Monday, September 20, 2021

Duff Review: John Bunkley "Sunshine and Chocolate"

The watercolor painting on the cover depicts Bunkley dancing face to face with a woman in a dress on the hood of a car.
Cover watercolor painting by John Bunkley
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Long-time ska fans will know John Bunkley as the lead singer from the fantastic late '80s/early '90s Detroit ska band Gangster Fun. Bunkley recorded two albums with that band--both essential first generation American ska records (Come See, Come Ska in 1989 and Time Flies When You're Gangster Fun in 1992; their ska "hits" were "Mario's Hideout," "I'd Buy a Gun," and "Fat Lady Skank")--and if you were into swing in the late '90s, he also was in The Atomic Fireballs (something I learned in Kenneth Partridge's Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing). Bunkley is back in the ska fold with a magnificent new six-track EP of rocksteady songs "about people breaking up with me," as he commented during a recent show with Bim Skala Bim in Brooklyn. Co-produced and co-performed by Eric Mazurak (of The Tellways), Bunkley's Sunshine and Chocolate (Vinyl/digital, Paradise Valley Records, 2021) is a beautifully crafted collection of hook-packed love songs. And everything just works--the contrast of Bunkley's wonderfully gruff and expressive voice with the shimmering music; the many fantastic small details, like the deft touches of organ, percussion, and guitar licks, and how the back-up vocals (some by Rachel Stokes of The Tellways) provide just the right punctuation and bursts of emotion; and the confidently intentional and unfussy arrangements of each track.

In "Sunshine and Chocolate," love is chemical and triggers the pleasure zones in our brains that bring us immense joy and satisfaction. Bunkley sings: "You so, so high baby/That's how you make me feel/I know I'm not that crazy/I know this love is real/You know you've got me sweating/And working overtime/I'm spending all my spare change/My nickels and dimes/You're like sunshine and chocolate/Melting in my pocket..." Whereas, the super catchy "Addicted" posits that love is a drug to consume (and illicit at that): "This love has been tried and convicted/Arrest me, 'cause I so addicted/Don't want to be your defendant/I'm so addicted."

Sometimes, as in the upbeat "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," you have to work a long week for love (in a song that reminds me of XTC's "Earn Enough for Us" without the anxiety): "Monday, landlord says he needs the rent/Tuesday, work twelve hours, just have it spent/Wednesday, digging holes, long days in the ditch/Thursday, kisses from my love, now I feel rich!" Other times, you have to be optimistic and keep trying to find it; and occasionally you luck out, stumbling across it (as in "Once in a While I Find Love"): "The game begins when you throw the first pitch/And I'm begging you--please--with this/A prospector looks for gold until he's rich...I live my life on kisses and hugs/I'm high on this and you are my drug/I take my time with pushes and shoves/And once in a while, I find love." The EP closes with "Stars," a hopeful, but dark around the edges, lullaby of sorts for grown-ups: "And there are no monsters outside my door/'Cause the stars are shining on me."

Don't sleep on John Bunkley's Sunshine and Chocolate--it's one of the best records I've heard all year.

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Friday, September 17, 2021

Duff Gig Review: Bim Skala Bim featuring John Bunkley of Gangster Fun at Arrogant Swine, Brooklyn, NY (9/16/21)

(by Steve Shafer)

Last night, I was lucky to catch American ska trailblazers Bim Skala Bim in a rare NYC performance at Arrogant Swine in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The band is making its way down from Boston to the Supernova Ska Festival in Virginia this weekend--though without lead singer Dan Vitale, who, at the last minute, was unable to make the tour. Fortunately, John Bunkley of the late '80s/early '90s Detroit ska act Gangster Fun was able to sub on vocals (and he has an excellent new rocksteady EP titled Sunshine and Chocolate that I'll be reviewing shortly). Bim's fantastic set (which emphasized tracks from their first three albums, as well as their latest LP Sonic Tonic, which I reviewed here) included "Bangin'," "Digging a Hole," "Jah Laundromat," "Solitary Confinement," "Better Get Out," Marley's "Hypocrite," "Summer of Ska," "Go Back," "Lightning," a cover of Gangster Fun's 1989 breakout underground hit (from their debut LP Come See Come Ska) "Mario's Hideout," and much more. 

Below, you'll find videos I shot of the band playing "Lightning" and "Mario's Hideout." Bim and Bunkley play the Pie Shop in Washington, DC tonight (9/17) and Supernova on Saturday (9/18). 




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Monday, September 13, 2021

NYC Ska Calendar: This Week It's One-Two Punch of Ska with Bim's Boston Bluebeat vs. The Toasters' East Side Beat!

Let's just say that it's been a very long time since we've seen these two OG '80s American ska bands play NYC during the same week (plus old schoolers Beat Brigade!). So, if you're in the New York metro area, this is a good week to get out and see some great live ska music (and it's a bit of a consolation if you're not able to make it down to the Supernova Ska Festival). Details are below (and don't forget to bring proof of vaccination!)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Mephiskapheles, Bim Skala Bim, The Hempsteadys PLUS the NYC premiere of the New England Ska Summit documentary film
Arrogant Swine (they have AMAZING BBQ here)
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

6:00 pm: Doors open
7:00 pm: NYC premiere of the documentary New England Ska Summit
9:00 pm The Hempsteadys
10:00 pm Bim Skala Bim w/John Bunkley (of Gangster Fun)
11:20 pm Mephiskapheles
Tix: $25 in advance/$30 day of show
18+

Friday, September 17, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

The Toasters, Beat Brigade, The Rudie Crew, The Lousekateers, The Monkeychunks
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
Tix: $17.95
16+

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Friday, September 10, 2021

Duff Review: Kenneth Partridge "Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing"

The book cover features various ska bands performing or posing for promotional photos.(Review by Steve Shafer)

[Full disclosure: I was interviewed for and am quoted in this book, since I was Moon Records' director of promotions, marketing, and production from 1991-1999.]

