Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Dr. Ring Ding "The Remedy" and Flying Vipers "Dub Fader Cuts"

The cover illustration features a cartoony bottle of rum floating in the ocean with a small island with palm trees in the background.
(Good through 2021, at least.)
(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • Given Dr. Ring Ding's considerable talents and history of releasing consistently great albums, a review of his latest, The Remedy (LP, Jump Up Records, 2020), could probably be summed up in just a few words: You know it's incredible, so go buy it! But since my humble lot in life is to write about ska music--even if I'm usually too verbose in doing so--I've going to delve a bit into why The Remedy is one of the best ska, reggae, and dancehall albums you'll find this year. 
According to Dr. Ring Ding's brief liner notes, the music on The Remedy is intended as an antidote of sorts to the awful plague year we've all endured--to both lift our spirits, as well as acknowledge all of the suffering and loss we've experienced. So, the album is split between a Sunny Side and Cloudy Side, no doubt inspired by the completely unexpected (and great!) cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" (key lyric: "I've looked at clouds from both sides now"). Just as Stranger Cole preaches "more life!" as the answer to all our ills, Dr. Ring Ding plugs "More Reggae" to inject some joy into your world ("More reggae, loving the community/More reggae, celebrate life/More reggae, together in the unity/And bring on the positive vibes"). Title track "The Remedy" is a terrific '80s computer game dancehall cut with some really charming interplay between the good Doctor and Sista Gracy: "Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Mi terrible, the pain in my limbs is unbearable/Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Distressed, and that is why I've come to your address/Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Mi horrible, want some advice, my sweet, mi adorable/Dr. Ring Ding, how are ya?/Mi bad, I wonder what kind of remedy you have"; at the end of this consult, Sista Gracy prescribes "a quart of rum" to dull the pain (personally, I recommend Tito's and soda with a twist of lime). On the minor-key, Busters-sounding ska song "Fun," Dr. Ring Ding is simply out for a good time, but stymied in his endeavor by the overly woke: "Cracked a joke the other night/Almost got me in a fight/Stuck up buzzkill got uptight/Told me my style ain't right." The showpiece "Unity" sports a serious and driving bass-heavy groove for Dr. Ring Ding and Tippa Irie to toast over ("One love, one blood, one life, one unity/Peace and understanding inna fi we community"). If you don't dance to this...

The darkest bit on The Remedy's Cloudy Side is another surprising cover--a slightly off-kilter reggae version of Radiohead's "Creep," where Dr. Ring Ding really leans into its stalker-y and narcissistic lyrics. Benny Bell's 1946 novelty song "Shaving Cream" (popularized by Dr. Demento in the 1970s)--where every vignette in each verse ends badly (literally going to shit)--feels appropriate for 2020 (and the lyrics are so calypso-like in their suggestiveness/naughtiness): "I have a sad story to tell you/It may hurt your feelings a bit/Last night when I walked into my bathroom/I stepped in a big pile of...Shaving cream/Be nice and clean/Shave everyday and you'll always look keen"). The instrumental "Toochie" sounds like a classic Skatalites cut given a brisk reading by The Scofflaws, and "Oldschool Rock" seems like it could be a long-lost Studio One Sound Dimension riddim just recovered from Coxsone's vaults. The final track on the album "Dancing in the Rain" is a beautiful, if melancholy duet with jazz singer Stephanie K that seems to be a tribute to someone who has died: "You gave us all a smile/If only for a while/We know you didn't want to stop the fun...Without your happy face/There's only empty space/It's seems the world's not round without you dear/You brightened up the day/Then you went away/We hope you know that you're forever here...Dancing in the rain/We'll never be the same/As we throw confetti/Fare thee well." So say we all. Dr. Ring Ding's The Remedy is incredible, so go buy it!
  • The cover illustration features a jungle scene with snakes in the trees, bones and skulls scattered on the ground, and a volcano in the background.
       Happy People Records continues their streak of issuing choice singles from top ska and reggae acts from all over the world. The latest is Dub Fader Cuts (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020) from Boston-area reggae masters Flying Vipers. Both tracks are versions of instrumentals from their stellar debut LP Cuttings (which I reviewed earlier this year) that were remixed by Dub Fader (aka Craig Welsch of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant). "The Gorgon Strikes Back" is a brighter and more deconstructed version of Cuttings' Bunny "Striker" Lee tribute "Flight of the Gorgon"; while "Fermented Herbs" is a sparser and dubbier take on "Gesho," the latter of which sports all sorts of fantastic keyboard bits and sound effects (gesho is a plant native to Ethiopia that is used to make a type of mead). Needless to say, both tracks are essential if you love dub and the Vipers. And to top it off, the band is donating their proceeds to the Alpha Boys School

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Lightning Round: Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards "Take You Away," Rudebeard "20-20," and Sir Jay & the Skatanauts featuring Lorraine "Joy to the World"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards' awesomely bold/crazy fever dream "Take You Away" (Digital single, self-released, 2020) is a dynamic mix of vintage ska, big band jazz, Latin, and spaghetti Western movie scores--plus the drums and percussion mimic a galloping horse throughout. The latter of which is appropriate, as the song's about swooping in to rescue, abscond with, kidnap (?) the one you love: "I’ve come a long, long way/and I’m coming to take you away/From council flats full of lead/Away from subways overhead/Out of the ranks of the dead/Where will we end up? In bed." 
  • All of the shiny pop Christmas standards trying to cheer holiday shoppers up--in the shops that are still open, that is--have felt particularly grim and bleak this year. Millions of people are struggling and suffering, and a shockingly high number have died. And everything else seems mighty tenuous at the moment (some days, it feels like we're not too far off from the days when we'll be bartering family heirlooms for a handful of sugar or coffee, if we're not hiding out in our basements). Thankfully, Scotland's Rudebeard have released a phenomenally good tune wholly appropriate for this season of our annus horribilis. "20-20" (Digital single, F&J Records, 2020) is a muzak-synthpop-ska track (sort of More Specials Dammers meets Yazoo-era Vince Clarke!) that is a brutally honest and darkly funny assessment of 2020 masquerading as a Christmas pop song (the music video for this track--lyrics included!--is a must see). And the lyrics are worth quoting at length:
"Do you remember how it used to be
When twenty-twenty used to mean
A score for seeing perfectly? (Hey, hey!)

