Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Maroon Town, Tom Zé & Joey Altruda!

The cover features photos of men and women from the late 1800s; one man has a nuclear mushroom cloud emanating from the top of his head.
(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

It's a shame that we haven't seen much recorded output from Maroon Town since their magnificent Freedom Call album in 2018 (read my review of it here). But it seems like a new and growing collaboration with producer/musician Neil Anderson of Original Gravity Records may be changing all that. This past October, the band issued a killer remix by Anderson of "Bullit" from their Urban Myths LP (read my review of it here) retitled "Bullit (Proof Mix)."  Their latest release is a wonderfully bright and joyful rocksteady instrumental tribute to South African jazz trumpeter and long-time anti-apartheid activist Hugh Masekela titled "Maskela Skank" (Digital, self-released, 2021) that has light touches of Highlife and echoes of Desmond Dekker and the Aces' "Pretty Africa." Here's hoping there's more of where that came from--it's superb--and that some of these cuts receive a physical release (maybe Anderson could issue some of this on Original Gravity?). Also, if you've never heard their deadly cool cover of Prince Buster's "City Riot" produced by The Specials' John Bradbury and released back in 1987 (I still have my 45!), do yourself a favor and check it out on the Maroon Town Bandcamp page. (Fun ska factoid: The Scofflaws covered Masekela's "Grazin' in the Grass" on their Ska in Hi-Fi album back in 1995.)

While he's been busy working in other genres as of late, Joey Altruda hasn't been doing much in the ska realm since his extraordinary run with Jump with Joey (with partner in crime Willie McNeil) back in the 1990s (for you nitpickers out there, he did perform on Western Standard Time's Big Band Tribute to The Skatalites back in 2012). If you don't already have them, the albums Ska-Ba, Generations United (my fave!), and Strictly for You, Volume 2 are essential trad ska-jazz-Latin listening (and are painfully overdue to be issued on vinyl). So, it's fantastic to find the new single from Altruda firmly in ska territory, even if it's a bit of a detour through Brazil! "A Babá Ska" b/w "A Babá Dub" (Digital, Avocaudio, 2021; 7" vinyl single TK--though you have to sign up on the waiting list to get a copy) are versions of Brazilian Tropicália musician/singer Tom Zé's 1972 song, which translates from the original Portuguese as either "The Nanny" or "The Babysitter." The original was released during Brazil's long military dictatorship (1964-1985) and utilizes a children's nursery rhyme form and cartoon film references ("Rockefeller accused Snow White/The dwarfs split/Three yes and three no/But one died of fright/And asked, 'who is, who is'?") to mock/criticize the powers that be ("Who is making nightmares at the head [end or turn] of the century?/Who is putting lice on the head of the century?"). Altruda, who has collaborated with other Brazilian musicians like Seu Jorge, was able to persuade Zé to cut new vocal and guitar tracks for his ska version (interestingly, Zé was unfamiliar with the genre) and the results are pretty spectacular. These tracks feature Roger Rivas (Aggrolites) on organ and piano, Oliver Charles (Ocean 11) on drums, Artie Webb (Tito Puente) on flute, Marlone Sette (Jorge Benjor), and Altruda on bass and production. Everything was expertly mixed by Victor Rice down at his studio in São Paulo. According to Altruda, 100% of the sales of the digital single go to Tom Zé, and this is the first of several more hoped-for collaborations with Brazilian musicians. All I can say is please keep 'em coming! 

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Friday, April 16, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Tellways "Out to the Cosmos"!

