Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Duff Review: Steady Social Club "Take One"

The album cover features an illustration of a Black mermaid lounging on letters forming the name of the band.Self-released

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Take One is the impressive debut album from Poland's first rocksteady act Steady Social Club, and is filled with really terrific original tunes and ace performances--all recorded live in the studio on analog gear in one take, warts and all, with no edits, overdubs, etc. (hence, the album title). It should be noted that Steady Social Club are not newcomers to the scene, as members hail from other Polish and (one) German ska groups (Vespa, The Bartenders, Real Cool Sound, Big Fat Mama, and Spartan Allstars). They joke that they're ska veterans, but older now, so they play slower (hah!). And this really is a late night, end-of-the-afterparty record, when people couple or uncouple, and don't necessarily make the best decisions (practically all of the songs on Take One are about falling in or extracting oneself from a romantic relationship). The rocksteady tempos are markedly (almost stubbornly) unhurried, giving the male and female singers (Wioletta Baran, Anna Teliczan, and Boris Borowski) plenty of time to do their thing, and the song arrangements are uncomplicated, yet completely appropriate and effective (the band is rounded out by Artur Grochowski on drums, percussions, and keyboards; Bartłomiej Kościański on bass, guitar, and keys; and Maciej Januchowski on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; the later two wrote all of the tracks here).

Top cuts here include "Let's Do Rocksteady," which has wonderful harmonizing and offbeat use of male falsetto ("Let's forget all the daily trouble/Now it's just you and me together/Hold me tight, till you feel my heartbeat/All the world can come back tomorrow"); the gorgeous ballad "Magic Feeling" (which, of course, is that of being in love); and the incredibly sultry tracks "Set Me Free" (who could resist this entreaty?) and the you're-headed-for-a fall "Slow Down." "You Kept Me Waiting" is more Harry J skinhead reggae than rocksteady and features really amazing Jerry Dammers-esque organ during the chorus (the singer knows he's not ever going to get what he wants, but still can't help himself: "I'll keep on waiting/Up through the night/I'll keep on waiting/Until the dawn/Why?"). "Friend or Foe" also is excellent dirty reggae about someone getting what they're owed in a Niney the Observer "Blood and Fire" kind of way ("I say one day/You gonna pay/And the lies you've said/Will be exposed!"). Perhaps the fiercest song on the album is "There's the Door" (I'm warning you/This game won't be played be no more/It is last chance for you to change/And otherwise there's the door")--you won't be able to resist singing along with the ominous "ohs" of the chorus.

Even though I'm getting killed on the shipping costs from Poland to the USA, I need Steady Social Club's Take One LP in my collection. If you're a fan of rocksteady, you'll want this album, too.

[Update: Since posting this review, I've learned that this LP will be available in the USA through Jump Up Records.]

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Duff Review: Danny Rebel and the KGB: "For Babylon's Head" EP

The cover painting depicts Danny Rebel driving a car and a police car chasing him can be seen in the rear view mirror.Self-released

(Review by Steve Shafer)

If you aren't into American hardcore and punk from the first half of the 1980s, you might miss that the cover artwork for Danny Rebel and the KGB's new EP For Babylon's Head is a brilliant take on the Minutemen's 1984 Double Nickels on the Dime cover photo--and that this punk-hardcore-art rock-jazz masterpiece contains 45(!) tracks on two LPs filled with left-wing commentary on racism, war, working-class life, and more. Like that Minutemen album, the tracks on DRKGB's For Babylon's Head deal with the gentrification and destruction of a diverse, working-class neighborhood and tangling with lawless, racist cops (the one big difference between Danny Rebel's painting and the Minutemen's photo is that in the former, we see the police car lights in the VW Bug's rear view mirror, while in the latter, it's bassist Mike Watt's smiling eyes; also, note how Rebel has artfully snuck in references to his band's first two albums!).

With its Old Testament echos of the Israelite siege and destruction of Jericho and its wicked inhabitants, "St Henri Wall" is part rocksteady track, part spiritual aimed at the predatory capitalist developers and gentrifiers in this Montreal neighborhood who are representative of Babylon's evildoers: "This wall is bound to fall/St Henri Wall is gonna come a tumbling down/I don't think they know/How we gonna break this wall down/I don't think they know/How we're gonna fizz the fire/Babylon better run/Run, run, run Babylon." This incredible track is versioned in "Wall Dub."

