ska Jazz Productions, 2019)

Pama International: Stop the War on the Poor (CD/digital/LP, Happy People Records, 2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: "Big Ben Rock (Woodie Taylor Remix)" b/w "Steady" and "J'ai Tout Lu" (7" vinyl single, Where It's At Is Where You Are, 2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (CD/LP/digital, On-U Sound, 2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry" with Peaking Lights and Ivan Lee: Life of the Plants (12" vinyl EP, Stones Throw Records, 2019)

Prince Fatty with Big Youth and George Dekker: "Everything Crash" (Digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2019)

Prince Fatty with Big Youth and George Dekker: "Get Ready" b/w "Get Ready Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2019)

Prince Fatty with Earl 16: "Be Thankful for What You've Got" b/w "Be Thankful Dub" (7" vinyl single, Evergreen Recordings, 2019)

Prince Fatty Presenting Monkey Jhayam: The Rolê of Monkey Man (Digital/LP, Delicious Vinyl/Island, 2018)

The Prizefighters: Firewalk (CD/cassette/digital/LP, Jump Up Records/Prizefighter Sound System, 2019)

The Prizefighters: "Stop Them" (Digital single, self-released, 2019)

Ranking Roger with Daniel Rachel: "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" (Paperback book, Omnibus Press, 2019)

Reggae Roast: "Sensi Skank Reloaded" (10" vinyl EP, Trojan Reloaded, 2019)

The Seattle-ites: The Thing (10" vinyl/digital, Ready to Launch Records, 2019)

Ska Jazz Messengers: "Mil Veces No" b/w "Mil Veces Dub" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single, Liquidator Music, 2019)

The Specials: Encore (CD/2xCD/LP, Island Records/UMG, 2019)

The Specials: "10 Commandments" with Saffiyah Khan b/w "You're Wondering Now" with Amy Winehouse (7" vinyl single, Island/UMG, 2019)

David Storey: "80s Iconic Music Posters" (Booklet)

Subject A: Writers Eyes (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2019)

The Twilights* Hear What I Say (CD/digital, self-released, 2018)

UB40: For the Many (CD/2xCD/LP, Universal/Sony, 2019)

Various Artists: Check One-2: Spirit of '79 (4xCD, Specialized Records, 2019)

Various Artists: Max's SKAnsas City (LP, Jungle Records/Max's Kansas City Records, 2019)

Various Artists: The Shape of Ska Punk to Come (CD/digital/LP, Bad Time Records, 2019)

Various Artists: Sock It To Me: Boss Reggae Rarities In The Spirit Of 69 (CD/LP, Trojan Records, 2019)

Various Artists: Step Forward Youth (2xCD/digital/LP, Greensleeves/VP Records, 2018)

Well Charged: Lift Up Sessions EP (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2018)

Willie Williams: "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal)" b/w "Armagideon Time (Discomix Version)" (12" vinyl single, Soul Jazz Records, 2019)

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And here are some other pieces and gig reviews that may be of interest, if you didn't catch them first time around:

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Lee "Scratch" Perry w/Peaking Lights and Ivan Lee, "Life of the Plants" EP and Willie Williams "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal/Version)" 12"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Life of the Plants (12" vinyl EP, Stones Throw Records, 2019), a collaborative effort between Lee "Scratch" Perry, Peaking Lights (AKA Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis), and Argentinian musician Ivan Lee, is a compelling, modern take on roots reggae (Peaking Lights bills themselves as "electronic dub") that's not too dissimilar from Perry's work with Adrian Sherwood or Mad Professor. The moody and mysterious title track has an insistent and driving riddim with Perry urging the listener to follow a vegetarian way of life: "No meat, no beef/No chicken heads, no chicken backs, no chicken leg/No meat, no cannibalizing..." "No Age" features a repeated progression of dubby synth chords with various percussive and sound effects (its dub is similar, but incorporates more Perry exhortations). "Magik" is more of a trippy electronica cut than reggae, but concerns a recurring theme in Perry's work ("Macumba Rock" from his recently released Rainford album is about voodoo and black magic). Each of these tracks comes in just shy of 10 minutes--and all are too long, frankly. The material is great, but everything's needlessly stretched out. A more condensed and focused record would have yielded more powerful results.