The cover features an illustration of Laika, the first dog in space, wearing an astronaut helmet and staring at the Moon.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The laid-back, almost understated mid-tempo ska and rocksteady of The Tellways might remind one--and I'm carbon dating myself here--of Easy Big Fella, The Allstonians, Skavoovie & The Epitones, or The Skalars. They're not flashy, but they've really got it going on. In particular, lead singer Rachel Stokes' wonderfully pure alto voice (Chuck Wren is spot on when he describes it as "old timey and sultry," like she's a singer in a classic film noir), and her masterful and seemingly effortless control of her instrument helps make this ace Detroit band stand head and shoulders above the fray. The Tellways excellent debut album Out to the Cosmos (LP/digital, self-released, 2021; also available through Jump Up Records) contains seven new tracks (all by guitarist, keyboardist, producer Eric Mazurak), as well as new recordings of the five songs from their fine 2019 EP Closer to the Fire. Top 2021 tracks include "Anxious" ("If we were living in peaceful times/Then we should all have peaceful minds/Instead, we're anxious"), a theme song of sorts for several people in my household, though in our case I think it's more genetic than environmental; the Calypso-ish "I Don't Need to Tell You," which is about the object of your affection not picking up on your non-verbal clues at all; and the boastful reggae make-'em-dance cut "Tellway Stomp": "Pull the lever on your fever/Burn you up, burn you up/Making you a true believer/Heal you up, heal you up/Transmitter to receiver/Pick it up, pick it up/Treatin' you like you were Caesar/Stick it up, stick it up!" 

My favorite cut on the record is "Space Force," which is less about that wacky new division of the armed forces and more the Space Race era (note the illustration of Laika on the album cover) with a bit of Ren & Stimpy's "Space Madness" in the mix:

Come onboard our rocketship
On an interstellar trip
Out to the cosmos
We don't need intros
You know that we're the Space Force

Our captain's a genius
Tries to appease us
Dark, disconnected
Don't ask him questions

He tore up our charter
Salted our water
We can't step outside
That don't matter in the mind
Of the Space Force

The re-recordings of their 2019 material sound really great. You may have caught the terrific "Closer" on Happy People Records' Rudies All Around, Vol. 2 comp (which you should really check out, since there's so much good stuff on it!), but I'm still most partial to the soul-ska of "Friendly." All in all, this an outstanding debut album.

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

"Do You Remember the Good Old Days Before the Ghost Town?"

I recently came across several videos I shot at the last Electric Avenue show that I organized at Characters NYC before the pandemic. (Sadly, Characters shut down last fall--another victim of the plague. Linda and Finn made it a great place to be. Thank you for everything!). The Electric Avenue bill on July 26, 2019 featured Barbicide (read my review of their Fresh Cuts EP here), The Twilights (read my review of their Hear What I Say EP here), The Rudie Crew, and Beat Brigade (read my review of their Tomorrow's News EP here).

As you can see from the following videos, it was an amazing night of ska and reggae! Barbicide were terrific right out of the gate (it was their first show). The Twilights' version of Max Romeo and Lee Perry's "Chase the Devil" was epic! The Rudie Crew's "Radics in Space" tribute to the still very much missed Roy Radics really got the crowd going. And make sure to watch Beat Brigade's "Battle Cry" ("This is not a warning/This is not a test/Armageddon's coming...")--one of their newer (and brilliant) tracks--all the way through. Dave Barry and Ramsey Jones' performances in particular are mind-blowing.

These videos will whet your appetite for live shows. Hopefully, we'll start having them again later this year (go get your vaccine shot, if you haven't already!).

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Bakesys "You Are Leaving The American Sector" b/w "Bernauer Straße Dub"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