But now it's just a cluster ruck
The whole world's locked down and up
We're stuck between the plague and Boris J.

And I can't tell which one is worse
I think I'd save the virus first
If it meant that lump of gammon fat was gone

I've dug a ditch for him to die in
As in life, forever lying
I only wish I could kill him with this song...

...Now here's Rotten John turned out to be
A wee fat ginger Morrissey
Trumping his own trumpet thick and loud

Just a butter-fattened irritant
With fantasies of relevance
Mouthing off on national TV

But never mind the hyper-bollocks, John
You haven't penned one single song
Worth listening to since '93...

...The world is still a trough of swill
For pigs who'll never get their fill
For the rest, it's struggle, misery, and tears...

(Chorus:) England's dreaming of a White Christmas
Flying the flag for thatch-headed racists..."

Umm...Happy Christmas, everyone!

  • Swiss ultra-traditional ska band Sir Jay & the Skatanauts have teamed up with singer Lorraine for a stupendous, live-in-the studio Skatalites-like take on the Christmas hymn "Joy to the World" (Digital single, Tip-A-Top Records, 2020). Whether you're devout or not, you won't be able to help but feel a bit better about everything after listening to this wonderful version. It's full of so much hope and life when both seem in such short supply.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews 2020

Two rude boys with pork pie hats and sunglasses are shown wearing surgical masks.
(Apologies to John "Teflon" Sims)
Despite the fact that 2020 has been a truly awful year for humanity, one small silver lining is that it turned out to be a pretty great year for recorded ska music. As proof, I offer the links below to all of the fantastic singles, EPs, albums, books, and films I managed to review over the past year (and I still have a good number of releases still to write up, and will be adding them here over the next few weeks as they become available). Thanks to everyone who's followed The Duff Guide to Ska over the past year, and picked up a copy of my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone (I'm working on a new Duff Guide tome in 2021). I wish everyone Happy Holidays and hope we all have a better year in 2021. Stay safe out there. -- Steve Shafer 

Los Aggrios: "Alcohol" b/w "Manten La Fe" (7" vinyl single/digital, Steady Beat Recordings, 2020)

Laurel Aitken: En Español (LP reissue, Liquidator Music, 2019)

The Archives: Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (2xLP/CD, Montserrat House, 2020)

The Attractors: Love Bombs (LP/CD/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2020)

The Bakesys: "Rainy Day Dub" (Digital single, Do the Dog Music, 2020)

The Bakesys: "Rich Boy Rude Boy" (Digital single, Do the Dog Music, 2020)

Erin Bardwell: Interval (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2020)

The Bartenders: "Tańcz I Klaszcz" b/w "Cebron" (7" vinyl single, Bad Look Records, 2020)

The Big Sound: "Have Mercy" b/w "Jerk Chicken Dub" (7" vinyl single, Smack It Flat, 2020)

The Bionic Rats: Alive in Dublin (Digital, self-released, 2020)

The Blackstones and The Officinalis: "Change of Plan" b/w The Officinalis "Santantonio Special" (7" vinyl single/digital, Aloe Vera Records, 2020)

Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards: "Mercy" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards: "Take You Away" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Dennis Bovell Dub Band: "Get Up Stand Up" (featuring I-Roy) b/w "Stand Tall" and "Versatile Violin" (featuring Johnny T) b/w "Dangerous" (Digital singles, Old School, 2020)

Brixton Sounds: "Sonidos de Brixton" b/w "Me Perdi" (7" vinyl single/digital, Steady Beat Recordings, 2020)

Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16: "Love Will Tear Us Apart" b/w "Version" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

The Caroloregians: "From the Congo Square" b/w "You Got to Be a Man" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Rhoda Dakar and The Dub Pistols: "Stand Together" (7" vinyl single/digital, Sunday Best Recordings, 2020)

The Dendrites: Lunchin' with The Dendrites (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Detroit Riddim Crew: "Fight for Your Rights" b/w "Fallen Down" (7" vinyl single/digital, Abbey Productions, 2020)

Detroit Riddim Crew/The Skapones: "Do Something" b/w "The Girl Inside" (7" vinyl single/digital, 2020)

Detroit Riddim Crew and Friends: Detroit Riddim Crew and Friends (LP/digital, Abbey Productions/Jump Up Records, 2019)

Dr. Ring Ding: The Remedy (LP, Jump Up Records, 2020)

The Dreamlets: "Sunny" b/w "My Heart is Crying" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

The Equators: "Nice to Be Nice" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

The Far East: New York Is For Lovers (12" vinyl EP/digital, Names You Can Trust, 2020)

Flying Vipers: Cuttings (LP/cassette/digital, Music A.D.D./Jump Up Records, 2020)

Flying Vipers: Dub Fader Cuts (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Flying Vipers: "Nervous Breakdub (Pandemic Version)" b/w "PMA Calling" (Digital single , Music A.D.D., 2020)

Flying Vipers: "Two Twenties Clash" (Digital single, Music ADD Records, 2020)

