Thursday, January 28, 2021

Duff Review: Aaron Carnes "In Defense of Ska"

The book's title is painted on the wall of a punk club that features graffiti like "smash racism" and "ska sucks," as well as a variety of ska band and label stickers.Clash Books

[Disclaimer: Since I was the director of marketing, promotions, and production for Moon Ska Records for most of the 1990s, I was interviewed by Aaron Carnes on several occasions for this book, and am quoted in a few chapters.]

(Review by Steve Shafer)

One's enjoyment of Aaron Carnes' book In Defense of Ska mostly likely will be predicated on your opinion of ska-punk, and if you hold notions that any sort of affiliation with--or devotion to--ska music is something to be embarrassed about (the author loves the former and apparently has had to advocate on behalf of the latter on many occasions). Carnes is a music journalist (Playboy, Salon, Bandcamp Daily, Noisey) and former drummer for the '90s, Bay Area ska-punk band Flat Planet, who happened to catch a Skankin' Pickle show in 1992 and was converted to ska for life. So, his passion for the music is come by genuinely, and he's lived the life on both sides of the stage's edge.

Carnes' In Defense of Ska is less a linearly laid out argument for the legitimacy of the genre (and jab to the haters' noses) and more of a scattershot collection of essays that is part ska history, Flat Planet road warrior band memoir, elaborate love letter to Skankin' Pickle (whom Flat Planet played with and Carnes became fast friends with their prankster merch guy Kevin), and batch of sad tales of great ska bands almost hitting it big, but stymied by self-sabotage, or a music industry that still doesn't really understand the music or know how to market the genre (see The Untouchables, Fishbone, The Toasters, Blue Riddim Band, The Shakers, Heavy Manners, The Uptones, Crazy 8s, and others). It's a fun and oftentimes very funny, breezy, and compelling read that can be enlightening (particularly the chapters on the origins of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice; DIY touring with Book Your Own Fucking Life; the Mexican ska scene; and a delicious skewering of MTV's hamfisted SKAturday special hosted by Carson Daley) or perplexing (he posits that Millie Small's one hit wonder "My Boy Lollipop" ruined ska's chances of later breaking big in the U.S.; strongly feels that Reel Big Fish really deserves your love; and spills a lot of ink on the story behind Whole Lotta Milk and Propagandhi's versions of "Ska Sucks"), and essentially makes the argument that like the punk underground, the American ska scene is filled with some amazing and talented musicians--completely deserving of your respect--who just don't care if they're perceived as uncool by the mainstream (unless they want to sell out and then ska becomes a liability), and are incredibly content with pursuing their labor of love, against all odds, in semi-obscurity. 

The original Jamaican ska musicians, and the bands associated with 2 Tone and American ska in the 1980s (which were often lumped in with new wave) have always been considered "cool" by just about everyone who's ever been aware of them. They've never needed defending. But a lot of Americans have a hard time comprehending ska. Unlike their British peers who grew up with Jamaican people, culture, and music, many Americans have found Jamaican ska and 2 Tone inaccessible, as for them it lacked context and didn't manifestly fit in with/relate to the history of American popular music, even if Black American, R&B, and early rock 'n 'roll directly influenced ska's birth. But a lot of Americans in the 1990s could easily relate to a hybrid of ska that incorporated and emphasized punk rock (after all, punk--in the form of grunge--finally broke in America in 1991). And this where ska-punk, for all of its merits, became problematic for ska.

As the U.S. music industry took note of the ska boom taking place on the underground in the mid-'90s, the only types of bands they felt were ripe for exploitation were of the ska-punk variety (because they knew how to sell punk--the majors had largely written off ska fifteen years earlier, when 2 Tone failed to catch fire here like it had in the UK, due in some part to their label's failure of imagination in marketing Black ska music made by interracial bands within a racially segregated music industry), or pop bands that had distant ska roots or a tenuous associations to the genre (and there even were some acts that were absolutely not ska, but bizarrely labelled as such in the hope of cashing in on the hype). And a fair number of the more popular ska-punk bands reveled in goofy costumes and comical/absurd stage antics, which seemed to make it all a big joke. I'd argue that some, though by no means all, of these high profile ska-punk and ska-pop acts became the definitive image of ska in the public's imagination--the stereotype of a ska band--and the vessels for all of the vitriol and disdain of people in the music press/industry and others who just didn't like or "get" the music, or realize that it came in a variety of flavors (several times Carnes notes the tension within the larger ska scene over who the music belongs to--rude boys/girls and skinheads vs. ska-punkers, etc.--and what it should sound like and how fans and bands should look and behave). So, all the haters who have been deriding ska and anyone associated with it are most often hating/shaming those from or loving ska-punk bands (there's a whole chapter about it in Carnes' book). 