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As part of their ongoing Studio One reissue series, Soul Jazz Records is releasing classic tracks from Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's pioneering label as a series of 12" singles. So far, I've picked up Horace Andy's 1973 hit sizzler "Fever" b/w Cedric Im Brooks' "The Flu" (an instrumental version of "Fever")--and have Alton Ellis' 1967 rocksteady smash "I'm Still in Love" (Althea and Donna used this riddim for "Uptown Top Ranking") b/w Soul Vendors' funky "Just a Bit of Soul" (love the Jackie Mittoo keyboard work here!) coming soon in the mail. Of all the 12" singles issued so far, the one that I'm most excited to have in my hands is Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal)" b/w "Armagideon Time (Discomix Version)" (12" vinyl single, Soul Jazz Records, 2019), an absolute favorite of mine that I think is one of the greatest reggae songs ever recorded. These versions (first released in 1980) are not too far removed from Williams' original 1979 Studio One single (which utilizes Dodd's magnificent "Real Rock" riddim and is credited to Dodd/Mittoo/Williams), but incorporate laser sounds, almost ethereal piano chords/lines played by Mittoo on a Fender Rhodes, and additional percussion. I have these exact tracks on a treasured blue and white paper label Studio One reissued 7" single (pressed in the US in the 1990s?) that I found a few years ago, but they're titled "Armagideon Time" b/w "Armagideon Version" (with Sound Dimension). Of course, this song gained a vastly wider audience beyond JA when The Clash covered it brilliantly for the b side of their 1979 "London Calling" single (I was first introduced to "Armagideon Time" via The Clash's Black Market Clash compilation). Indeed, Joe Strummer's impassioned vocals--full of empathy, outrage, and desperation--contrast so well against the band's taut, muscular, but spare take on the music (they really "got" reggae--and Topper Headon's drumming on this cut is phenomenal). Thematically, "Armagideon Time" was also the perfect companion piece to "London Calling's" apocalyptic/post-nuclear "error" societal breakdown scenario. But for all of Strummer's emoting, Willie Williams' simple, straight-forward, and relaxed vocals are all the more powerful for their same-as-it-ever-was matter-of-factness. His lyrics pack all of the punches themselves...

"A lotta people won't get no supper tonight
A lotta people going to suffer tonight
'Cause the battle is getting harder
In this Iration, it's Armagideon

A lotta people won't get no justice tonight
So, a lot of people going to have to stand up and fight
But remember, to praise Jehovah
And he will guide you
In this Iration, it's Armagideon"

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Duff Review: Madness' New, Anti-Tory/Boris Johnson Single, "The Bullingdon Boys"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After a three-year break from recording (their last album was the excellent Can't Touch Us Now--though they have been playing gigs/festivals and have just released a book, "Before We Was We: Madness by Madness"), Madness are back on the beat with the explicitly anti-Boris Johnson/Tory/Trump track, "The Bullingdon Boys," just in time for the UK's high-stakes general election coming up later this month. For non-Brits, the Bullingdon reference is to an elite/exclusive club for rich Oxford University students (one not officially recognized by that institution) who have been educated at "public" (meaning private in the US) schools, such as Eton. Members of the Bullingdon Club include the former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland Nick Hurd, and the current PM Boris Johnson (Tories/Conservatives, all). And this song's about how the 1% (see the aforementioned Eton alum) maintain their cold, dead grip on political power and wealth through a rigged system of predatory capitalism/governance that benefits them at the expense of everyone else (in a similar vein--times never change--see The Jam's "Eton Rifles""What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?").

In "The Bullingdon Boys" lyrics below, note the MAGA reference and Johnson's similar, Trumpian ploy of appealing to the anti-immigrant/racist crowd in order to lure them into voting against their own interests (buh-bye NHS) for the party that will gladly pick their bones after they've fleeced the nation.

"The Eton Boys are undefiled
The Bullingdon Boys, running wild
And England slides into the mist
No hope they'll cease nor desist

They're making England great again
Make way for the bagmen
And when everything's been sold and bought
We'll soon be off the life support

This is an English public school
This is where Britain raised its empire
Rulers of yesterday
And still trains the leaders of tomorrow"

"The Bullingdon Boys" opens with the discordant, careening car crash final crescendo of sounds (an orchestral glissando) from Lennon and McCartney's/The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," (in the "Bullingdon" music video, it looks like we're about to crash into the cliffs of Dover) and transitions quickly into Madness' classic music hall-pop-ska sound, with Suggs serving as our reliable (if bitter) guide through the nation's "comedy horror show." The music video for "The Bullingdon Boys" features clips from movies like "A Clockwork Orange," "A Christmas Carol" (highlighting the pre-reformed Scrooge, of course), "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Bonnie and Clyde," one of the spaghetti Westerns (don't have time to watch them now), and the disturbing satire of English public school life (also starring droog Malcolm McDowell), "...if," among others.

At the moment, there is no physical release of this song--it's a digital single, available from the usual outlets. But a protest track like this--so sharply relevant to what may be democracy's end times--cries out for a physical release (that artwork's made to be on the picture sleeve for a 45!) to race up the charts and give notice/pause to the powers that be (and hope to the resistors) that not everyone's been duped by their authoritarian gaslighting or co-opted via their insidious, bread and circuses-like schemes.

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