My wife and I just started watching the TV series The Americans, which is about two deeply embedded Russian agents who live in the suburbs of Washington, DC (next to an FBI counter-intelligence agent) and are raising their American-born kids (who have no idea of their parents' true identity) while they spy on the Reagan Administration during the Cold War 1980s. In a funny coincidence, the incredible new single from The Bakesys "You Are Leaving The American Sector" b/w "Bernauer Straße Dub" (Digital, Do the Dog Music, 2021) is about this very same era--and the Berlin Wall in particular. "You Are Leaving The American Sector" is, appropriately enough, a crisp, tightly-wound late-'80s-sounding instrumental track that bends trad ska with modern production techniques, and might remind the listener of something off Maroon Town's High and Dry or Potato 5's True Fact albums. The cut also includes all sorts of clips of interviews of people reacting to the Wall going up in 1961 (and the subsequent attempts of East Germans to escape to the West); one man in the street wonders, "What have we got that they are so afraid of?" Its terrific version, "Bernauer Straße Dub," refers to the street in Berlin where the Wall went up and the East German authorities bricked up all the windows of the apartments that faced the West so their citizens couldn't jump to freedom. Both tracks capture the tension and apocalyptic paranoia of that time, which, in some ways, has never dissipated. On a related note, the late video and multimedia artist Dieter Froese--a wonderful family friend who digitally edited the Super-8 footage I shot for The Toasters' "2 Tone Army" music video at his Dekart Video production house in NYC's Chinatown--had helped a good number of East Berliners escape to the West via a tunnel under the Berlin Wall before he came to the US in 1964.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Rico's "Jama Rico" To Be Reissued on Vinyl for the First Time Since Its Release in 1982!

The album cover features a carved, wooden African mask.
As part of 2 Tone/Chrysalis's 40th Anniversary program, Rico's positively stellar Jama Rico LP is finally being reissued on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl on June 25, 2021 (pre-orders can be made through Dusty Groove in the USA or Juno Records in the UK, and elsewhere). This is the first time this relatively hard-to-find record has been reissued on vinyl since the album was originally released in 1982 (it was recently made available on CD via the Two Tone: The Albums CD box set, which I reviewed here). Rico's That Man is Forward is also being reissued by 2 Tone on the same day, though this great album has been easier to find, since Reggae Retro reissued it on CD and LP in 1998

Here's an excerpt of what I wrote about Jama Rico from my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone:

"But on this day, the gods of vinyl were good to me. I snagged one of the rarest 2 Tone releases (at least, on this side of the pond)—a near mint copy of Rico Rodriguez's Jama Rico (1982), which is filled with phenomenally good vintage ska and reggae instrumental cuts. 2 Tone's parent label Chrysalis never opted to release this album in the US, and I wonder if any specialty shops here even bothered to import copies of it; in all my many years of digging through the crates, this is the first time I've ever seen it. There is also very little written about it, either online or in the reference books on ska and reggae in my bookshelves; even George Marshall's The Two Tone Story gives it short shrift. 2 Tone ska's flame-out in the UK, no doubt, had a lot to do with the album's scarcity and the dearth of info about it, but Rico and this brilliant album deserved much better.

Recorded both at Joe Gibbs Studio in Kingston, JA and in London, with various tracks produced by Dick Cuthell and Jerry Dammers, Jama Rico featured some of the finest Jamaican and British musicians around, including Tommy McCook (tenor sax), Felix "Deadly Headley" Bennett (alto sax), Ansell Collins (organ), Winston Wright (piano, guitar), Earl "Chinna" Smith (guitar), Jah Jerry (guitar), Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), and other top performers—plus several members of The Special AKA: Jerry Dammers (organ, piano), John Bradbury (drums), Sir Horace Gentleman (bass), and Dick Cuthell (cornet, flugel horns, funda drums).

Ska fans who love Rico and The Special AKA's "Jungle Music" will immediately take to the stunningly evocative ska and reggae of "We Want Peace," "Jam Rock," "Love and Justice," "Some Day," "Do the Reload" (which is a cover of Rico's dear friend and mentor Don Drummond' awesome "Green Island"), and "Easter Island" (written by Japanese saxophonist Sado Wattanobe)—all of which follow the expected song structures for this genre of music. Those open to more musical paths less traveled will enjoy the jazzier, looser experimental takes on Jamaican music on "Destroy Them," "Distant Drums" (with Rico on vibraphone and funda drums!), and "Java."

According to Paul "Willo" Williams in his fantastic biography of The Specials (and 2 Tone Records) You're Wondering Now: The Specials from Conception to Reunion, Rico's "Jungle Music" single and the Jama Rico album failed to gain any traction and climb the charts due to the rise of the New Romantics in the UK (Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, etc.). It was all a matter of unfortunate pop-culture timing (one can't blame Rico's material or the performances, as they're brilliant). The UK record-buying public's massive infatuation with ska music was over by 1982."