And that's why no one has ever had to defend ska bands like Hepcat or The Pietasters from ridicule...there's no need to.

+ + + +

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Take: Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts "Covid-19 Special" b/w "Lockdown"

The artwork features the single's paper label with the imprint (Tip-A-Top), song title, and band name.
Tip-a-Top Records
7" vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While they closely model their sound after The Skatalites of the '64-'65 era, Swiss band Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts are no tribute act. This terrifically gifted group of musicians write their own tunes and have no agenda other than getting people on their feet to dance. Following The Skatalites' lead in titling their instrumentals after newsworthy people (Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X, Christine Keeler) and current events ("Independence Anniversary Ska" celebrates Jamaica securing its independence from the UK, while "Sudden Attack" conveyed Cold War anxiety of nuclear war), the brilliant instrumentals on Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts' new single acknowledge the grim reality that everyone has been enduring over the past year. "Covid-19 Special" is a majestic, if not somewhat muted, track with an irresistibly propulsive rhythm and memorable and slightly mournful horn lines. It's definitely danceable, but there's an undercurrent of dread and danger (who will the virus strike down next?). "Lockdown" is a much brighter, almost manic affair, as if the band is endeavoring to keep our collective spirits up as we hunker down in isolation until the horrific rates of new infections and deaths subside, and the public health authorities can get those shots in our arms. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Various Artists: "Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3"

The cover features cartoon versions of a rude boy, punk, and skinhead reading issues of "Do the Dog Skazine"
Do the Dog Music

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Since Kevin Flowerdew's essential Do the Dog Skazine is so thorough in its coverage of the global ska scene--far beyond what I'm able to digest and review each year for The Duff Guide to Ska--it only follows that I've only heard around half of the bands/songs on his fantastic new compilation Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3. This compilation features an extremely generous 47 tracks (!) of ska varying in style from traditional to 2 Tone to ska-punk from acts all over the world (some of them singing in languages other than English). Come for some of the better-known bands on Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3 like The Planet Smashers, Maroon Town, Cartoon Violence, The Bionic Rats, The Bruce Lee Band, Erin Bardwell, Crazy Baldhead, King Kong 4, The Co-operators & Friends, The Pomps, Detroit Riddim Crew, Catbite, The Skapones, Zen Baseballbat, Barbicide, The Abruptors,  Stop the Presses, The Players Band, Bad Operation, Some Ska Band, The Simmertones, Flowerdew's own Bakesys, and you'll walk away with many new faves, including acts like T-Killas, The Kubricks, RudeSix, GoGo 13, Los Fastidios & Elisa Dixan, and more. All participating acts contributed their music to help Kevin keep on publishing future issues of Do the Dog Skazine, which--in old school zine fashion--is only available in its print version from the man himself

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: "Reggae Dynamite, Volume 2" EP w/Melbourne Douglas, The Regulators, and King Deadly

