Monday, October 25, 2021

Duff Review: Various Artists "Disco Reggae, Volume 4"

A young, Black woman looks out from the cover of the album.
This is not a Trojan comp.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Disco Reggae, Volume 4 (LP/digital, Stix Records/Favorite Recordings, 2021) is the latest in this series of similarly-themed compilations from this French label and its orbit of French producers (and is a great companion record to the recently released, Don Letts-selected Version Excursion for Late Night Tales, which I reviewed here). Disco Reggae, Volume 4 is a sweet mix of dance floor rump shakers, Quiet Storm slow-dancers/make-out tracks, and afterparty cool down cuts. 

Side A doesn't quite get the balance right. While excellent cuts in their own right, Taggy Matcher's cover of Chemise's "She Can't Love You" and Blundetto Meets Booker Gee's read of Tyrone & Carr's 1973 song "Take Me With You" lean heavily disco, with very little reggae to speak of. Having said that, Soul Sugar's take on Roy Ayers' 1972 Afrocentric/Black empowerment soul-jazz track "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby" sounds a bit like Mad Professor meets Massive Attack (I've been listening a lot to their stellar Part II/Mezzanine Remix Tapes '98 lately); and Wolfgang's fantastic "Summertime" marries a Casio-like percussive track (shades of The Specials More Specials) to a roots reggae/trombone-focused interpretation of this Ira and George Gershwin jazz standard from Porgy & Bess.

The flip side of Disco Reggae really nails it with Mato's infectious, groovy cover of A Taste of Honey's 1978 world-wide hit "Boogie Oogie Oogie"; and Hawa's version of Keni Burke's 1982 cut "Risin' To The Top" (which here seems like a cousin to Lovers Rock) even incorporates a bit of the Mary Jane Girls' super-steamy "All Night Long" (which originally borrowed the bass line from "Risin' To The Top"!) While more disco reggae-adjacent, Taggy Matcher's awesome take on Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" marries the Germans' electronic/synthpop melody to a much-needed propulsive reggae skank (the original's pretty stiff). If you're rigid in your musical tastes, this may not be for you--but if you're into a bit of genre-bending/blending, Disco Reggae, Volume 4 delivers the goods!

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Duff Review: The Specials "Protest Songs 1924-2012"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Specials' new album Protest Songs 1924-2012 (CD/LP, Island Records, 2021)--their follow-up to 2019's excellent Encore (read my review here)--is a strange beast. It manages to be both a powerful and beautifully realized concept album and a huge sod off to their fans. Anyone who has faithfully supported The Specials through its various incarnations and diminishing ranks of original members, lo these 40+ years, is not unreasonably expecting some ska. But Protest Songs adamantly delivers none, though there's folk, blues, spirituals, soul, skiffle, rock, and post punk (having said that, I did catch a bit of ska rhythm guitar in "Listening Wind!"). What's odd is that as you listen through the tracks, it's quite easy to imagine at least some of them recast as ska or reggae songs. So, for whatever reason, the band--Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter (plus Nikolaj Torp Larsen, Kendrick Rowe, Steve Cradock, Tim Smart, Pablo Mendelssohn, Jim Hunt, Michael "Bammie" Rose, Tony "Groco" Uter, and Hanna Hu)--opted to go in this direction, surely well-aware that it would dash fans' expectations and piss many of them off mightily.

Before the pandemic disrupted everything, The Specials had been planning to record a reggae album in Jamaica--and then the world-wide George Floyd protests erupted in the wake of Floyd's horrific murder at the hands of the police. So, they decided to record a covers album of protest songs in response (and one imagines that the resurgence of white supremacy and worsening cold civil war between Americans and seditious, anti-democratic forces in the US played a part, too), the majority of them by American musicians, as an interim project and to force them out of a post-Covid lockdown creative rut.

Once you set aside your disappointment regarding the absence of ska sounds (though the fact that these are protest songs is very much on brand), you may find that The Specials' Protest Songs 1924-2012 is a terrific album. The choice of tracks (with lyrics that pack a wallop), their interpretations, and performances are uniformly excellent. Some of the songs are direct in their messaging: The Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway" and The Freedom Singers' "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around" are potent, raucous US Civil Rights Movement-era anti-racist anthems; Rod McKuen's "Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes" ("...number practically zero/But there are millions/Who want to be civilians") is an anti-war earworm written before Vietnam, but reissued at its height, and relevant countless times since then; Frank Zappa's "Trouble Every Day," written in reaction to the 1965 Watts riots and decrying both the violence/looting unleashed in that neighborhood and ubiquitous racism that led to the social unrest; and Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" is a general call for solidarity in support of universal human rights--though this quiet, acoustic version sung by Golding seems like something one would pull in on shortwave radio while hunkered down in some secret hiding place as in The Clash's English Civil War. While others are more oblique in subject matter or less-known for being protest songs.