"Another Song About You" is a sparse but positively seething acoustic cut about police racial profiling, harassment, and murder (they're Babylon's enforcers) that's powerful and emotionally devastating in its musical simplicity and lyrical directness:

Another song about you, Mr. Man
Another death in the streets from your hands
Another scream of anger
In the end, it's all noise

Lights of blue and red
Once again, in my car
Another random check
That's the third time, so far
"I'm not supposed to feel you"
Yes, that's what you're trained to do

Feeling paranoia walking down my street
Your hands around my neck
And I feel that it's so hard to breathe
If I was a criminal
You would see a bullet through those eyes

It's another verse
Another melody
The words are rearranged
To sound like new
I felt inspired as you look at me
It's just another song about you

Maybe it's the color of these eyes
That you want me to die
Maybe it is written in the Book of Rules
Who to call
About the cause of all this murder?
If I was a criminal
You would see a bullet through those eyes

Both of these songs are protest music at its finest (deeply meaningful messages delivered within exceedingly catchy tunes). We're all living through some truly awful times, but Danny Rebel and the KGB are helping to provide a soundtrack for the downtrodden and oppressed that pushes back against the powers that be--and maybe even provides some hope for better days.

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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Duff Review: Flying Vipers "Cuttings"

The cover illustration depicts a volcano erupting in the midst of a lush jungle.Music ADD Records
Digital (July 3, 2020)/LP and cassette (Fall 2020, Jump Up Records)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Back in the mid-nineties when I ran the Moon Records promo department out of a bedroom in my apartment (with my assistant and an intern or two), I often played dub albums (loads of Lee "Scratch" Perry after reading an extensive overview/ranking of his recordings in the Beastie Boys' magazine "Grand Royale"), as the rhythms and melodies would help keep us working at a steady pace without being too intrusive or overpowering. While I'm certainly not implying that dub is akin to background music a la Muzak, it is great music to play either while doing something else or when taking the time to do nothing but be alone with your thoughts. If Flying Vipers' Cuttings had been available back then, it would have been in heavy rotation on the office stereo, as well as during the off hours.

After releasing a series of superb cassettes (The Green Tape, The Copper Tape), and physical and digital singles ("Highest Region," "Nervous Breakdub (Pandemic Version)" b/w "PMA Calling") over the past few years, Flying Vipers have finally issued their first long-player Cuttings, which, as one would expect, is crammed with incredibly hooky, dubby roots reggae instrumentals reminiscent of Dennis Bovell's magnificent productions and Perry's recent and awesome collaborations with Adrian Sherwood and Daniel Boyle.

Cuttings, of course, refers not only to the leaves that have been harvested from cannabis plants, but these musical fruits of the band's labors in the studio--and they have one bounteous crop here. Highlights include "Leaf Miner," which has a wonderful interplay between a rigid and relentless bass riff and a series of answering free flowing Rhodes piano lines; the prescient, apocalyptic "Two Twenties Clash" (and people thought things were bad back in '77!); the Bunny "Striker" Lee tribute "Flight of the Gorgon" with its majestic, panoramic horns; the bad-ass "Scorpio Son" and its version "Son of Scorpio"; and the supremely confident and untouchable "Puff Adder" (many of the cuts on this album are ripe for being versioned by deejays and singers--and becoming well-known riddims in their own right).

Flying Vipers are comprised of the devastatingly good rhythm section of Marc and John Beaudette (Destroy BabylonThe Macrotones), the gifted Zack Brines (Pressure Cooker) on keys, and Jay Champany (10 Ft. Ganja Plant) on percussion and the master at the analogue controls (plus ace guests on horns, sax, flute, clarinet, and binghi).

If you haven't been paying attention to this band, Cuttings is a brilliant introduction to the mighty Flying Vipers; and if you have, you're going to love this album,

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Megative Release Video in Support of Black Lives Matter (and a New Single is Forthcoming)

The band poses in back of a drum head with Megative printed on it.In case you missed it, Megative's self-titled debut album was one of the best ska-related releases of 2018 (this now hard-to-find LP is available through Soulbeats Records). Need a Megative teaser or refresher? Here's the first paragraph of The Duff Guide to Ska review of it from November 2018:

"Megative's tremendously good and absolutely searing self-titled debut is a concept album of sorts, focused on the breakdown or end, really the death, of everything--your own body and consciousness; inter-personal relationships; society/civilization; the sum of humanity; and the very planet that sustains us. These bleak Armagideon Time anxieties are expressed within a sparse, but powerfully realized and incredibly appealing mix of modern minor-key ska and dubby reggae (think of a mash-up of The Specials' Ghost Town EP with the Gorillaz's Demon Days or 2 Tone and punky-reggae Clash tracks given a modern, juiced-up Danger Mouse/Prince Fatty/Mungo's Hi-Fi production)."