The Georgetown Orbits: "The Ska-Jazz Single" (Digital single, self-released 2020) 

Girls Go Ska: "Quédate" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

The Go-Go's: The Go-Go's (Documentary film, Polygram Entertainment, 2020)

Vin Gordon: Way Over Yonder (LP reissue, Studio 16, 2020)

Green Torrejas: "Green Torrejas" b/w "The Prisoners" (7" vinyl single, Canana Records, 2020)

Jah Jazz Orchestra: Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra (LP/CD/digital, Brixton Records, 2020)

The Juks: Way Back (LP/digital, J-Beat Records, 2020)

King Kong 4: Punch It! (LP, Jump Up Records, 2020)

The Lions: "The Loser" (7" vinyl single/digital, Names You Can Trust, 2020)

Madness: Before We Was We: Madness by Madness (book, Virgin Books, 2019)

The Man on the Bridge: Million Miles Away (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2020)

Mato: "Also sprach Zarathustra" b/w "Maiden Voyage" (7" vinyl single, Stix Records, 2020)

Me, Mom, and Morgentaler: "Racist Friend" b/w "Racist Friend 2020 Dubmatix Dub" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Mento Buru: East Bakersfield Christmas (Digital EP, self-released, 2020)

The New Normal Collaboration: Quarantined on Easy Street (LP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Night Owls: "Gossip" b/w "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" (7" vinyl single, F-Spot Records, 2020)

No Sports: Stay Rude, Stay Rebel (7" vinyl EP reissue, Black Butcher Classics/Mad Butcher Records, 2020)

Pama International: "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)" b/w "Feel Like Jumping" (7" heavyweight vinyl, Happy People Records, 2020)

Park Rangers: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" b/w "Summer Madness" (7" vinyl single, Parktone Records, 2020) 

Perkie and The Co-operators: "Concrete, Steel and Stone" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Lee Perry: Black Ark Days: Play On Mr. Music (CD/LP, Rock A Shacka, 2020)

The Players Band: SKAMÖRGÅSBORD (CD/LP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Prince Buster: Africa - Islam - Revolution (CD, Earth Sound Records, 2019)

Prince Buster: Roll On Charles Street (CD/2xLP, Rocka Shaka, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin: "Black Rabbit" b/w "Black Rabbit Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin: Disco Deception (7" vinyl EP/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin: "Funkin' for Jamaica (N.Y.)" (Digital single, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

Prince Fatty featuring Shniece Mcmenamin and Horseman: "The Model" b/w "The Model Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020)

The Prizefighters: "The Prizefighter Beat" b/w "A Fistful of Credits" (Digital, self-released, 2020)

Pyrotechnist: Fire Crackers (LP, Badasonic Records, 2020)

Danny Rebel and the KGB: For Babylon's Head (Digital EP, self-released, and lathe cut single, Revolution Vintage; both 2020)

The Red Stripes: The Live Sessions (Digital, Mod Sounds Records, 2020)

The Red Stripes: Made in Hong Kong (CD/LP/digital, Mod Sound Records, 2020)

Victor Rice: Drink (LP, Easy Star Records, 2020)

Roger Rivas: "Heavier Rock" b/w "Cold Damage" (7" vinyl single, Happy People Records, 2020)

Rocker T with Maddie Ruthless/Banda Rebel: "Fiyah Pan Racism" b/w "You've Got to Learn" (7" vinyl single/digital, Channel Tubes, 2020)

Max Romeo: Revelation Time (CD/LP reissue, VP Records/17 North Parade, 2020)

Rudebeard: "20-20" (Digital single, F&J Records, 2020)

Rudebeard: As You Walk Away (Digital EP, F&J Records, 2020)

Rudebeard: Disgrace (Digital EP, F&J Records, 2020)

Rude Boy George: Lies and Alibis (Digital, self-released, 2020)

Sir Jay & the Skatanauts featuring Lorraine: "Joy to the World" (Digital single, Tip-A-Top Records, 2020)

The Ska Contenders"What Does It Take" b/w "Siempre Conmigo" (7" vinyl single, Canana Records, 2020)

Ska Jazz Messengers: Introspección (LP/digital, Liquidator Music, 2020)

The Skapones: "Rude Boy Rude Girl" b/w "Skapones A Go Go (Live)" (7" vinyl single/CD single/digital, Cosa Nostra Records, 2020)

Smiley and The Underclass: The Way to the Bomb (Vinyl EP/digital, Timeless Records, 2020)

Some Ska Band: "American Dublines" b/w "Forty Dubs" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

The Soul Sauce meets Kim Yulhee: "(Who Knows) Swallow Knows" b/w "Swallow Dub" (Digital single, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2020)

The Specials: "Gangsters ('Clangsters' Dub)" b/w "Too Much Too Young (Piano Instrumental)" and "Why (Dub)" (10" vinyl EP, 2 Tone/Chrysalis Records, 2020)

Steady Social Club: Take One (LP/digital, self-released, 2020)

Stop the Presses: "Dub the Presses" b/w "Hugo Dub" (Digital, self-released and lathe cut single, Revolution Vintage; both 2020)

Carroll Thompson: "Feel the Magic" b/w "Feel the Magic Instrumental" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra: Skapara's Intro (LP reissue, Great Tracks/Sony Music Direct, 2019)

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan: Spread Love (LP, Liquidator Music, 2020)

The Upsetters featuring Vin Gordon: Musical Bones (LP reissue, Studio 16, 2020)

The Uptones: Get Out of My Way (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020)

Various Artists: 007 Licensed to Ska: James Bond and Other Film Soundtracks and TV Themes (5x7" vinyl single box set, Soul Jazz Records, 2020)