Leonard Cohen's 1988 track "Everybody Knows"--about how everything is inexorably corrupt--was tailor-made for Hall's resigned/deadpan delivery. While it wasn't specifically written as such, it captures the mood of a lot of people in the US (and elsewhere) who want to live in and are working for a more just, equitable, and inclusive world, but are stymied at every turn by those with all the power and wealth:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Malvina Reynold's children's folk tune "I Live in a City" seems like a weird choice, but it's a strong endorsement of urban solidarity and multiculturalism: "Brown hands, yellow hands, white and black/All together built this town" (take that, rural MAGA-Again-heads!). And Reynold's proud rejection of American dog-eat-dog capitalism, "I Don't Mind Failing in This World,"  is positively punk rock in attitude, even if it's delivered via gentle folk song: 

I don't mind failing in this world
Don't mind wearing the ragged britches
'Cause those who succeed are sons of bitches...

...I don't mind failing in this world
I'll stay down here with the raggedy crew
'Cause getting up there means stepping on you, so
I don't mind failing in this world

...I don't mind failing in this world
Some people ride in a car so fine
While others walk on a picket line, so
I don't mind failing in this world

One of the cruelest injustices that Black American GIs faced after fighting fascism during WW II in Europe was returning to the US and being subjected to racist Jim Crow laws in their own country (the Nazis based their Nuremberg Laws--their racial purity edicts--and their "Final Solution" on Jim Crow and the American eugenics movement). Blues musician Big Bill Broonzy first recorded his song "Black, Brown and White" in 1947 about this and the general Black American experience with white supremacy (wryly sung here by Golding):

I helped build this country
And I fought for it too
Now I guess that you can see
What a black man has to do

They say if you're white, should be all right
If you're brown, stick around
But if you're black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back

I win sweet victory
With my plough and hoe
Now, brother, you tell me
Whatcha gonna do 'bout the old Jim Crow?

The inclusion of Talking Heads' incredible "Listening Wind" (from Remain in Light and used in The Americans) is an unusual choice--it's a Cold War-era anti-American imperialism cut from the point of view of a African freedom fighter planting bombs to drive out the Yanks from his country (singer Hannah Hu takes lead vocals here). I'm a little surprised The Specials' didn't work in a little of John Holt's "Man Next Door" into their version of Jerry McCain's "My Next Door Neighbor" (essentially a long rant about someone driving you mad by always borrowing all your stuff). Perhaps the most Terry Hall-ish song ever, the country lullaby "Fuck All The Perfect People" by Chip Taylor of "Wild Thing" fame--about prison inmates who have no agency while they do their time ("To sing or not to sing/To swing or not to swing/Hell fills up the silence like chalk on the wall")--was chosen as it "rails against all those people who are So. Damn. Right." (Hopefully, it's not a message to you.)

My imported red vinyl LP included an exclusive and exceptionally good 7" single containing their "Vote for Me" and a cover of The Valentines' "Blam Blam Fever," recorded live at Coventry Cathedral during the 2019 Encore tour. Admittedly, this helped take the sting out of the lack of ska on Protest Songs, but also reminded me of what was missing. One of The Specials' brilliant strengths has been their ability to offer up songs that make you both think and dance--their medium, 2 Tone, is also the message. But Protest Songs, as great an album as it is, obliterates half of that formula and may turn off a good portion of their audience as a result.

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Duff Review: Mento Buru "Skalloween" EP

The cover features a skull wearing glasses with swirling, hypnotic images in the lenses.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Just in time for what promises to be a close-to-normal Halloween comes a fantastic treat from Mento Buru. Their new Skalloween EP (Digital, self-released, 2021) contains two boss ska covers of novelty monster cuts from fellow sons of Bakersfield, CA, as well as a Spanish language version, and three choice dubs by Dubrobot. "Goo Goo Muck" is a 1962 garage rock single by Ronnie Cook and The Gaylads about a teenage vampire on the prowl for, um, blood (the sexual subtext is hard to miss) that was famously covered by The Cramps on their 1981 album Psychedelic Jungle. Mento Buru's revved-up version (replete with horror movie sounds) is completely winning--even the undead couldn't resist dancing to it! "(It's a) Monster's Holiday" is a 1974 country track by Buck Owen (and covered fairly recently by Reagan Youth) about repeatedly running into the classic Universal Studios monsters (Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Dracula), though there's no real danger--think Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Mento Buru keep their take light and fun--and very appropriately quote The Munsters theme towards the end before a "Nite Klub"-inspired outro. These tracks are worthy--and sure to be popular--additions to any ska Halloween party mix (see Hoi Polloi skazine's extensive 500+ track list!).