While the band was largely off the radar during 2019, Megative had planned to release their new single "The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum) this June 5 (Soulbeats Records), but delayed it until July 15, due to the worldwide anti-racist/anti-police brutality protests that erupted in reaction to the outrageous police killing of George Floyd. In its stead, Megative has issued a new video in support of Black Lives Matter--a "Lockdown" version of their incredible and highly relevant "Yeah Yeah Yeah (Yeah Yeah)" cut, which can be viewed below. Here's what we wrote about this track back in 2018:

"The one joyful and truly blissed-out moment on the entire album comes in the "They Live" referencing "Yeah Yeah Yeah (Yeah Yeah)." The verses of the song are in a minor key (as is almost every song on the record)--"The maniacs are in control/Aliens in human bodies without souls/We watch them on our screens like they're gods/And we smile while they feed us to the dogs/Now I fear I might do something rash/Watching lunatics build towers doomed to crash/They divide us up against our friends/How I long for the days when we'll all sing again..."--but everything abruptly shifts to a bright major key during the you-can't-resist-singing-along chorus of solidarity and rebellion against oppression: "yeah, yeah, yeah (yeah, yeah)!""

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Friday, June 19, 2020

"2 Tone: The Albums" Box Set Forthcoming

Word comes via Specials' autobiographer Paul Willo that Chrysalis Records is releasing a box set of the first eight 2 Tone albums as a CD box set on September 4th, 2020. Titled 2 Tone: The Albums, this collection comes packaged with mini-LP sleeves, a 24-page booklet with liner notes by Jason Weir and Peter Walsh, and contains The Specials' The Specials, The Selecter's Too Much Pressure, The Specials' More Specials, Dance Craze, Rico's That Man Is Forward and Jama Rico, This Are Two Tone, and The Special AKA's In the Studio. The retail list price will be £32.

Of course, the majority of these albums have been previously released on CD, but 2 Tone fans may still be enticed to pick up this set, as this edition of Dance Craze restores the Madness tracks that were excised from previous CD reissues and for the fact that Rico's Rico Jama has never before been available on CD outside of Japan.

All details can be found at Paul Willo's FB post.

Lastly, this box set is not being released in the USA or Canada, so you'll have to mail-order it from overseas if you live in either of those countries.

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Update (7/2/2020): This box set is now available to pre-order through the official Two Tone store; a related t-shirt can be had, too.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Duff Review: Rudebeard "As You Walk Away" EP

F&J Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While the new As You Walk Away EP from Rudebeard, a Scottish ska supergroup (made up of members of The Amphetameanies, Newtown Grunts, Joe Viterbo, and other acts north of Hadrian's Wall) is a mere three tracks, all of them are funny, gleefully irreverent, and extraordinarily catchy. The title track--the only one without rude words--is a mid-tempo modern ska track with awesome, I've-learned-my-lesson lyrics straight out of a country and western song: [Chorus:] "Don't you let the door hit you on the arse/At least exit quietly/You were right and I was wrong/But now I've got some clarity/Lots and lots of clarity..." Whenever live shows are permitted again, everyone in the venue will be singing along to this one. "Small C Conservative" eviscerates free market-loving politicians ("He's a small 'c' conservative/And a big 'C' cunt...Friedmanite/Gammonite/Monetarist/Gobshite"), while sporting a wickedly good Brix Smith-era Fall meets Dick Dale surf guitar riff (and '80s Fall synth sounds). As its title suggests, "A Mucky Fumble on a Pishy Mattress" is kind of over before it's really started--the song's only about 30 seconds long--but it's nevertheless a great pop-punk-ska cut. (Rudebeard has two other digital EPs available, both very much worth checking out: Smell Yer Ska and Wide-os on the Rise.)

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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Duff Review: Rude Boy George "Lies and Alibis"

The EP cover is made to look like a tabloid newspaper, with titles of songs as headlines and lyrics as the stories. Pictures of various band members are scattered throughout.Self-released

(Review by Steve Shafer) 

[Disclaimer: I was a co-founder of this band, but left five years ago.]