Various Artists: 2 Tone: The Albums (8xCD box set, 2 Tone/Chrysalis Records, 2020)

Various Artists: 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020)

Various Artists: Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album (LP, Blue Beat Records, 2020)

Various Artists: Mashin' Up the Nation (LP, Razorbeat Records/Harvard Square Records, 1989)

Various Artists: Scorcha! Skins, Suedes and Styles from the Street, 1967-1973 (10x7" singles, Trojan Records/BMG, 2020)

Various Artists: Ska Against Racism (2xLP/digital, Bad Time Records, 2020)

Various Artists: This Is Jamaica Ska (LP/CD reissue, Rock A Shacka/Studio One, 2020)

Western Standard Time Orchestra: "Bedouin Ska" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Western Standard Time Orchestra: "Tunnel Vision" (Digital single, self-released, 2020)

Joe Yorke and The Eastonian Singers/Eeyun Perkins: "Judgement Tree" b/w "Drayman's Special" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020)

Kim Yul-hee and The Soul Sauce: "(Who Knows) Swallow Knows" b/w "Swallow Dub" (Digital single, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2020)

Zen Baseballbat: You Won't Get Paid (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020); "Place Like This" (digital single, self-released, 2020)

Monday, December 21, 2020

Duff Review: The Archives "Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson"

The cover features a Rhodes keyboard viewed from above, with a flute and handwritten lyrics on pieces of paper resting on it, and a pair of hands on the keys.
Montserrat House
2 x LP/CD

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The idea for Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson came about when Darryl "Trane" Burke, the keyboardist for the superb Washington, DC reggae band The Archives, learned that Gil Scott-Heron's father was Jamaican, and he realized that he had never heard any reggae covers of Scott-Heron's songs. Gill Scott-Heron was, of course, the extraordinary and highly-influential Black American poet, author, and jazz-influenced soul and funk musician who was most active in the 1970s and '80s, and whose songs addressed systemic racism, social and political injustice, and promoted Black pride. Burke then enlisted the help of Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, who agreed to co-produce the album with Burke and release it on his label (Hilton had issued The Archives debut album in 2012 on his ESL Music label); and legendary reggae percussionist Larry McDonald (Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh), who was a member of Scott-Heron’s band Amnesia Express back in the '80s and '90s. McDonald, of course, knew long-time Scott-Heron collaborator Brian Jackson (he and Scott-Heron recorded seven albums together in the 1970s), who was intrigued by the project and agreed to perform on several tracks. 

The results of this collaborative effort are spectacular. Carry Me Home is a triumphant reimagining of Scott-Heron and Jackson's indelible and indispensable songs (beautiful Trojan Horse-like music delivering devastatingly pointed lyrics into listeners' minds) as soulful reggae cuts in the vein of The Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Black Uhuru. The album is essentially bookended by two of their most powerful and--yes--still disturbingly relevant songs, Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" and Scott-Heron and Jackson's "Winter in America." A metaphor for a dysfunctional and cruel society (America, writ large) that forces many of its people to seek escape by any means necessary, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" (from 1971's Pieces of a Man) is heartbreaking in the mass suffering and wasted potential that it hints at. This is what happens when a nation decides that Black lives don't really matter: 

"Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain and it
Might not be such a bad idea if I never
Never went home again...

...Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum that's filled now with my silent screams
Home is where the needle marks
Tried to heal my broken heart..."

Puma Ptah's vocals are filled with so much sorrow on this track--and his singing is highly evocative and affecting throughout this album (as if he's channeling the unheard music of so many singers).

In the waning days of the disastrous Trump years, when racism, corruption, incompetence, cruelty, cronyism, inequity, lies, Covid-19, and outright sedition (I still can't believe that there was an out-in-the-open attempted coup by a sitting president abetted by the majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress!) have run wild and nothing good and right seems to matter, Scott-Heron and Jackson's mournful "Winter in America" (from their 1975 album Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day) feels uncomfortably prescient:

"And now it's winter
Winter in America
And all of the healers done been killed or sent away
Yeah, and the people know, the people know
It's winter
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save"

Augustus Pablo's wonderfully gifted son Addis Pablo contributes melodica to the Dennis Bovell-sounding (and "Rivers of Babylon"-like themed) "Rivers of My Fathers" (from Scott-Heron and Jackson's 1974 album Winter in America): "Rubber soles against the concrete/And the concrete is my smile/Got to change my way of living/Got to change my style/Let me lay down by a stream/Miles from everything/Rivers of my fathers/Could you carry me home?" "Peace Go with You, Brother (As-Salaam-Alaikum)" (also from Winter in America) is plea for Black solidarity in the face of oppression. The toll of America's still unresolved legacy of slavery and racism on generations of Black Americans is pointedly raised on the plaintive "Who'll Pay Reparations on My Soul" (from Scott-Heron's 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). Reworked in an awesome Lovers rock style, with impassioned vocals by Raheem Devaughn, "A Toast to the People" (from Scott-Heron and Jackson's 1975 album From South Africa to South Carolina) recognizes the awful burden and struggle Black Americans have faced, but is also hopeful that someday things will be better:

"And though it's been too long
Too many years have passed
And though the time has gone
The memory still holds fast
Yes, as strange as it seems
We still live in the past
The essence of a black life
Lost in the hourglass

And ever since we came to this land
This country has rued the day
When we would stand as one
And raise our voices and say
You know there won’t be no more killing
And no more talk of class
Your sons and your daughters
Won't die in the hourglass...