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Saturday, October 9, 2021

The Beat's Everett Morton Passes Away at 71

Everett Morton (photo by Adrian Boot)

Terribly sad news comes via Lee Morris of 2 Tone--Before, During & After: The Beat's wonderful drummer Everett Morton died on October 8, 2021 at age 71. His use of complex rhythms and unique style of reggae drumming and percussion lent The Beat an immediately recognizable sound and firmly grounded their music in Jamaican ska, while also allowing the other musicians in the band to take a more unorthodox, punky, and often aggressive approach to the genre--all of which formed the brilliant signature Beat sound.

According to Malu Halasa's essential 1981 biography of the band, The Beat: Twist and Crawl, Morton came to the attention of the fledgling Beat via a friend through David Steele's day job at a Birmingham psychiatric hospital:

"During one afternoon tea break, he [Dave Wakeling] was chatting with his black friend Paulette Sherley, telling her how difficult it was to find a drummer for his band. Band practice was every Saturday--that is when they could get it together. Paulette suggested a drummer she knew in Handsworth. The fellow, free since his last band had broken up, was considered an excellent reggae drummer, and had a van as well, which was what really sealed it. Steele phoned Everett Morton and invited him over to Andy's flat that weekend.

Tall and dark, Everett brought his mate Freddy to check out the mystery band in need of a drummer. While the two Daves and Andy [Cox] rendered "Click Click," "Two Swords" and "Twist and Crawl" on acoustic guitars, Freddy recorded them on his portable sound system. Afterwards, the five sat quietly together drinking tea and listen to the tape, which sounded oddly like The Beach Boys. They were unusually alright, agreed Everett, but it was little early to tell. With electric guitars and a couple of amps they could sound different. The band had arranged to practice properly in the upstairs room of a pub around the corner, The Yorkshire Grey, for a three quid rental fee. Morton promised to join them there on Tuesday night with his drum kit.

Tuesday's practice was a mess. The main problem was that the boys hadn't written any songs with a reggae beat, and Everett had been drumming in reggae and soul bands for some fifteen years. Without the bass and drums fitting together, there was little foundation for the music. Even the guitars seemed out of place. By the end of the evening the four of them, pissed and frustrated, decided to close with an early version of "Noise in This World," an extraordinary punk number. Somehow, it came together. Although vile and very noisy, they played for a long time, which for them determined if a song was any good. They decided to meet again the following week.

Everett had come to England from St. Kitts in the mid-sixties, working in a kettle-spinning factory and playing music in the evenings and weekends. He first learned the drums when his cousin asked him to join his band. After a stint at drum school at Yardley's in Birmingham, and practicing almost constantly on the settee and table in the house, Everett developed his own style and began playing around Handsworth [including Joan Armatrading's band]. He was the most experienced musician in the pack by far, and yet Steele and Wakeling wouldn't hesitate to tell him when songs went wrong.

"You're messing up, Everett. You're messing up." It was hopeless to talk about what the music should sound like. Dave and Everett talking about the same thing would describe it differently, and then end up in a vicious argument. In part it had something to do with Dave's current job at a building site in town. At twenty-three, he was an angry young man. If he offended someone, he expected them to put him right, but Everett didn't think he should have to do that. Strangers ought to have better manners."

When The Beat were preparing to record "Tears of a Clown" for their debut 2 Tone single, it was decided that they needed some saxophone on the track, so Everett introduced them to Saxa, whom he had played with in bands around Handsworth. Of course, Saxa was recruited to join the band almost immediately and his sublime sax playing completed The Beat's classic sound.

One of my favorite Beat tracks is "Psychedelic Rockers" (about dread of nuclear war: "On a night like tonight, when I'm losing my hope/I pray for the best with my heart and soul/It is the hardest...At the edge of your nerves where the lights are pretty/A change in the weather and it smothers the city/Psychedelic, psychedelic, psychedelic war...Well, it's an atmospheric shock...")--which also happens to highlight Morton's fantastic percussion work.