I'm really of two minds regarding Ken Partridge's Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing (Hardcover, Penn State University Press, 2021). On one hand, it's a very good and engaging read, providing an excellent and oftentimes insightful overview of the bigger, mostly ska-punk, ska-pop, and swing bands that made it relatively big in the 1990s. In doing so, Hell of a Hat focuses on the rise and inevitable fall of acts that made it to major or major-label backed labels and flirted with or achieved stardom, such as the Bosstones, Sublime, No Doubt, Rancid, Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris, Goldfinger, Dance Hall Crashers, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Less Than Jake, Suicide Machines, Buck-O-Nine, MU330, Mustard Plug, Stubborn All-Stars, Hepcat, Pietasters, Slackers, Spring Heeled Jack, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Royal Crown Review, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. During that decade, I was so immersed in all things ska that I knew practically zilch about the swing scene beyond that when ska was declared dead in 1998, swing was the music industry's next shiny thing, and that one of the former members of The NY Citizens was in the local swing band Dem Brooklyn Bums (Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta told me about 'em). So, I learned a fair amount from this book--in particular, the Royal Crown Revue's story is pretty compelling, and I had no idea that Gangster Fun's John Bunkley was in Detroit swing band The Atomic Fireballs.

On the other hand, as someone who was directly involved in promoting the ska scene, it's a bit maddening to read a history of this era of American ska and find that Moon Records is depicted as a minor player, almost a footnote, really. The chapter on Moon starts 174 pages in and is done ten pages later, and much of it is devoted to certain bands bellyaching that the label didn't do enough to make them stars, even though nothing of the sort was ever proffered. Though, to be fair, he does mention Moon on page four and describes the label as "a major driver in the ’90s ska explosion." (And I have to admit to being disappointed that Partridge didn't include my tale of how The Slackers' manager at the time allegedly stole Moon's promo list from my apartment office and brought it to Epitaph, where she was made head of Hellcat; we realized the theft/betrayal had gone down when a Hellcat promo mailer was sent to one of our dummy addresses--a fake name, but using Moon's post office box!--that we used to check that our promo mailings went out.) Moon was an indie ska label with a punk rock attitude, just like Lookout or Dischord, and it sometimes managed to punch above its weight--but we never sold ourselves as anything otherwise. Having said that, Moon built the foundation for much of what transpired in ska during the '90s and helped promote/establish dozens of well-known acts when they were in their infancy. No one was championing ska music like Moon was--particularly in the first half of the '90s. I'd wager that if Moon hadn't been around, that decade's ska boom would never have happened. 

While there are several key traditional and modern ska bands mentioned in the periphery of Hell of a Hat (who did quite well for indie-label acts), the premise of the book seems to be that only the bands who made it to the cusp of fame or superstardom should make up the story of that era. It's a capitalist's version of the history of American ska, based on record sales and Billboard charts, and it's incomplete (particularly since the music industry really only knew how to market ska that was more punk or pop--and the more mainstream music audiences were only into those kinds of sounds, not 2 Tone-influenced or traditional ska).

Having said all that, if you're a ska-punk and/or ska-pop fan, you absolutely will enjoy Hell of a Hat--it covers that aspect of '90s ska very well and is a valuable addition to the growing library of books on American ska.

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If you're in the NYC area on Tuesday, September 28, there is a Hell of a Hat book launch party at Mama Tried in Brooklyn from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm with DJ Ryan Midnight playing '90s classics.

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Thursday, September 2, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Articles "Action Claw vs. Gorilla Grip"

The illustration features two robot-like creatures facing off; one has claws for hands, while the other has oversize gorilla paws.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Detroit's mid-to-late '90s ska-jazz greats The Articles--who were often favorably compared to The Skatalites, Jump With Joey, and NY Ska Jazz Ensemble--released their debut album Flip F'Real in 1997 on Moon Ska, which was produced by Victor Rice and featured a mix of fantastic original instrumentals and covers of tunes by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, Laurel Aitken, and The Skatalites. [Full disclosure: I had the great pleasure of working with The Articles when I was at Moon.] Tower Records Pulse! reviewer Norman Weinstein gave it four and a half stars and ranked it as the #1 reggae release of '97. While the band appeared on many comps (including Skarmageddon 3, Love and Affection, and the Bang movie soundtrack--all on Moon), they didn't get a chance to release a follow-up album before the bottom fell out on the US ska scene and Moon shuttered its doors at the end of that wild decade.

Unbeknownst to many, The Articles recorded their sophomore album in 2001 with Joe Ferry (he produced two mid-'90s albums for The Skatalites: Hi-Bop Ska and Greetings from Skamania), but the project was mysteriously shelved after completion. That is, until now. After 20 long years, The Articles have liberated their second album from the archives and unleashed the extraordinary Action Claw vs. Gorilla Grip (digital, self-released; limited-edition cassette, Jump Up Records, 2021) on an unsuspecting world. Action Claw vs. Gorilla Grip is full of superb originals and impeccable performances all around, though it's heavily tilted toward the jazz side of the ska-jazz equation (and may remind one of when Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra is in their big band/AM pop radio mode). Having said that, there are a good number of ska-ish songs, including the magnificent "Sophist" (which has a great liturgical-sounding organ intro), "Frantic," the slinky, reggae-ish "Jetta Girl,""Hand Me Down" (so cheery as it struts its stuff), "Hard To Get," and the wonderfully epic (and slightly menacing) "Slip'n'Slide." All in all, a wildly impressive album (which would be great to have on vinyl some day...).

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