...A toast to all black fathers
Who live their lives in vain
A toast to all black mothers
Who shoulder this life in pain
A toast to the people"

With its sweet harmonizing and great, off-kilter percussive elements, the highlight of the album is "Must Be Something" (from their 1975 album Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day)--which brings Fishbone's "One Day" (from their 1988 record  Truth and Soul) to this reviewer's mind, as they're both about Black Americans living in a kind of limbo, since there's no clear answer as to how or when racial injustice will end (and it's not necessarily their responsibility to solve the problem, either): "Must be something we can do/We didn't come all this way just to give up/We didn't struggle all this time to say we've had enough."

One missed opportunity is "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (from 1971's Pieces of A Man), Scott-Heron's truly groundbreaking musical poem that, in addition to the work of of The Last Poets and the deejay style of toasting in dancehall reggae, helped give birth to rap and hip-hop later that decade (via the JA-born, Bronx-raised DJ Kool Herc). Perhaps all of the dated early '70s references (John Mitchell, Spiro Agnew, Hooterville Junction, etc.) led Burke and company to opt for the mostly instrumental route here, but it would have been fantastic if they'd asked a guest musician (like Horseman AKA Winston Williams) to toast the original text, which is so funny and potent in its urging Black Americans to get involved in the struggle for racial equality, since change will not be brought about by the powers that be and sponsored by corporations for broadcast on TV. And if listeners didn't get some of the political, pop culture, and product references, they should look 'em up! (One stanza from the original that now chills one to the bone is: "There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay." How times have changed.)

There are two excellent dub versions of "Home is Where the Hatred Is" and "Rivers of My Fathers," as well as the terrific "Revolution Disguised as Change," penned by reggae poet/musician Mutabaruka (who performs on this song) and Burke, and lyrically inspired by "Winter in America" and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"--the chorus reminds the listener that even though some progress has been made in the fight for racial equality, "It's not quite spring yet..." While I'm not well-versed in all of Gil Scott-Heron's music, with at least two business tycoons operating their own space programs (and NASA working on sending people to Mars), it would have been great if The Archives could have included a version of Scott-Heron's biting "Whitey on the Moon."

The Archives' Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson is a stellar tribute to Scott-Heron and Jackson's extraordinary musical legacy, and one of the best albums I've heard all year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Duff Review: The Far East "New York Is For Lovers"

The members of the band stand or sit in front of a row of brownstones in Brooklyn.Names You Can Trust
6-track vinyl EP/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

New York Is For Lovers--the awesome new Lovers rock EP from The Far East--kicks off with a fantastic cover of Evelyn "Champagne" King's 1981 R&B/dance smash hit "I'm in Love" (which was also versioned that year by Jennifer Lara for Studio One), and this track sets the sound and vibe for the rest of the record, with its bright synth keyboard riffs (think of the bubbly, flute-like synth in Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony's "The Hustle") and late night "Quiet Storm"-like vibe (Channel Tubes' production on this EP is spot-on and impeccable, as always). In case you weren't in New York City in the early-to-mid 1980s, one of the more popular shows on the premier Black commercial radio station WBLS was "The Quiet Storm," which featured sultry, slow-jam R&B tracks, such as the Mary Jane Girls'' "All Night Long" and Sade's "Your Love Is King," and was broadcast late Saturday night for people doing things they'll probably need to ask forgiveness for when in the pews on Sunday morning. Lovers rock, of course, is tailor-made for this type of programming, with songs focused on pining for, being in love with, cheating on, or falling out of love with someone--and the songs on The Far East's New York Is For Lovers check all of these boxes. 

The highlight of the EP is the buoyant and alluring "NYC Dream," which is about the off-the-charts euphoria that can come from simply thinking about walking the streets of the greatest city in the world with the person you love: "You only live once/In the city/There's a dream on Delancey Street that belongs to you/You're holding me close/In the city/The night belongs to us on the avenue." "What's real, now gone" is the heartbreaking realization in "Separation" (which has a great Jackie Mittoo organ break in it). In the sweet "Magic Moments," there's real satisfaction in the memories of good times, even if everything doesn't work out (choice lyric: "You send me love/You send me, lover"). The catchy, bitter-free "Keep You in Mind" is from the point of view of the girl on the side who's just done with it all ("I don't think I check for you anymore..."). And it would be hard to refuse an entreaty to make-up after a fight like "Don't Give Up" ("Baby, I'm not like other girls you knew before/I love you more/Babe, I know you care/I'm not closing out my tab..."). 

New York Is For Lovers is the perfect end of the party record--whenever parties can safely happen again. For now, you can still turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and imagine times to come when we can all be together again, and do normal human things that lead to falling in or out of love.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Duff Review: The Attractors "Love Bombs"

Artwork by Danny Rebel 
Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

"Say E for Evil," the first track on The Attractors' stellar third album Love Bombs, opens with a sound clip (that I initially thought came from V for Vendetta!) of the British writer/academic Alan Watts--who was famous for interpreting and promoting Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism for Western audiences--talking about the symbiotic relationship between good and evil: "All conflict, Jung was saying, all opposition has its resolution in an underlying unity. You cannot understand the meaning of 'to be' unless you understand the meaning of 'not to be.' You cannot understand the meaning of 'good' unless you understand the meaning of 'evil.'" Essentially, good and evil each define the other, and are not fully understood on their own without an awareness and understanding of the other (the dualism found in ying and yang). To be good, you have to know and embrace your dark side, which helps you delineate the parameters of what is good. (Interestingly, in the Genesis creation myth, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, some interpretations are that it was less about the Fall of man/original sin, but more symbolic of humanity's acquiring the "knowledge of duality/opposites/separateness as opposed to pure, unaware consciousness where there is no self and other.")