A collage of pictures features male and female anti-racist skinheads, as well as Black, Jamaican sound system operators and deejays.
Original Gravity
7" vinyl picture sleeve EP/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Anyone looking to satisfy a craving for late '60s/early '70s skinhead reggae sounds--Symarip/Pyramids, Harry J Allstars, Dave and Ansel Collins, The Upsetters, and countless others--need look no further than Original Gravity's brilliant Reggae Dynamite, Volume 2. Written, performed, and produced by Neil Anderson plus an ace collective of musicians and singers, this EP sports two fantastic vocal cuts by JA-based Melbourne Douglas, as well as killer instrumentals by The Regulators and King Deadly. At the start of "Rudy Skankin' on the Moon" (shades of "Moon Hop"/"Moonstomp" in theme and sound), Douglas exclaims, "Kingston, we have a problem!" and recounts the hilarious tale of a rude boy accidentally left behind after a moon landing who just has to "keep on moon stompin'' until the next scheduled moon shot can collect him (in three years!). As its title suggests, Douglas' "Rude Boy Don't Fight Tonight" is a mid-tempo, anti-violence plea "to be cool when you go downtown tonight" and features soothing hammond and trombone solos. The Regulators "Caymanas Park Rocket" (Caymanas Park is a racetrack in Portmore, JA, just outside of Kingston) is a spirited instrumental keyboard tribute to a (hopefully) speedy steed, while King Deadly's extraordinary "Joshua A Mek Riddim Run" could be a long-lost Sound Dimension cut--it's one of the best new instrumentals in this vein that I've heard in recent memory. 

(Keep close tabs on the Original Gravity label--they're releasing all sorts of great new ska, soul, funk, and R&B singles as of late. Ska fans should definitely check out Prince Alphonso & The Fever's "Tune Up Ska" single, as well as the other sides available from The Regulators!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Boomtown United "Tuffer Than I"

The band's name is surrounded by leaves of laurels.
Digital, self-released, 2020
LP/CD/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Tuffer Than I is the first full-length from St. Louis, MO's fantastic Boomtown United (I reviewed their debut EP back in 2018). Top to bottom, this is one terrific album, filled with hook-laden, 2 Tone-influenced songs about love and navigating life's struggles. 

Actually, this record covers a whole lotta love. The Chuck Berry-ish "How I Feel" is full of declarations of love (and great sax and trumpet solos): "I wanna be the music that you choose in your darkest of times/A rest, a treble clef, the rhythm and rhyme." The rocksteady scooterist love song "Ride or Die" pledges fidelity forever, no matter what awaits them down the road, while the sweet "Back for You" (and its dub) promises that he'll return from wherever he's being forced to go (jail?). The minor-key "Feels So Nice" conveys some real urgency--even a bit of menace--in its physical longing and lust (which she wants consummated over and over in "Volcano"); "Love You Down" is its more innocent twin--the singer is head-over-heels and can't get her out of his head after she asked him to dance (you'll have trouble getting this song out of your brain, too). The calypso-y "The Only One" lightheartedly tells the tale of two guys who don't know they're in a love triangle ("They’re falling in love while she’s having fun").

A few cuts stray from the subject of sex and romance. "Wayside" urges the listener to cast aside any fears and distractions to prevent them from bogging you down ("Driftaway" seems to be a warning as to what happens when you don't). The super-catchy "Harder Than You Know" is an anthem for people struggling with addiction:

There’s a scent in the air takes me back somewhere
Somewhere I never should have been
And there’s a taste in my mouth, no I can’t get it out
Reminding me of when I was at the edge
I’m at the end of my wits with the shakes and the fits
I desperately need this change
I’ve got to be stronger, hold on them a little longer, and maybe this feeling will fade…

The singer in the spectacular Western ska "Tuffer Than I" features over-the-top, Prince Buster-level rude boy/outlaw boasting as the singer mows down wave after wave of his approaching foes: 

5 by 5, it’s still suicide
We’ve got the coffins in the back
6 by 6, we stack 'em like bricks
We only speak facts
7 by 7, none of them go to heaven
They all go to hell
8 by 8, they accumulate
And you’ll get used to the smell

And, as if to prove their 2 Tone bona fides, Boomtown United includes their scorching version of The Specials' dystopian love song "(Dawning of a) New Era," which they also contributed to the Specialized Records/Jump Up Records Check One-2: Spirit of '79 comp (which I reviewed back in 2019).

If you claim to like 2 Tone ska, Boomtown United's Tuffer Than I is a must get.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Duff Review: The Co-operators & Friends: "Beating the Doldrums"

The pencil drawing features a figure hunched over playing a melodica in a recording studio with instruments and gear strewn about, and plants growing everywhere.
Waggle Dance Records
Digital, 2020
LP, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As I sit here typing out my review of The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums, I worry that I won't do this phenomenal and beautifully crafted album justice. Not only have ace musician/producer Eeyun Purkins and his crew of exceptional collaborating singers and players created a collection of stellar ska and roots reggae songs, they've managed to adroitly articulate all of the injustice, absurdity, violence, oppression, suffering, and dread that many people experience while simply trying to get by in this day and age. The Co-operators & Friends' Beating the Doldrums delivers relatable glimpses into everyday lives that are sharply and unfussily portrayed--and, at times, are almost poetic in their imagery. And the music is highly melodic, always memorable, and absolutely magnificent. 