2 Tone is also reissuing The Selecter's Too Much Pressure on April 23, 2021 (read all about that deluxe reissue here) and a half-speed remaster of The Specials' Ghost Town EP on June 4, 2021.

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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Desorden Publico & Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra "Ska Mundo Ska," Travelers All Stars "Don't Give Up" b/w "Sabata"!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

If you're not already doing so, it would be wise to keep Del Corazón Music on your radar. For the unfamiliar, they're an indie label out of San Francisco that re-issued Laurel Aitken's En Español LP in 2019 (which I reviewed here), as well as a single from that album--and they recently issued two amazing singles that I almost completely missed from Desorden Publico (with Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra) and Traveler's All Stars. The Desorden Publico single features two versions of "Ska Mundo Ska" (from their extraordinary Bailando Sobre Las Ruinas LP, which I reviewed here)--one, a ska take with TSPO (which is so infectious you won't be able to get out of your head for days); the other a great spirited ska/mariachi version with Big Javy from Mexican ska band Inspector. The song itself celebrates how ska music is popular among diverse people on a "planetary scale" (Del Corazón's motto is Sin Fronteras--without borders) and the wildly upbeat music video from a few years ago features reflects that with guest spots from TSPO, The Busters, Buster Bloodvessel, Dan Vitale of Bim, Oi-Skall Mates, Neville Staple, Alex Desert and Greg Lee, Mark Foggo, Jesse Wagner, Fred Reiter, and many more. As you can see from the image above, Del Corazón Music devotes an incredible amount of attention to the design and packaging of their releases. The Desorden Publico single features an actual obi strip (a nod, of course to TSPO), the paper label notes that the music contained in the grooves is Latino Ska, and it comes, as all of the label's 45s do, with a jukebox strip (if you're old enough to remember what those were used for)! The Travelers All Stars single (marked as Reggae Gordo or Heavy Reggae on the paper label--which also pays tribute to the Doctor Bird paper label design) features the bright and hopeful skinhead reggae cut "Don't Give Up," while the more hard-driving "Sabata" was inspired by the 1969 spaghetti Western of the same name, directed by Gianfranco Parolini and starring Lee Van Cleef. If you can find these singles (Liquidator still has them), don't hesitate to grab them!

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

New Single from Rhoda Dakar: "Everyday Is Like Sunday" b/w "Everyday Is Like Sunday (Dub)"!

The cover features an illustrated version of Rhoda Dakar sitting in a booth at Pearl's Cafe, holding a cup of tea, and staring out the window at the ocean.
(Preview by Steve Shafer)

During the dark early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when everyone was struggling with the new reality of lockdowns, living in isolation, and trying desperately to avoid the virus (with even the hint of vaccines many months away), Rhoda Dakar, like many of us, sought out music that reflected the times and what she was feeling in response. One of the tracks that she found particularly resonant was Morrissey's "Everyday Is Like Sunday" (from his 1988 Viva Hate album; lyrics by Moz, music by Stephen Street), which is about longing for release from drab sameness, unending boredom, and loneliness. 

While the original refers to being in a decaying seaside town in England on a Sunday when all the shops and diversions are closed, the emotions of the original were--and still are--painfully relevant to our pandemic times. 

Everyday is like Sunday
Everyday is silent and grey

Hide on the promenade
Etch a postcard:
"How I Dearly Wish I Was Not Here"
In the seaside town
That they forgot to bomb
Come, come, come, nuclear bomb

Moz imagined collective deliverance from ennui through The Bomb--the very scary Cold War was still on back then--but our threat of armageddon is more personal. With this plague, we've been faced with the prospect of a never-ending line of individualized, isolated deaths on ventilators tended by medical staff in space suits. Goodbyes to loved ones said over cell phones held by nurses. Thankfully, our release from this nightmare can be found through trust in science and public health--getting a vaccine shot or two and wearing a mask. Not too much to ask to save yourself and everyone around you, is it?

