Sunday, May 30, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Destroy Babylon, Roger Rivas, Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem, and Roy Radics' last recording with Dope Sagittarius!

The cover illustration features a series of white lines symbolizing light coming through the bars of a prison cell.
(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Destroy Babylon--the powerhouse reggae/rock/post-punk band led by the Beaudette brothers when they're not doing their dub thing with Flying Vipers--have released a digital single that is a follow-up to their 2017 concept album Shapeshifters (read my review of it here). That album was about the Pandora's box of white supremacy, disinformation, lies, conspiracy theories, and potential for political violence that was unleashed by Trumpism and DB's latest extraordinary single "World's Straightest Line" b/w "Course Corrections" (Digital, Music A.D.D., 2021) continues in a similar vein with songs about the ongoing degradation of our society and disintegration of the social contract. At first, I thought "World's Straightest Line" (a fierce punk rock/hardcore-ish track) was about America's war on drugs, the mass incarceration of Black citizens, and the poverty-to-prison pipeline, but then realized it's about casting social media as a pusher--how it taps into people's lurid, insatiable desire for intimacy with other people's worst moments (and what it extracts from them/us in turn). If the post-punk cut "Course Corrections"--about giving in to authoritarian rule in order to survive ("If you want peace, don’t spare the rod/Closed fist--your new god...I have seen the awful truth/I would do the same to you")--had come out a couple of decades ago, you would have thought it was a good take on 1984. But listening to it in 2021, when it has become crystal clear that the right wing in our country is openly working to dismantle American democracy, is a chilling experience. The distorted, dubby, guitar effects that slip in and out of the shadows of this song are incredibly effective; they're the sounds of a slow-motion dystopian nightmare coming true. 

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Sean Flowerdew's Happy People Records is in overdrive lining up some of the best ska, rocksteady, and reggae singles one could hope for; I believe they're almost up to their 100th release already! (US fans--did you notice that there's a new Happy People Stateside imprint, so you can order these great records and not get killed by international postal rates?) One of the latest singles is Roger Rivas' terrific "Heading West" b/w "Last Goodbye" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2021), which come from Rivas' out-of-print 2014 LP Last Goodbye (which is still available digitally on Bandcamp). "Heading West" is a bright, bubbly Western reggae/rocksteady trip to a better place that promises even better times, while "One More Dance" sounds a bit tentative and melancholy, as if someone's holding out hope that a rift can be patched up before the end of the night with a close and silent slow dance.

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I meant to write about the John Roy-driven Smoke and Mirrors Soundsystem project much earlier this spring. This is the relaunched New Normal Collaboration project that released the excellent Quarantined on Easy Street last fall (read my review of it here), but ran into issues with one of the people co-leading the effort. Roy (of '90s ska act The Unsteady) has since re-recorded all of the drum tracks and remixed the album, and the new version--retitled Strength in Numbers--can be heard/bought here (at some point soon it will be released on vinyl, too). Smoke and Mirrors Soundsystem also has been working on an album of awesome ska/reggae covers of '80s classics like Bowie's "Let's Dance," Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon," and Tears for Fears "Mad World," as well as cuts from Junior Byles ("Fade Away"), Sam and Dave ("When Something's Wrong with My Baby"), Smokey Robinson & The Miracles ("Second That Emotion"), Edwin Star ("25 Miles"), Spencer Davis Group ("I'm a Man"), and more.

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A few weeks ago, Luqman Brown (from the NYC "soul core" NYC band FunkFace, which includes members of Beat Brigade) reached out to let me know that another band of his Dope Sagittarius is re-releasing a special edition of their latest album that features Roy Radics' last recording. Radics, of course, was the beloved lead singer of the NYC ska and reggae band The Rudie Crew who passed away unexpectedly in the prime of his life in 2016. The Dope Sagittarius track that features Radics is "Sacred Places"--the title track of this incredible funk-electro-hip-hop-rock band's latest album (which is available from Buddahbug Records on vinyl and digital via Bandcamp). Radics delivers some wickedly fantastic toasting during a dancehall break in this cut about the place you're transported to when you lick the chalice ("I'm stuck between the now and the sacred space"). He sounds so good here and hearing him do what he did so well will make you miss Radics all the more. Anyone who knows about and is into the Black Rock Coalition bands (who incorporate "the spectrum of Black music" into their songs) like Living Color, 24-7 Spyz (I caught them opening for The Untouchables years ago and they were on fire!), FunkFace, and Fishbone will want to devour Dope Sagittarius' Sacred Places.