So, it only follows that Love Bombs has a "Good Side" and an "Evil Side," as noted on the LP's paper labels. But the songs featured on each side of the are not so easily defined. The tracks on the "Good" side are not about what we think to be obviously or inherently "good" things, but about matters in relation to the definition of good. And the instrumental ska and reggae on this side is rather slow in tempo and downbeat in mood (though still quite excellent and catchy)--like the kind of music one would march to as you slog (knowingly or not) toward disaster or oblivion (this is a covid-19 era album, after all). The aforementioned "Say E for Evil" is included on this side--you need to learn about evil to know about being good. "Strictly for Cash" includes this snippet of Wall Street/Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko dialogue: "It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another." In Taoism, moral notions/distinctions of good and evil are viewed as perceptual. At face value, money is neither good or bad, but it can be used to do things that are perceived as good or evil. "One Upper" refers to a person so insecure and worried about being thought of as weak and/or insignificant that they constantly work to depict themselves as superior to others--to appear to be the opposite of what they are. And even seemingly sweet and innocent, and unquestionably adorable, kittens can be plotting against their owners ("Kittens (Conspiracy Dub)").

The "Evil" side beings with the slightly nefarious-sounding "The State of Things (Part II)" (an even better version of the same track that appeared on their 2016 album The Move) that incorporates a sample of Albert Einstein (from a 1950 TV interview with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt): "Is there any way out of this impasse created by man himself?" Einstein was commenting on about how insane it is that humanity had achieved security from world war through the creation of weapons so fearsome that their very use will wipe out humanity ("Peace through Strength")--but had failed to address the underlying mentality/cause of war: that we believe that groups of human beings are separate and apart from the others, despite the fact all of us are closely connected and of the same species (but we perceive there to be all of these differences between us). "Grinding Work Fuck" is kind of harried and frazzled, but upbeat through gritted teeth. The chipper "Surveillance Tech" is surely about how all of the incredible technological advancements we've experienced over the past quarter century are extraordinary, and have brought all sorts of benefits and convenience to our lives, but the price is that our every click and move are recorded, monetized, and monitored by corporations and government agencies. The sweet title track "Love Bombs" conjures up cartoony Yellow Submarine-ish images of the good people of Pepperland dropping heart-shaped "All You Need Is Love" munitions on the Blue Meanies to transform them into nice folks, but it refers to a practice of showering people with attention and (feigned) affection in order to manipulate and control them. This tactic is often used by gangs, pimps, and cults (the Moonies coined the term "love bombing" in the 1970s). Everyone needs to be loved--it's the greatest emotion that humanity is capable of feeling and expressing--but love also can be weaponized for hateful ends.

The Attractors (who've dropped the "Brooklyn") are a rotating conglomeration of notable Boston and NYC ska and reggae musicians with trumpeter Rich Graiko (The Void Union) making it all happen. On this album, the group includes guitarist Andy Bassford (Toots and the Maytals), percussionist Larry McDonald (Lee Perry, Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh, The Skatalites, Gil Scott-Heron), trombonist Buford O’Sullivan (Easy Star All-stars, The Scofflaws, The Toasters), bassist Dan Jeselsohn (Mephiskapheles), keyboardist Ken Stewart (The Skatalites), King Django (Stubborn Allstars), tenor saxophonist David Hillyard (The Slackers), bassist Thaddeus Merritt (Westbound Train), Eddie Ocampo (The Insteps, SAS, The Full Watts Band), Jesse Hayes (The Void Union), and others.

For an album full of boss instrumentals, The Attractors' Love Bombs sure has a lot to say.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Duff Review: Carroll Thompson "Feel the Magic" b/w "Feel the Magic Instrumental"

Happy People Records
7" vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Back in 1985, I picked up a copy of the Reggae Greats: Strictly for Lovers compilation, since so many other releases in the Reggae Greats series had been so good. But this collection--which, unbelievably, doesn't include any female Lovers rock artists--didn't move me. As a callow 18 year-old, I just wasn't ready for this style of reggae, which I probably thought was too soft (all apologies to Dennis Bovell!). Carroll Thompson's phenomenal new single "Feel the Magic," released in advance of her forthcoming record Where Did Our Lovers Go?, has shown me the error of my ways, and then some! For whatever reason--advanced age, accumulated life experience, listening to a lot of Hollie Cook and Schnice Mcmenamin--I get it now, and am wondering what else I've missed out on for all these years. Even though it's been many years since she first broke out as a superstar on the UK Lovers rock scene with her singles "I'm So Sorry" (1980) and "Simply in Love" (1981), and then her wildly successful indie debut album Hopelessly in Love (1981), which sold over 1 million copies worldwide, Thompson has been consistently releasing albums and singles in the years since--and her voice is still in incredible shape, with a gorgeous purity to its tone. On "Feel the Magic," after she sings, "Even after so long/It's still strong/Every time you kiss my lips/I still feel the magic," you'll be ready to follow her to the ends of the Earth. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: The Big Sound "Have Mercy" b/w "Jerk Chicken Dub" and Roger Rivas "Heavier Rock" b/w "Cold Damage"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
The cover features a photo the band members leaning on the railing of a fence.
  • The Big Sound was a terrific rocksteady and reggae band out of LA and San Diego that formed in 2002--a particularly rough period for ska (and its related styles), when the genre wasn't exactly dead in the US, but had gone way back underground after the music industry had wrung what it could out of the ska scene in the late '90s (the band was popular on the West Coast, but I don't remember hearing about them on the other side of the continent back then). The Big Sound released their debut album Stand So Tall in 2004, and had intended to issue a follow-up in 2005, which was recorded but never put out, since the band called it a day in 2006. Flash forward almost 15 years and members of The Big Sound have finally decided to release two fantastic tracks from their unreleased sophomore album, "Have Mercy" b/w "Jerk Chicken Dub" (7" blue vinyl picture sleeve single, Smack It Flat, 2020). "Have Mercy" is a wonderfully bright and infectious rocksteady cut with lovely harmonizing (Hepcat fans will love it, and on a related and more somber note, the single is dedicated to the late Hepcat bassist David Fuentes, a friend of the band who died in 2007): "Run, come in the sun, sit with I/No more fighting and no more fuss/Come sit down with I, it's just us/We'd not argue any more/Come sit down with me, near the shore" (check out its cool music video--with Super 8 footage from 2005!). "Jerk Chicken Dub" is a great, breezy reggae instrumental mixed by Victor Rice, and featuring Boogie Jones' jazzy sax playing. Word is that this limited edition single is meant to whet fans' appetites in advance of the release of The Big Sound's second album. Here's hoping that comes to pass (and that the band does some reunion shows whenever that's possible again).
The vinyl single's paper art features the Happy People Records imprint name, and the artist and song title.
  • Many a ska and reggae fan is going to go broke trying to keep up with the ongoing series of extraordinary vinyl singles that Happy People Records has been issuing this year (see my recent reviews of sides from Joe Yorke & The Estonian Singers, Dreamlets, Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16, Perkie & The Co-operators, and Pama International). One of the latest is from organist Roger Rivas (The Aggrolites, Night Owls, and The Bullets) featuring two incredible cuts (both from his 2014 debut album for Jump Up Records, Autumn Breeze): "Heavier Rock" b/w "Cold Damage" (7" vinyl single, Happy People Records, 2020). Rivas channels the funky early reggae of Jackie Mittoo in the devastatingly good "Heavier Rock," while the rootsier and dreader "Cold Damage," with its Far East-sounding melodica lines, is an amazing homage to Augustus Pablo. Happy People just announced the pre-order of yet another Roger Rivas single--this one sporting two rocksteady tracks from his sophomore album Last Goodbye. So, be prepared to keep on breaking into your dwindling piggy bank to keep sating your ska/rocksteady/reggae obsession...