Rhoda Dakar's really great reggae take on "Everyday Is Like Sunday" plus its dub version are being released digitally on April 21, 2021--and an already sold-out 7" single is being issued on Sunday Best Records on July 2. She's backed here by several of her LoTek Four collaborators (read my reviews of their terrific Volume 1 and Volume 2 EPs), including Lenny Bignell (Pama International, Sidewalk Doctors), who also produced the single and dub, and Terry Edwards (The Higsons, Madness).

And do make sure to take a closer look at the single's picture sleeve artwork by Pete McKee and note that the illustrated version of Rhoda is sitting in Pearl's Cafe--a nod, of course, to her duet with Terry Hall on the Dammers-penned More Specials track of that name, also about desperate loneliness: "It ain't easy when there's no one to lean on/It ain't easy when there's nobody there" (plus the song contains these immortal lines: "It's all a load of bollocks/And bollocks to it all!").

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Ska and Reggae Record Store Day 2021 Releases of Note: Jerry Dammers, Desmond Dekker, LKJ, Madness, The Selecter, Blue Beat, Jump Up, Studio One, and More!

The cover features the paper label with the title; and the sleeve features Walt Jabsco, an illustration of a rude boy in a sunglasses, suit, tie, loafers, and trilby.
As always, the Record Store Day offerings for ska and reggae fans in the UK are simply better and more plentiful that they are in the US. And with the insane cost of shipping LPs from the UK to the US these days, even if you are able to track down a UK-only RSD release you want for more that you want to spend, you're going to get absolutely killed by postage.

The only bright spots for US fans are domestic releases from The Selecter, Desmond Dekker, and two Soul Jazz Studio One compilations.

Please note that Drop 1 is on June 12 and Drop 2 is on July 17.

Blackbeard (Dennis Bovell): I Wah Dub (LP, PLG, UK only, Drop 1)

Joseph Cotton, Winston Reedy, Barry Isaacs, Vin Gordon: Kiki Kiki EP (7" single, Room in the Sky Records, UK only, Drop 1)

Jerry Dammers: At The Home Organ: Demos 1980-82 "Ghost Town (Original Demo) b/w "Theme from The Boiler" (10" single, 2 Tone/Chrysalis, UK only, Drop 2) These two previously unreleased tracks are Jerry’s home recordings made on cassette in 1980/1982. This is a rare glimpse into his working practice, including The Specials' most famous recording "Ghost Town," which celebrates its 40th Anniversary in July this year (and is being reissued by 2 Tone in both 7" and 12" formats).

Desmond Dekker: The King of Ska Live at Dingwalls (2xLP, Burning Sound, UK only, Drop 1)

Desmond Dekker: King Of Ska - The Ska Singles Collection (10 x 7” box set, BMG/Trojan, US & UK, Drop 1)

George Dekker: "Run Dem" b/w "Foey Man" (7" single, G.D. Records, UK only, Drop 1)

George Dekker & The Inn House Crew: "Nana" (7" single, Room In The Sky Records, UK only, Drop 1)

Jah Floyd: "20 Years Inna Leaky Boat" (7" single, Jamaican Recordings, UK only, Drop 1)

Owen Gray: Sings (LP, Burning Sound, UK only, Drop 1)

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Making History (Color vinyl LP, UMC, UK only, Drop 1)

Jump Up Records: Chuck Wren is releasing four LPs for RSD: Bim Skala Bim's new album Sonic Tonic; a reissue of The Skatalites' Bashaka; an anthology from Skanking Lizard; and the first-ever vinyl edition of The Scofflaws' fantastic debut album originally released on Moon Records in 1991!

Madness: I Do Like To Be B-Side The A-Side Vol 2 (LP, BMG, UK only, Drop 1)

Freddie McGregor: "Never Run Away" (12", Greensleeves, UK only, Drop 1)

Mungo's Hi Fi: Antidote (LP, Scotch Bonnet Records, UK only, Drop 1)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread (LP, VP Records, US & UK, Drop 1)

The Selecter: Live In Coventry ’79 (Clear vinyl LP, 2 Tone/Chrysalis, US & UK, Drop 1) This is the vinyl version of the live concert included in the forthcoming 3xCD reissue of Too Much Pressure. Read about this concert and this reissue here.