I offer my deepest condolences to Everett Morton's family, friends, and fans. May he Rest In Peace.

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Friday, October 8, 2021

Duff Review: Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem: "Second That Emotion" EP

The cover features the single's paper label listing the artist, title, and record label (Badasonic).
(Review by Steve Shafer)

This new EP from the John Roy-driven Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem musical collective is a terrific preview of their upcoming--and eagerly awaited in these parts--album of covers (which will feature their versions of David Bowie's "Let's Dance," Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon," Junior Byles' "Fade Away," Sam and Dave's "When Something's Wrong with My Baby," Edwin Star's "25 Miles," Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," amongst others). Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem's Second That Emotion EP (7" vinyl/digital, Badasonic Records, 2021) highlights two cuts off the covers album and includes their own "The Great Divide" (from SMS' excellent pandemic lockdown debut album Strength in Numbers--read my review of it here), plus its great new companion dub by Nico Leonard).

As advertised, there's a sweet rocksteady version of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' "Second That Emotion" with the formidable Rebecca Jade on vocals, and devastatingly good take on Tears for Fears' dark and disturbing 1983 synth pop hit "Mad World" ("I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had") with The Hot Mess' Tori Roze at the mic. The ominous swells of brass at the edges and wistful trombone solo at the end (by Buford O'Sullivan!) are particularly wonderful and effective touches. "The Great Divide" is a fantastic duet of sorts between Mark QMaxx Lyn (ex-Slackers) and Dunia Best (Dubistry) that delivers an anti-racist plea for unity in a country that desperately needs it (Dunia sings in the chorus: "With a strength, joy, and love/We can all rise above"; Lyn toasts in response: "You’re on one side and I am the other/I’m not your enemy, I’m just your brother"). Mad world, indeed.

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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Duff Review: Various Artists (Selected by Don Letts) "Version Excursion"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

For the uninitiated, Late Night Tales is a long-running series of compilations, each selected by a musician with the goal of creating what they consider to be their ultimate, mood-setting "late night mix." The latest release is Don Letts' mighty and marvelous Version Excursion (Heavyweight double LP, LateNightTales, 2021), which reflects his omnivorous musical tastes: '60s rock, Black American R&B and soul, punk and post-punk, and--of course--Jamaican and British reggae and dub. This is expressed through Letts' selection of dub covers (many of them exclusive remixes personally solicited by Letts) of songs by Aaron Neville, Jefferson Airplane, The Clash, Joy Division, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, Lou Rawls, Marvin Gaye, Kool & The Gang, Bill Withers, Althea and Donna, Randy Newman, Merle Travis, The Bee Gees, War, The Beatles, and others.

Letts, the British-born son of Windrush generation Jamaican immigrants to the UK, grew up straddling the divide of white and Black music and culture--and during the advent of the mid-'70s punk scene, he was hired as the in-house DJ at London's infamous Roxy club (punk's ground zero), where he effectively introduced/turned on the British punk scene to reggae and dub in between sets by The Clash, Damned, Buzzcocks, Slits, Generation X, etc. (since so few punk records existed at the outset of his two-year DJ residency there in early 1977, he spun a lot of reggae!). Letts went on to film all of The Clash's music videos (as well as others for The Psychedelic Furs, Musical Youth, The Pretenders, The Undertones, Fun Boy Three, Eddy Grant,  Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Public Image Ltd., Bob Marley & The Wailers, and more); co-found Big Audio Dynamite (read my review of their reunion show in NYC in 2011) with The Clash's Mick Jones (he made BAD's music videos, too); direct many music documentaries, including The Clash: Westway to the World (which won him a Grammy), Soul Britannia, and The Story of Skinhead; and work as a DJ on BBC's Radio 6. Also his 2008 book Culture Clash, Dread Meets Punk Rockers is essential reading (and he has a new one out, too).

Many of the cuts Letts spotlights on Version Excursion are phenomenal reimaginings of their source material (though a few are so deconstructed as to be rendered almost unrecognizable, unless you consult the track listing--see Wrongton Meets The Rockers "Dub in the Supermarket" and Black Box Recorder's "Uptown Top Ranking"). Stand out tracks abound. Prince Fatty & Shniece McMenamin's "Black Rabbit" (their take on Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," which I previously reviewed here) is an alluringly menacing dubby trip, while Zoe Devlin Love featuring (Dub Pistols') Tim Hutton's version of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds track "Carolina No" is a gorgeous lover's rocker. The exclusive remix of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again" by Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16 is stellar and may even top their original (I reviewed that mix here). Cornell Campell's recasting of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" as "Ital City Dub" is mind-blowingly good, as is Dennis Bovell's new remix of his old band Matumbi's "(Can't Get Enough of) That Reggae Stuff," which is their read of Kool & The Gang's awesome "Funky Stuff."