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Friday, May 21, 2021

Duff Review: The Selecter "Too Much Pressure" Deluxe 40th Anniversary Reissue!

A rude boy in a suit leans up against a wall with his head in the crook of his elbow. His pork pie hat is on the ground next to him.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

During their intense, year-long association with 2 Tone,* The Selecter always seemed to have been unfairly overshadowed in the press by their label co-directors and mates The Specials, despite that fact that The Selecter' original songs were as good (if not better) and relevant (addressing racism, street violence, alienation, and the "no future"/"nothing to do, nowhere to go" of Thatcher's England)--and their live performances just as incendiary. So, it's wonderfully fitting that of all the recent 2 Tone 40th anniversary releases, the deluxe reissue of The Selecter's debut 1980 album Too Much Pressure is by far the best. 

The triple-CD deluxe edition of Too Much Pressure features the remastered version of the original album; a second disc of related singles, their 1979 John Peel session, and several previously unreleased recordings; a third disc of previously unreleased live tracks from two hometown concerts in Coventry from '79 and '80; and excellent, copious liner notes by Daniel Rachel (read my interview with him about this project), as well as track-by-track commentary by several members of the band (it should be noted that none of the other recent 2 Tone 40th Anniversary reissues were expanded and included unreleased material from the vaults). The heavyweight LP version of Too Much Pressure (mine is clear vinyl!) features a half-speed master, plus a copy of The Selecter's debut single "On My Radio" b/w "Too Much Pressure" (in the 2 Tone sleeve)--and if you ordered a copy from the 2 Tone store like I did, they included a 7" EP containing the four aforementioned live tracks from 1980 (the '79 concert will be released on vinyl during the second Record Store Day drop this summer). Die-hard Selecter/2 Tone fans will want--and be very pleased with--both editions. 

The pairing of the Roger Lomas-produced "On My Radio" b/w "Too Much Pressure" single with the Too Much Pressure LP inadvertently underscores just how perfectly suited he was as The Selecter's producer. (First listen to the single and then the LP.) While Errol Ross did a very good job with producing the album, the tracks don't quite capture the power and punch of anything The Selecter recorded with Lomas (and there are many more examples of Lomas' work with them on the second disc of the triple-CD). At the time, according to Rachel's liner notes (and Neol Davies told me in an interview published in The Duff Guide to 2 Tone), the choice of Ross as producer was controversial within the band (Davies wanted Lomas, but more members of the band voted for Charley Anderson's friend Ross) and none of the band members were completely satisfied with the end results. So, Lomas was recruited again for "The Whisper" single and the band's sophomore LP Celebrate the Bullet--a very under appreciated album--read my write-up of it here. (The Specials had a similar issue with Elvis Costello's production for their debut album; he didn't quite capture the band's sound in the studio as well as Dave Jordan (More Specials) or John Collins (Ghost Town EP), which was evident when the bootleg Live at the Moonlight Club hit the streets prior to The Specials and the former made for a much better debut album--read my review of official 2 Tone/Chrysalis 2014 release of Live at the Moonlight Club here.)

Disc two of the CD set ("Singles, B-Sides & Rarities") contains a fantastic, previously unreleased, alternate (and more urgent) take of "Three Minute Hero" produced my Lomas for the band's lip-synched 1980 appearance on "Top of the Pops" (Errol produced the version released on the single). There's also an awesome, unreleased synth-washed version of "Cool Blue Lady" which was recorded by Lomas during "The Whisper" sessions (a second version of the track appeared on Celebrate). I learned from the liner notes that the superior version of "Street Feeling" on this disc that was included on the 12" of "The Whisper" was actually from the "On My Radio" b/w "Too Much Pressure" sessions (as Gaps said, "We recorded three songs and let the record company choose [what was on their first single]"). And rounding out the unreleased material on this CD is a brilliant medley/mash-up of Lee Perry's "A Live Injection," a bit of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Mony Mony," and "Too Much Pressure" recorded during a soundcheck in 1980. Plus, if you never got your hands on a copy of the "Ready Mix Radio" version of "On My Radio" done by Lomas and released as a freebie on flexi-disc for the first issue of Flexipop magazine in November of 1980, here's your chance to hear it (I have the flexi, but the track sounds loads better on CD). 