A common thread in many of these songs is the challenge of trying to survive in the big city. The majestic reggae track "Gentrification" is both celebration of the vibrant multicultural communities that thrive in less-wealthy urban neighborhoods (expressed through the fantastic diversity of food, like Joe Stummer's "Bhindi Bhagee") and staunch defense against greedy real estate developers intent on destroying it all just to line their pockets. (It's so catchy that I woke up this morning with this track running though my head.)

Down on the city’s street
I can hear the distant beat
Of the soundsystem
Rocking the bass and drum

Cramped from the tower blocks
Down to the squats and shops
Buy Ackee caliloo
Bhaji, Dahl and samosa, too

Rich in culture and community
Next door neighbours like family
And I loved it that way
Before the money men came to play

Gentrification (Invasion, invasion)
Gentrification (Invasion invasion)

You talk with scorn uptown
About how things are going down
You talk about our streets in fear
Dangerous 'cos you're not welcome here

You come to take life blood
From the place you call the hood
You're sending in the law
Looking for papers, drugs and more

Joe Yorke's transcendent falsetto on this tracks and others is something to behold and, as I've previously noted in another review, similar in calibre to The Congos and Junior Murvin. 

The urgent ska cut "Sleepwalkers" conveys how urban life can be bleak and soul-crushing (and suggests that escaping to the country may be the only salvation); Kitma delicately sings, "Even when the sun shines, it's raining/So we stay here in the cage, and fire, dazing/And the smoke clouds up my face/I'll sleepwalk back to bed/And dream about the right way/I've got to out of this place." In the mournful "Agony," Lintang sings about how she is left despondent and almost paralyzed by how our system of living has failed so many people in myriad ways: "Agony, agony got me front, left, and sideways...everything seems broken." "Concrete, Steel and Stone" (released as a single on Happy People Records--read my review of it) features Perkie's gorgeous vocals (delivered quite gently, as she's bearing bad tidings that we know in our hearts are true), which float over a brisk ska beat and express profound sorrow and regret that we live the way we do--out of synch with nature and the world around us, in a prison of our own making (that may be turning into a tomb): "Cars cross fibres, thread veins, sew layers, vessels of busy brains/We don't always notice our chains/So, we don't make change/We stick to the root we feel most comfortable in/But is this your skin?" Lives are off-kilter or becoming increasingly untenable.

But not all is unbearable. 

The bright Spanish-language "Florecer" (to thrive or flourish) sung by Elio AM sounds like something that could have come off The Clash's Sandinista (which I've been listening to a lot, since it was just the 40th anniversary of its release), and the sprightly ska of "Pocket Change" (are you down on your luck and asking for some or is it all you have to get by on?) features some great guitar and keyboard solos. And there's the righteous reggae cut "The Thief & The Liar," about a reckoning for corrupt politicians, who ignore their responsibility to serving the public good at their own peril. Perkie's delivery is fantastically laid-back and confident--world-weary, but determined to set things right.

We could spend our time waiting for them to save us
It's like wasting your days waiting for the bus
The first one doesn't come, and the second one's too late
So, it's best to walk your own way and seal your own fate...

...Bring another log for the fire
And throw on the Thief and the Liar

Can you feel the flames burning?
Bet you wish you weren't a politician
You call us criminals, but you're the crooks that throw the book for all the liberties that you took
You dig your own grave, hard and dogged Thief
The wolves are hungry, looking for something to eat
And they're coming for you, live or dead
It's all on your own head, you made your own bed...

Joe Yorke sings about the casual violence encountered on nighttime transport after the pubs close down is given--in a gently parodic fashion--Homeric epic poem status in the delightful "War on the Nightbus" (shades of "War ina Babylon"):

It was night then and the moon was low
Im was on the night bus moving so slow
Packed in like sardines, tight we were tight
Somebody tell me please did the city sleep that night?