According to Letts' track-by-track liner notes, The Clash used to warm-up in rehearsals to Ernie Ford's "16 Tons," which is given an incredibly dread spaghetti Western reggae dub by French act OBF. Japanese producer Yasushi Ide enlisted U-Roy for a wonderfully melancholy cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" (love all those strings!). The Tamlins' read of Randy Newman's "Baltimore" (an indictment of everything that contributed to the decline of Black urban cities in the late '70s) is blistering. At one point in his teens, Letts had amassed an enormous collection of Beatles memorabilia, but once punk struck (The Clash: "No Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones") he exchanged it all for a car (which he eventually got rid off, since the coppers kept pulling him over for Driving While Black). Having said all that, he never lost his love for the Fab Four and has included the Easy Star All-Stars featuring Matisyahu's wild dub of George Harrison's "Within You Without You."

The track that I keep coming back to here most is Gaudi Meets The Rebel Dread featuring Emily Capell's superb version of Big Audio Dynamite's "E = MC Squared" (which Letts co-wrote with Mick Jones). Part of it's nostalgia (it's a key cut from the soundtrack of late teens), but this mellow reworking is just perfect (the repeated descending piano riff toward the end of song is brilliant!).

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

NYC Ska Calendar #5/Fall 2021

The cover illustration features a cartoonish King Kong-sized rude boy smiling and dancing as buildings shake all around him.
Editor's note: I'll be sharing the decks with DJ Ryan Midnight (spinning nothing but vinyl!) at two upcoming ska shows at Otto's Shrunken Head in November and December. Stay tuned for details--watch this space! Also, don't forget to bring proof of vaccination and photo ID for entry to all of these shows.

Friday, October 15, 2021 7:00 pm to 12:00 am

DJ Ryan Midnight Spins 100% Ska
Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street, between Avenues A & B
New York, NY
No cover!/21+

Saturday, October 16, 2021 @ 9:00 pm

Beat Brigade
The Bitter End
147 Bleeker Street
New York, NY
Tickets: $10
All ages

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Pietasters Booze Cruise (SOLD OUT)
The Lucille--Rocks Off Concert Cruise
23rd Street and the FDR Drive
Manhattan, NY
Doors at 6:00 pm, boat departs at 7:00 pm

Wednesday, October 20, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

The Pilfers, Be Like Max, Bright Ugly
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$17.95 in advance/$20 day of show/16+

Sunday, December 12, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

Desorden Publico and King Chango
204 Varick Street
New York, NY
Tickets: $50

Saturday, December 18, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

The Slackers and The Aggrolites
Irving Plaza
17 Irving Place
Manhattan, NY

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Saturday, June 4, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Madness and The English Beat
Manhattan Center--Hammerstein Ballroom
311 West 34th Street
Manhattan, NY
$55 and up

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Monday, October 4, 2021

Duff Guide Blast from the Past: Little Roy "Battle for Seattle"

The cover features two long-haired grungy punks dancing.Editor's note: The Duff Guide Blast from the Past is a series of older reviews of exceptional albums that are worth revisiting--or checking out, if you missed them the first time 'round. I happened to pull this album out the other day to listen to while doing my day job, and still find it to be one of Prince Fatty's (and Mutant Hi-Fi's) best productions. I first published this review almost ten years ago on November 11, 2011. 

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After their monumental, game-changing Nevermind was released in 1991 (launching grunge, in particular, and alternative music in general into the stratosphere), Nirvana were inescapable: they ruled, fueled, and defined college/classic/modern rock radio, the music press, and MTV (back then, if you had told me that these three forms of media would be practically irrelevant 20 years later, I would have laughed loudly in your face). While I wasn't a huge fan--my musical preferences then were more along the lines of Britpop and ska/reggae (obviously)--I couldn't help but admire how at the core of many of Nirvana's hits lay an incredibly keen pop sensibility. These were intensely catchy songs that deserved to be hits, even if they were obscured by a sonic wall of punky grunge fury. That Kurt Cobain could write a damn good melody. 