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Duff Review: Various Artists "This Is Jamaica Ska"

The cover illustration features the album title, as well as shorelines with sand and palm trees.
Rocka Shacka/Studio One
LP/CD (includes two bonus tracks)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

In addition to the stellar Intensified! Original Ska 1962-1966 and More Intensified! Original Ska 1963-67 Vol. 2 compilations released by Island Records/Mango in 1979 and 1980 respectively (which directly inspired the first generation of traditional-minded ska bands in the USA), there were always represses of a few Studio One ska comps floating around the New York City record shops in the '80s that were fairly easy to be had, including History Of Ska Vol. 1 - The Golden Years 60-65, History Of Ska Vol. 2 - The Golden Years 66-69, Oldies But Goodies Volume 1 and 2, and This Is Jamaica Ska. For anyone who wasn't able to pick up a copy of This Is Jamaica Ska back in the day (or wants a pristine pressing in their collection), Japan's Rocka Shacka has just reissued this phenomenal album (and is releasing a series of related singles: The Blue Beats "Finger Mash" b/w The Skatalites "Salt Lane Ska" (alternate mix), The Gaylads "Gal & Boy" b/w Roland Alphonso "20-75," The Blue Beats "Change your Gear" b/w Roland Alphonso "Lee Harvey Jnr.," The Wailers "Simmer Down" b/w "How Many Times," and Andy & Joey "Wonder No More" b/w Don Drummond & Roland Alphonso "Heaven & Earth"). As Brian Keyo states in his liner notes, this really is a Skatalites album--they back all of the singers here--and captures them at the height of their powers in '64 (it also showcases Coxsone Dodd's incredible roster and productions). As well, Keyo notes the origins of these tracks, many of which are covers, including "Salt Lane Gal," which is a version of the 1952 mento cut "Swine Lane Gal" by Lord Fly with Dan Williams and Orchestra; "Bongo Tango" is an adaptation of Monty Kelly and his Orchestra's 1959 "Tango Bongo"; "Sucu Sucu" is a wildly popular 1959 Latin track written by Tarateño Rojas and was used by Laurie Johnson as the theme song for the 1961 UK TV show "Top Secret"; and "20-75" was Willie Mitchell's R&B instrumental hit in 1964. Side A is tremendously good from start to finish, evenly split between superb instrumentals and stellar vocal cuts by The Wailers ("Simmer Down"), Jackie Opel (the deliciously innocent-but-naughty "Push Wood"), and Andy & Joey ("Wonder No More"--their follow-up to "You're Wondering Now"). The flip side is almost as consistently strong--though the stand-out tracks are Alphonso's cover of "20-75" and his duet with Don Drummond on the powerful "Heaven & Earth." The title of this compilation doesn't lie--this album represents some of the best JA ska of that era.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Duff Review: Various Artists "Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album"

Blue Beat Records
Blue vinyl LP with gatefold sleeve

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Blue Beat Records--a subsidiary of Emil Shallit's Melodisc, which was founded in 1947 in London and specialized in licensing African highlife, Caribbean calypso and mento, and American jazz for release in the UK, and was one of Britain's first independent labels--was established in 1960 by Sigimund "Siggy" Jackson, a former music publisher who had been recruited in 1953 to join Melodisc as an A&R man and run the London office. Blue Beat was created in response to the success of Laurel Aitken's 1960 Melodisc single "Lonesome Lover" b/w "Marylee" to capitalize on the explosion of new Jamaican R&B that was being produced in JA (their take on the Black American R&B they were hearing broadcast from New Orleans, and on singles brought back by travelers to the US for play on sound systems)--and a style that would soon evolve into ska. Jackson's inspiration for the label's name was quite simple: "Because it had a good beat and was bluesy, I decided to call it Blue Beat."