Lies and Alibis marks Rude Boy George's fourth EP of ska and reggae versions of new wave hits--and it's another really fine and fun collection of tracks from this ace band of NYC-area ska veterans (Bigger Thomas, Hub City Stompers, Heavensbee). This time out, RBG focuses on early '80s synth-pop from Heaven 17, Thompson Twins, Soft Cell, and...Rod Stewart? Released in 1981 on Tonight I'm Yours, "Young Turks" was the Rod's quite successful bid at gearing some of his music to the popular new wave sounds of the day (and made it to #5 on Billboard's US pop charts). Rude Boy George's take on it is a vast improvement on the original--but, still! (Can I refer to Stewart's original as "cod new wave"?). The other choices of songs are impeccable, particularly Thompson Twins' "Lies" and Heaven 17's "Let Me Go," both of which are given a shiny pop-ska sheen.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Duff Review: Erin Bardwell "Interval"

Erin Bardwell looks down at a keyboard that is out of frame; a microphone is in front of him, as well.Pop-A-Top Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The title of Erin Bardwell's new album Interval is meant to be taken literally: this is a pause, a break from the usual routines with his other bands, Erin Bardwell Collective and Subject A, in order to take stock of things. Bardwell jokes--or maybe doesn't--in his liner notes that "some call it a mid-life crisis." Whatever the case may be, Interval is a deeply introspective album (and great Sunday morning record) that often explores the seemingly small moments in one's life that produce powerful and sometimes disturbing emotional reactions, and end up haunting one's memories. In content and unsettled tone, it may remind the listener of an album like The Special AKA's In The Studio, which used songs about personal dysfunction and desperate situations to comment on the cruelty and injustice in the world around us.

The album starts off with the 2 Tone/Northern Soul track "Four Walls Surround," which is about being young and lonely and boxed in by one's own fears, anxieties, and depression--and cutting oneself off from the very people who might make it all better, if at least tolerable ("These four walls/A problem starts all by itself/At first wasn't true/Becomes your only truth/These four walls/Will comfort you/Say you're busy/Can't come out, don't come round...People stop asking in the end"). Its bookend a few tracks later is "Name on a Page" (which utilizes the same tune as "When You Smile"), but is set years later and from the point of view of someone who had lost touch with the troubled teen of "Four Walls Surround" and is relieved to have randomly found out that they're still alive: "They said you wasn't home/A name remembered/Often wondered/Thought you were sick/Sick of life/You made it past your teenage years/It's actually made my day/Saw your name on a page." (One of the terrible burdens of being middle aged is knowing how people's life stories end, sometimes quite badly.)

The lyrics for "When You Smile" appear to be quite sweet on their own, but the music that accompanies them has a dark, menacing edge and casts lyrics like this in a new light (is this a sick codependent relationship?): "It's a drug and I want more/Could it even stop a war?/Mother nature's given charm/Fix any kind of harm." "(Like a Reflection on) The Liffey" is about being a place that is so closely associated with someone who is gone (dead or somewhere far away) and feeling the loss, but also finding solace in the memories of that person attached to different parts of that place--in this case, Dublin (also, it's interesting to note that in Irish, Liffey means life). Interval includes two Madness-sounding covers of Irish folk tunes by Bardwell's uncle Eddie McLachlan (found on the album Celtic Tiger by Ciunas) that fit in quite well here: "Bridge of Tears" (outside of Dunfanaghy in County Donegal there is a short stone bridge leading to the road to Derry, where people would depart Ireland permanently for boats to Scotland, England, Australia, and America; family and friends would say goodbye forever to their loved ones at this point of no return, as if they were about to cross the river Styx into the underworld) and "That London Winter" about recalling a long-ago affair (and an unplanned pregnancy?).

Like In the Studio's "Nelson Mandela," the one musically bright spot on this album--though with a devastating spoken word bit at the end--is the protest song "Windrush" (written by Pop-A-Top collaborator Sonya Beale): "With dreams with dreams of embracing a mother/Came came hope a better life/Promised a welcome befitting royalty/But in reality/There was no love from mother...Years down the line after the work so hard for mother/She wants she wants to dash you away/Too many too many people came/Just can't take the strain/No longer no longer no longer remain" (which, of course, refers to the British government's utterly racist and despicable treatment of the Windrush generation). While another reviewer has beat me to the punch in labelling many of Bardwell's songs as "dream-ska," the label is so apt and "Injured Arm" is a wonderful example of it. The track is lush, light, and delicate--like the distant memory that inspired it: "And as I dip my injured arm into the sea/The tree that scratched it/And damaged it...And as I dip my injured arm into the sea/Maybe that's where you'll find me." The audio samples that introduce and close the song are from Bardwell's parents' children's theatre show recorded at the Glastonbury Festival in 1981: "And we don't want unhappy endings here today, do we?...The cockroaches who weren't hurt...had a good time and lived happily ever after." All of us humans long for the same things in of our lives, too.