The majority of live material on disc 3 of the CD set is from The Selecter's November 1979 concert at Tiffany's in Coventry, which was part of the UK 2 Tone Tour with The Specials and Madness. The Selecter had only been together for about six months at this point (and they were slated to start recording their debut album the next month), but their songs and performance are absolutely magnificent. Of course, it helped that most of the members of The Selecter previously had played together in other Coventry bands like Hard Top 22 and Neol Davies already had ace material that he written and performed ("On My Radio," "Out in the Streets," and "Street Feeling") with The Transposed Men (which included The Specials' John Bradbury and Desmond Brown). But still, it's extraordinary how good and confident and entertaining the band were so early in their existence. 

One of the greatest stories revealed in Rachel's liner notes comes from their first recording session with Roger Lomas. The producer had seen them opening for The Ruts and knew that "On My Radio" was perfect for their debut single, but he didn't know the name of the track. When The Selecter played their set for him, but he didn't hear that hit song. So, Lomas asked if there was anything else and they responded "On My Radio," but they were reluctant to play it, because they thought it was like "a bloody Eurovision Contest song"! 

This definitive edition of Too Much Pressure brilliantly documents The Selecter's enduring 2 Tone legacy. Get it! 

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(*They left 2 Tone for Chrysalis proper for "The Whisper" and Celebrate the Bullet releases.)

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Piseógs "Limestone Rock" and The Prizefighters "Take Threes"!

The album's title appears over a close-up of limestone rock.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Hopefully, you've already been introduced to The Piseógs via Happy People Records' terrific global ska comp Rudies All Around, Volume 2 (their track "Don't Grow Up," from their debut EP Mental Space Invader's Ball, is a highlight). If not, you should know that they're a fantastic traditional-leaning ska and rocksteady band from Sligo, Ireland (whose sound is a mix of The Trojans and Bim Skala Bim) and they've issued a new, you-shouldn't-miss EP titled Limestone Rock (Digital, self-released, 2021). It's a subtle but profound concept EP of sorts with songs about pride, sin, and death--with limestone's symbolism working on many levels. Limestone, of course, makes up about 65% of Ireland's land mass (and was formed by ancient coral reefs hundreds of millions of years ago when the region was submerged under warm ocean waters); it was the building material used for many medieval cathedrals and churches; and when you burn it, its yields lime, which is poured on dead bodies to help cover the smell of decay and hasten decomposition (plus the title is a nod to many of the famous Jamaican riddims, like "Rockfort Rock" and "Real Rock"). 

The EP opens with a sweet cover of Justin Hinds & the Dominoes' classic "Higher the Monkey Climbs" ("...the more he expose"), which is about the dangers of not leading a humble and righteous life (key line: "He that exalts himself shall be abased/Grief always comes to those who love to brag the most"). The beautiful, if resigned, "Up She Flew" is about the death of a female French Resistance fighter during the D-Day/Operation Overlord invasion of Normandy who previously had been in a romantic relationship with an Allied paratrooper. One of the lyrics refers to Sainte-Mère-Église, the first town liberated from the Germans, where many paratroopers were shot as they descended into the hell of war (part of the town was on fire and lit up the night sky), or their parachutes were snagged in trees or utility poles (and they were shot). Most famously, one American's parachute was caught on the town's church spire and he pretended to be dead for several hours (the Germans eventually discovered he was alive and imprisoned him, though he later escaped and rejoined the US troops and the fight to liberate Europe). The song's also about the inevitability (and commonplaceness) of death and loss; the struggle to lead our lives in circumstances when we have little agency; and grappling with the fact that we'll never have answers or be able to give meaning as to why some things happen.