Down in St Paul’s they were dancing til the morning
But on the top deck they started warring
They a shout and they push and push come to shove
Down the stairs he fell, crashing down from above

War, war, war on the night bus
Ism and schism, they fight and they fuss

He was loud and his mouth ran so fast
He stayed on the bus and I saw it sprint past
But he didn’t stay long, the eviction came firm
After he tumbled down the stairs he landed on the curb
I saw a look of shock glimmer in his eyes
As the fists and the kicks silenced his cries
He had it coming I have to say
But I just can’t take the conflict these days

It's brilliant.

For all the longing to flee the concrete jungle, life in the country is not necessarily idyllic. In the gorgeous "High on the Mountain," Beanie sings about someone who couldn't make the escape with her--the loss she feels even in such an awe-inspiring place: "Oh, I wonder if you ever think of me/Or if time's blown your memory/As I listen to the breeze blow gently through the trees..." In the beautiful, dream-like track "Turnpike Town" with vocals by Joe Yorke, this hidden, semi-mythical spot in the countryside may not be the hoped for Zion: "You might get chased by a pack of dogs/Or you might just be fine, who knows?...You could say that it's a refuge from Babylon's cruel embrace/But we all know liberty lives in a long forgotten place." Perhaps it's best to seek a balance between city and country life?

There are no answers offered in Beating the Doldrums. Yet the emotions and many of the experiences expressed in these songs are shared by everyone--and The Co-operators & Friends' music that expresses all of these hopes, fears, and blues, is in a language that unites us, can be a companion that sustains us in our darkest hours, and has the potential to save us from ourselves. 

The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums is, hands down, one of the best records I've heard in recent memory.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Kitma "Runnin'" b/w "Runnin' Dub" and The Soul Sauce meets Kim Yulhee (featuring Yun Seok Cheol) "East Sea"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

  • The vinyl single paper label lists the performer, song title, and imprint (Happy People Records)
    While I'm still in the process of digesting musician and producer Eeyun Purkins' brilliant new album Beating the Doldrums by The Co-operators and Friends, he and Kitma--one of the wonderful singers in his musical orbit--have issued a new heavyweight (in every sense of the word) single "Runnin'" b/w "Runnin' Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020). The alluring and hypnotic reggae cut "Runnin'" is a journey through a series of surreal nighttime visions (chasing whiskers blowing about; crawling through walls): "I'm in a lucid dream...Where the lights go out and the people can't sleep/Nothing but heels gonna follow my feet...I'm on the run again." The odd goings-on are subtly reinforced by the slightly off-rhythm thumb-piano sounds tinkling in the background in the left speaker/headphone. And its dub version is even trippier with a heavy dose of menace in the mix (a brash pipe organ-like horn blares out the melody in parts). This is the business!
  • The vinyl single paper label features the artists and song title, and the sleeve features a stylized drawing of a tree.
    The latest single from The Soul Sauce "East Sea" (7" vinyl single/digital, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2021) continues their collaboration with pansori singer Kim Yulhee as they reimagine traditional Korean folk music in ska and reggae settings (see my review of their "Swallow Knows" single from earlier this year). For South Koreans, the East Sea holds considerable spiritual, cultural, and historical significance (and there has been a long-standing dispute with Japan over its name that is particularly loaded, as it relates to Japan's brutal annexation of Korea from 1905-1945), and this type of Korean folk song--a Minyo--expresses the emotions of everyday people through songs of struggle, heartbreak, and despair. From what I can tell (and if Google Translate is accurate enough), the song is about someone traveling at sea (or they have already reached their destination), separated from the one they love: "At the pier where I left, only my heart embraced me/Are you carelessly leaving me?/When will you come?/When you leave, I'm waiting for that day to come...Even tonight, only the lighthouse lights flicker so lonely/Ulleungdora [a volcanic island] towering over the East Sea." Despite these downbeat lyrics, the music is brisk and cheery top-notch traditional ska, and Kim Yulhee's singing is rousing and vigorous (as opposed to mournful and defeated). It's different from the standard ska fare--but really amazing!