Erin Bardwell's Interval is a tremendous, strikingly original ska and rocksteady record and unlike anything else you'll likely to hear this year.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Rhoda Dakar and Dub Pistols "Stand Together"

Sunday Best Recordings

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While it was not intended to address the current worldwide protests against the outrageous police killings of unarmed black people in America triggered by the murder of George Floyd, the seemingly prescient new single from Rhoda Dakar and Dub Pistols "Stand Together" could not be more relevant if it tried.

Released in advance of Dub Pistols' forthcoming album Addict (9/11/20, CD/LP), "Stand Together" is a brilliantly catchy and buoyant 2 Tone track with modern dancehall touches and echoes of Dandy Livingstone's "Rudy, A Message to You" in the horns (and was co-written by Dakar and the Pistols two years ago). In keeping with 2 Tone's fiercely anti-racist ethos (underscored in the video below), "Stand Together" is both a call for ongoing solidarity between black and white people, as well as a plea to continue building upon all of the hard-won legal and moral victories against racial discrimination over the years:

In my lifetime, I've have seen such progress
Changes that I'd never dreamt I would
Marched and challenged 
Even when it's hopeless
Then the law is changed
To vote for love

[Chorus:] No matter what the problem
Unity will get us through it
It's our intent to right wrongs
We'll stand together
We can do it

"Stand Together" offers something good and uplifting for the mind, body, and spirit in these bleak times--and really should be issued as a proper physical single!

[Update: According to Rhoda Dakar, a 7" single of "Stand Together" is in the works!]

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Rhoda Dakar also has a fantastic new monthly radio show on Totally Wired Radio called "Pork Pie and Mash Up," which features 2 Tone, reggae, ska, pop, and world (Mondays, 12-2 pm UK time). Her first broadcast is now available on catch up and features an interview with Barry Ashworth of Dub Pistols. Definitely give it a listen!

Also, back in April, Dub Pistols previewed their excellent cover of The Clash's "Bankrobber" with a music video (and Dakar also played it on her radio show). The "Bankrobber" digital and vinyl single will be released on June 30, 2020.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Victor Rice "Drink"

The album cover features simple illustrations of two fish surrounded by air bubbles.
Easy Star Records

Victor Rice's Drink is the second album in a planned trilogy of what Rice calls his "samba-rocksteady" instrumentals (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of his first LP Smoke). Recorded in Belgium with Nico Leonard (Pyrotechnist, The Moon Invaders, Pum Pum Hotel studio) and New York with Ticklah (Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and Easy Star All-Stars) at the controls and members of The Moon Invaders, Tommy Tornado, Mr. T Bone, The Slackers, The Scofflaws, and others performing, Drink is yet another top-notch album from Victor Rice and filled with evocative tracks expressing a gamut of moods. Indeed, as Rice comments in the album's press materials, “Most of these songs were written during a difficult period in my life, and there was a lot of drinking involved, so they were made under the influence of red wine. Once the sequence of songs were finished, it felt like a story arc, from the first glass to the last."

Within this context, one can infer what each song's rhythms and melodies might be meant to express. Drink opens with "La Mura" ("The Wall"), which has a bit of a dramatic spaghetti Western reggae edge to it--we're on a long, never-ending slog and soon hitting our limit--and the horns convey increasing tension as the song unfolds. "Simão" ("Simon") features a series of elaborate rock guitar riffs that seem to be in an increasingly heated conversation with the more restrained horns (but, it turns out, is named after Rice's cat), while the stately and cinematic "The Demander"--which refers to Rice's first car that he sometimes drove "recklessly"--has echoes of Prince Buster's "Gangsters" and "City Riot" (and sounds very much like Prince Busters' All Stars--which, of course, was comprised of many of The Skatalites). Like the meme of the cartoon dog drinking coffee while the room around him is ablaze, "This is Fine" is bright and chipper on the surface, but in denial of something more ominous--and "Bebida" ("Drink") sounds delightfully carefree, like when you have a good buzz going at an outdoor cafe and all your troubles recede from your thoughts. "Arouche" is refined, but busy--and refers to the slightly seedy, downtown São Paulo neighborhood known for its nightlife (where Rice lives). There's a nobleness to "Five," as if someone's valiantly grinding it out each workday until quitting time (so they can finally live at happy hour). "Madrid" has a muted, almost downcast melody, but with a stinging guitar solo (what went down here?). Last call is where we are with the dubby "Time to Go"; things have gotten pretty fuzzy and sloppy, and it's time to pour oneself into a cab.

While one is certainly sad for what Rice went through, his rough patch inspired the creation of some wonderful music. Will Comer round out this trilogy?

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