From paradise on high
We fell out of the sky
Fires were burning bright
You know down there there ain't no why
It's all a lie

There's no blaze of glory
When it's time to say goodbye
She don't have to see your sorry ass
As you sit there wondering why

However, despite it all, the narrator is sure that she ends up going to Heaven ("up she flew").

The band is in a dark studio performing a song.I happen to keep a record in my head of all my wrongs, so "Tally Your Sins"--where we're urged to take a look at our imagined written log of sins--resonates. Of course, accepting responsibility and seeking forgiveness are the only way forward ("Secure no happy future where you can escape/The past keeps tagging along/Running riots inside your head/'Til you admit you were wrong"). "Blackthorn Shuffle" is a cheery (and ironic) instrumental; in Celtic mythology, the Blackthorn tree has been associated with overcoming strife, the Celtic goddess of winter Cailleach, witches/witchcraft, and a Christian belief was that the Devil would choose his victims/followers by pricking them/drawing their blood with a blackthorn thorn). The terrific reggae instrumental "Ghost Beat" features some great echoey percussive sounds that conjure images of unseen spirits making their appointed rounds, while "Limestone Rock" is lovely ska instrumental that pays tribute to the island that's their home and the stone it provides to build the structures that have helped give meaning and purpose to countless lives over the years. 

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Minneapolis' wonderful ska/rocksteady group The Prizefighters used some of their pandemic lockdown time to record a series of truly excellent short live performance videos shot in a recording studio (they can/should be watched here, here, and here), which they've also released as a nine-track digital album titled Take Threes (Digital, self-released, 2021). It features renditions of tracks from their most recent--and really superb--studio album Firewalk (which I reviewed here), plus a haunting ska version of Trini Lopez's "What Have I Got of My Own." I've never had the chance to see/hear The Prizefighters live, but desperately want to now, as they've clearly got the goods live!

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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Danny Rebel & The KGB, Winds of Matterhorn!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

In the "I still learn something new every day" category comes the great new trad-leaning ska single from Danny Rebel & The KGB that's a preview of their new album (!) Toss It Up, which is being released on Stomp Records on May 28th, 2021. It features five new songs and five corresponding dubs by Victor Rice (you can pre-order the digital album now; is it too much to hope that this will be issued on wax?). Employing a term for female genitalia that I've never encountered before, "Whispering Eye" is unapologetic in its direct and unadorned expression of lust ("We don’t need this love (I’ll save you the pain)...You don’t have to call (just call out my name)...All I really want is your whispering eye"). As one wry FB commenter replied to Danny about his new song: "rent a room!" (Danny Rebel & The KGB's most recent album was 2017's incredible Lovehaus (read my review of it here), which still needs to be released on vinyl, if there's any justice left in this world.)

Led by Swiss-Italian trombonist Mattbrass and producer Jackayouth, Swiss traditional ska band Winds of Matterhorn's superb new self-titled debut EP (12" vinyl/digital, Fruits Records, 2021) sounds like what one imagines the follow-up to Rico's incredible Jama Rico (with Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell again at the helm) would have been had all the stars aligned back in the '80s. This EP has the same wonderful vibe and sound (who knew the Swiss Alps were like the hills of Wareika?). Winds of Matterhorn's excellent original instrumentals are named after the four elements ("Earth," "Air," "Fire," and "Water") and lend this EP a theme that gives one's imagination a bit of direction when listening to these marvelous tracks. And while you're picking up Winds of Matterhorn's new EP, make sure to grab a copy of 2 Tone's vinyl reissue of Jama Rico (out this June), if you don't already have it!

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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Eric Blowtorch and the Inflammables "Quality Items"!