The debut Blue Beat single was Laurel Aitken's "Boogie Rock" b/w "Little Sheila," followed by dozens of tracks licensed from top Jamaican producers such as Duke Reid, Prince Buster, and Coxsone Dodd, as well as Jackson's own productions with UK-based artists like Rico Rodriquez, The Marvels, and Laurel Aitken. (It's worth noting that the 1960 debut single from Chris Blackwell's then JA-based Island Records--which would become Blue Beat's main rival when Blackwell relocated the label in London in 1962--was Laurel Aitken's "Boogie in My Bones" b/w "Little Sheila.") During its initial run (1960-1967), Blue Beat released over 400 singles and about a dozen albums (introducing the world to JA artists like Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Owen Gray, Alton Ellis, Derrick Harriott, Toots and the Maytals, and many others in the process) that were enormously popular with both the ex-pat Jamaican community and British mods (so much so that Blue Beat became synonymous with ska music in the UK). Having said that, few of these releases climbed to the top of the charts, as the music was sold through specialized shops whose sales often weren't reported and included in music industry figures (and ska was largely consumed by marginalized/underground groups of people), though Prince Buster's 1964 single "Al Capone" b/w "One Step Beyond" made it to number 18 in the UK February of 1967! (Side note: Melodisc launched the FAB imprint in 1966, which was primarily devoted to licensing and releasing rocksteady sides, many of them from Prince Buster.)

In 1967, Shallit and Jackson split (the latter moved to EMI, where he created the Columbia Blue Beat imprint that released several skinhead reggae sides from Laurel Aitken, the Bees, the Mopeds, and others), and the Blue Beat imprint ceased releasing new material--though it was revived twice in the '70s to reissue several of Prince Buster's classic Blue Beat singles (unsurprisingly, demand was particularly great during the 2 Tone era, and Shallit was more than happy to meet it). Shallit passed away in 1983 and the imprint went dormant until 1989, when Buster Bloodvessel (AKA Doug Trendle) licensed the Blue Beat name from Jackson (who must have retained or reacquired rights to the imprint) and issued what is unquestionably Bad Manners' best album, Return of the Ugly, as well as superb records from Buster's Allstars, King Hammond, Napoleon Solo, and the excellent Live in London - The London International Ska Festival comp (I've written about many of these releases previously). Unfortunately, Buster's touring schedule kept him from the office and tending to business, and record sales did not keep pace with Blue Beat's aggressive new release schedule. Buster's version of Blue Beat went belly up in 1990.

Blue Beat's story might have ended there, but for Marcus Upbeat (née Downie) of the traditional ska band No.1 Station (which released a really great album for Rockers Revolt), who contacted Siggy Jackson in 2001 with the idea of reviving the label with a series of new but vintage-sounding releases. This partnership eventually yielded 13 Blue Beat singles released from 2004 through 2011--among them seven from No.1 Station, one each from Intensified and The Pyramids, and reissues of sides from Laurel Aitken and The Mopeds. In the midst of this, Jackson retired in 2009 after 50 years in the music business, and Marcus Upbeat acquired ownership of the label and focused on issuing Blue Beat's more recent releases digitally.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Blue Beat and its incredibly significant role in the history of ska music, Marcus Upbeat has released the Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album. This compilation provides a compelling overview of the label from all of its permutations. There are superb and essential 1960s Siggy Jackson-era releases from Laurel Aitken ("Boogie Rock"), The Folkes Brothers with The Count Ossie Afro-Combo ("Oh Carolina"), Derrick Morgan ("Miss Lulu"), Owen Gray ("Call Me My Pet"), Ewan and Jerry with The Carib Beats ("Oh Babe"), John Holt ("Help Me Make It Through the Night"), and Stranger Cole ("Rough and Smooth"). Blue Beat's enormous influence on the 2 Tone groups is acknowledged by the inclusion of Madness' cover of Prince Buster's "One Step Beyond" and The Beat's version of Prince Buster's take on Eddy Grant's "Rough Rider." The Buster Bloodvessel years are represented by Bad Manners Featuring Verona's excellent "Get Along Without You Now." And the Siggy Jackson/Marcus Upbeat revival is recognized by Marcus Upbeat's terrific new track "Blue Beat Is Back in Town" (also just issued as a double A-sided Blue Beat 60th anniversary single with Laurel Aitken's "Boogie Rock"), No.1 Station's awesome tribute to The Godfather of Ska "Laurel's Boogie," and Marcus & The Microdots "She's So Sweet" and The Marvels Featuring Donna Hinds' "We'll Have a Ball"--both of which are great old school style tracks.

The one shortcoming of the comp (and it's also the present-day label's Achilles heel) is that since the majority of Blue Beat's releases were licensed from JA producers in the 1960s, going about reissuing material that appeared on the Blue Beat imprint involves re-licensing the tracks from whomever now owns that producer's or artist's catalogue (for instance, several cuts here were licensed from various BMG labels like Sanctuary and Union Square, as well as Warner Brothers, and Cherry Red Records). Prince Buster, the label's greatest asset/artist in the '60s and '70, isn't represented by any of his classic recordings on this compilation (presumably due to licensing issues); his only appearance is a 2003 recording of "Enjoy Yourself" with Jools Holland (which, of course, bookended The Specials' More Specials). And given the sheer volume of key ska singles issued by the label in the 1960s, an additional LP of vintage tracks would have been welcome--and further emphasized Blue Beat's crucial role in the promotion and growth of ska music over the decades.

All criticism aside, Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album is a wonderful tribute to the label and its affiliated acts. Now that this milestone has been reached and commemorated, I'm eager and curious to see where Blue Beat goes from here...