And that's a key component of what makes Little Roy's Battle for Seattle (CD/LP, Ark Recordings, 2011), a roots reggae album of Nirvana covers, such a brilliant (and completely enjoyable) success. A really well-written song is like a high-performance engine--it doesn't matter what car body you dress it up in, it's still going to drive like mad! It isn't limited by genre. But what really allows Battle for Seattle to transcend the usual shortcomings of a tribute album (mimicking the original artist out of an overabundance of reverence or fear of alienating the fans by deviating too much from the source material) is that this is a fully-realized, whip smart re-imagining--or, more appropriately (in Jamaican fashion, naturally), re-versioning of Nirvana's original tracks. Little Roy and Co. own these tunes. 

As a result, it doesn't really matter if you are familiar with these cuts off of BleachNevermindIn Utero, or Unplugged (though this record will probably blow the minds of hardcore Nirvana fans)--the tracks here sound as if they had been originally written as reggae songs (which reminds me--embarrassingly--of when I was a teenager in the '80s and heard Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" on the radio in Memphis, of all places, and thought, "that's a really good cover of the English Beat!"). Almost from the start, you realize, "Courtney, we're not in Seattle any more!" when the horn line in "Dive" abruptly shifts to incorporate the "Real Rock" rhythm, as if to boldly plant the Rasta colors and claim this territory in the name of Reggae. Clearly, album producers (who came up with this concept in the first place) Prince Fatty and Mutant Hi-Fi put much thought and care into adapting these songs to the reggae idiom. For proof, check out "Come As You Are's" eerie, dubby, Welson organ opening (from the bass line in Nirvana's original, which itself was pilfered from Killing Joke's stunningly furious "Eighties") or the bouncy "Is This Love" Bob Marley-ish arrangement of "Polly" (kind of ironic, since love certainly isn't in the equation here). Even the disposable sexual relationship of "About a Girl" ("I'll take advantage/while you hang me out to dry") is given an almost majestic context with these expansive, echo-throughout-the-landscape horn lines.

One of the other immediately striking things is that you can actually understand Cobain's often difficult, painful, and brutal lyrics (about abusive relationships, severe alienation, drug addiction, and deeply damaged minds), which Little Roy presents in a very straightforward, drama-free manner that's quite effective (the lyrics pack a devastating Joe Frazier punch all by themselves). In the bleak and ugly recounting of what one assumes was Cobain's mercurial, co-dependent relationship with Courtney Love in "Heart Shaped Box," Little Roy deftly brings out the humor of the "Hey!/Wait!/I've got a new complaint" chorus after heavy lyrics like "Throw down your umbilical noose/so I can climb right back" (yes, the heart-shaped box here is her uterus). "Polly"--with its horrific sexually sadistic subtext--comes across as more pathetic and mournful than malevolent and cruel. Little Roy's delivery on "On a Plain"--about a stuck-in-neutral, self-aware, but self-centered heroin user--is perfectly blase and non-commital--even blissed-out ("I love myself/better than you/I know it's wrong/so what should I do?/I'm on a plain/I can't complain"). "Come As You Are" (originally addressed to Nirvana's fans) is probably the closest to the ska/reggae ethos of acceptance and tolerance: "Come doused in mud/soaked in bleach" (and you definitely believe Little Roy's sincere when he states he doesn't have a gun hidden behind his back--Cobain did, but it was only to be aimed at himself).

Just in case you're wondering, Nirvana's (now cliched) signature alternating soft-and-melodic verse/blaring-crunch-blast chorus song structure is (wisely) abandoned--it's just not a reggae thing. All of Nirvana's bellowing rage is sublimated--reggae doesn't wear its anger on its sleeve like punk or grunge. It's expressed through supremely confident, never-faultering righteous indignation--a deadly cool, slow burn (captured best here as Little Roy sings "Lithium's" defiant in-the-face-of-madness chorus: "I like it/I'm not gonna crack/I miss you/I'm not gonna crack/I love you/I'm not gonna crack/I saved you/I'm not gonna crack").

One last comment about this album's sound: Battle for Seattle's super warm production by Prince Fatty and Mutant Hi-Fi conveys a clarity and immediacy that are really best heard through a proper stereo from a CD or LP. You'll miss way too much in the compressed Mp3 format playing through your computer speakers or earbuds. Go old school with this one. Little Roy's Battle for Seattle takes all kinds of wild risks in covering Nirvana's almost sacred songbook, but ends up triumphing big time. There are mighty few reggae records this year that can match the full-on glories of this one.  

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Originally published on November 11, 2011.

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