Eric Blowtorch stands outside as it snows holding the letters Q and I.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Quality Items, the excellent new triple-LP (containing 36 songs!) from Eric Blowtorch and the Inflammables (3 x vinyl LPs, Bopaganda! Records, 2021--you can buy it through their Discogs page), brings to mind The Clash's Sandinista (also 36 tracks), not just for the album's length, but for the band's versatility and daring--they're going wherever their creativity and inspiration leads them. Like The Clash, Eric Blowtorch and the Inflammables don't limit themselves to any particular musical genre. There's some really fantastic ska and reggae here, but also a few mix tapes' worth of top-shelf jazz (big band/free form/no wave), soul, bossa nova, pop and rock, even disco (the musically omnivorous Joe Strummer would've been proud). Duff Guide readers will be most interested in the ska tracks "Bad Dream" ("...and you feel so lonely, lonely, alone/Like Margarita with one limp hand stuck inside the trombone/Bad was just a bad dream/This terror must subside/You'll feel better after you have cried"), a version of Leonard Cohen's cinematic and vengeful "First We Take Manhattan" ("...then we take Berlin"), and a different, stripped down take of "Mercy" (which was released as a digital single last year and reviewed by me here), and the reggae cuts "Hatred of Captivity" (a spectacular "Ghost Town"-y instrumental), a wonderfully ragged cover of Marley's "Dance Do The Reggae," and the jazz-inflected "Last Day of School." But less parochial music fans also will find much to devour, including the big band "She's a Pro"; the no wave/free form jazz songs "Set My Woman Free" and "Paz Para Vieques"; the Motown-ish "You Ain't Mad" and "Town for Sale"; the harrowing, defiant, and hopeful WWII/Holocaust (and Peter Ivers-sounding) ballad "Ghetto Resistance"; and the offbeat pop and rock cuts "Best of Times" ("Please pardon the expression/But we've all known great depression/Stop, look, and listen, pity party's out of session--not waiting for your blessing!/These could be...the best of times"), "Guzzling Gasoline" ("The first foot on the pedal seldom touches earth/Millionth customer at Citgo knows what life is worth/'This bucket is my birthright!' cries the bully in the pulpit/Give me the premium, let me gulp it!"), "Every Star in the Sky" (an end-of-the night-slow-dancer), "Never Too Far Away," and "Throw Open Your Arms." There's a lot to digest here (I've only scratched the surface), but like Sandinista, the longer you live with it, the more you discover, and deeper you find your love for it. 

(For a bit more background on Quality Items, check out this interview with Eric Blowtorch in Shepherd Express.)

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: David Usma & The Siderens, Joe Yorke & Stand High Patrol!

The paper label for the single features the artist name, imprint (Stand High Records), and illustration of three faces (one looking forward, another left, and the other right).(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

The incredible new single Malé Vol​.​1: Oscuridad (7" vinyl picture sleeve single/digital, Canana Records, 2021; found in the US via Jump Up Records) from Colombia's David Usma & The Siderens is part of a trilogy of releases exploring Usma's process of "healing his wounds" through music (Malé is a woman's name, so draw your own conclusions as to what this is all about). He's accomplished this by composing and recording three sets of songs that essentially go through a compressed version of the stages of grief: Darkness, Catharsis, and Rebirth. The first stage Malé Vol​.​1: Oscuridad (Darkness) features two killer skinhead reggae instrumentals: "Hell Moon" sports an otherworldly ice rink organ carrying a melody that's both beautiful and slightly unsettling, while the sprightly "Darkness" has dubby sections and majestic bursts of brass. I'm sorry for Usma's suffering, but he's making some great music while he's in the process of working it all out.

Joe Yorke & Stand High Patrol's magnificent and haunting new single "Quicksand" b/w "Quicksand Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Stand High Records, 2021) is about hidden, lonely suffering and bravely trying to bottle up all the feelings instead of embracing and releasing them (and reminds me of the awful time I had adjusting to boarding school life as a desperately homesick 11 year-old). With an understated but effective rocksteady riddim written by Stand High Patrol's Pupajim (the dub is by SHP's MacGyver) and lyrics by Yorke's frequent collaborator/producer Eeyun Purkins (of The Co-operators--read my review of their latest album Beating the Doldrums here), Yorke's incredible falsetto is brimming with empathy as he sings:

Hey brother, I hope you're doing fine
I know you've been having such a rough old time
When the door is closed and the monsters creep in
You're in the quicksand, feels like you're sinking

Back at school they taught you “boys don’t cry”
The tide is up inside, but no tears fall from your eyes
Brother you know that being big and tough
Means letting the tears flow when times get rough
Rough and tough

It's good advice for everyone to heed (delivered within a terrific song). Highly recommended.

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