Millie Small: "My Boy Lollipop"/"Something's Gotta Be Done"/"Don't You Know It"/"Until You're Mine" (7" Island/UMC, UK only, Drop 2)

Toots & The Maytals: Funky Kingston (LP, Get On Down, US & UK, Drop 1)

Various Artists: Legends of Blue Beat: The Blue Beat Label (LP, Blue Beat Records, UK, Drop 2)

Various Artists: Soul Jazz Records Presents Studio One Ska Fire! (5 x 7" box set, Soul Jazz Records, US & UK, Drop 2)

A: Bob Marley and The Wailers – "Rude Boy"
AA: Derrick Morgan – "It’s Alright"

A: Don Drummond – "Don D Special"
AA: The Maytals – "A Man Who Knows"

A: The Skatalites – "Something Special"
AA: Lee Perry – "Open Up (aka Cook Book)"

A: The Regals – "Shammy Back"
AA: Bob Marley and The Wailers – "Diamond Baby"

A: Jackie Opel – "The Mill Man"
AA: Ethiopians – "I Am Free"

Various Artists: Studio One Soul (2 x LP, Soul Jazz Records, US & UK, Drop 2)

Wailers & U-ROY: My Cup Runneth Over (LP, Tsosume Records, UK only Drop 2)

Wailing Souls: Wailing (2 x LP, 17 North Parade, US & UK, Drop 2)

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Updated 4/8/2021.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Various Artists "Peter Gunn EP" and "30-60-90 EP"

The title of the EP appears within a series of repeated squares.

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Since I missed out on their first pressings last year, I eagerly snapped up the Original Gravity reissues of the Peter Gunn EP and 30-60-90 EP. If you're late to the game like I was and unfamiliar with the label, Original Gravity is run by musician and producer Neil Anderson, who has a deep love of '60s soul, funk, blues, R&B, Latin, ska and reggae. He has been releasing a series of extraordinarily good singles and 7" EPs of late with what appears to be a rotating cast of collaborating acts, but in reality are Anderson himself performing under different aliases (with several other studio musicians?). Each of these EPs focuses on a choice instrumental cut from the '60s--Henry Mancini's wickedly sinister 1959 theme song for the private eye TV show "Peter Gunn" (which was reworked a bit in 1960 for the theme for the cartoon series "Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse"--I watched it in late afternoon reruns when I was in grade school) and Willie Mitchell's strutting 1969 soul-funk workout "30-60-90"--as interpreted in four different musical styles.

Straight off, all four versions of "Peter Gunn" are smoking hot. Néstor Álvarez's take has all sorts of incredible Latin percussion running beneath the melody carried by the horn section and piano. If R&B's your thing, Chris Baker & The Braveheart's wild version is all buzzy, echo-ey bass and guitar with Booker T.-like organ really working it on top. Prince Alphonso & The Fever turn in a raucous ska version that sounds like something that Prince Buster might have produced with his All Stars had he covered this track. And the lead instrument in Melvin Craig's amazingly funky psychedelic ride is the sitar played by Chinthrinie Wijayakulathilaka, giving the cut a pleasurably intense '60s vibe. 

Prince Alphonso & The Fever give "30-60-90" a stately ska makeover (think The Skatalites with Justin Yap producing), while the Brentford Rd Soul Rebels lay down a cool skinhead reggae riddim for Dennis Alcapone to make his exhortations over. Néstor Álvarez again mixes big band horns with jazzy and Latin sounds and rhythms with wonderful results. But it's Curtis Baker & The Bravehearts' Stax-like version that's fearlessly badass and scorching. 

These cracking EPs are tailor-made to be part of the soundtrack for your next party or DJ night--whenever those can happen again. (Both singles can be bought via Original Gravity's Bandcamp page or Juno Records in the UK.)

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