Friday, June 17, 2022

Duff Review: Smoke & Mirrors Sound System featuring Roy Ellis "More Than Unites" & "Dub That Unites" b/w Smoke and Mirrors Sound System featuring Monty Nesmith "Start All Over" & "Dub All Over"

10" color vinyl record (blue, red, and
The cover painting features Monty Neysmith wearing sunglasses and a cap.
black)
Jump Up Records/Grover Records
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

John Roy and the rotating cast of all-star ska musicians in his Smoke & Mirrors Sound System continue to be on a tear, reliably producing some of the best new ska and reggae music around. The latest proof of this is the stunning double A-sided 10" single that (sort of) reunites two of Symarip's main players, Roy Ellis and Monty Neysmith, both of whom have been releasing their own music as of late.

The magnificently fierce rockers-like cut "More Than Unites" (music: John Roy/lyrics: Tony Devenish of Rebelation UK) features Roy Ellis toasting and Dan Vitale of Bim Skala Bim singing of brother/sisterhood and solidarity in the face of fascism and hate. 

"Don't separate us by our language
For it's the same air that we breathe
No division by color or heritage
Where the skin cuts still it bleeds

For we are all one people
Under one sun and sky
And there is more that unites us
Than divides you and I"

I don't know about you, but in these days of unprecedented selfishness, lust for power, and never-sated greed that threatens to destroy everything (people, nations, the planet), I need as many songs like this as I can get my hands on (I've been listening to a lot of '80s-era Billy Bragg lately, like the Between the Wars and Accident Waiting to Happen EPs).

With "Start All Over" (music: John Roy/lyrics: Monty Neysmith), Neysmith sings--in a terrifically impassioned performance--of surrendering, regrouping, and giving things another go. In this wonderful rocksteady hymn to hope, resilience, and grit, failure is okay if you learn from the experience--and it doesn't defeat you.

"I'm leaving this life behind
I now realize it wasn't all that kind
Today, I see the lights are shining so bright
And it tells me everything is gonna be alright

I'm gonna pick myself up
Dust myself off
And start all over again"

In addition to all of the stellar musicians on these tracks (including Matt Parker, Eric Abbey, Victor Rice, Buford O'Sullivan, and many more), the great Roger Rivas not only worked his keyboard magic here but did the boss mixes and compelling dubs.

Whoever's keeping tally, add this 10" to the list of best new ska and reggae releases of 2022...

+ + + +

For more about Smoke & Mirrors Sound System, read my reviews of their recent releases:

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Duff Review: The Untouchables "Hooked on a Feeling" b/w "Hooked Dub"

The picture disc artwork features an illustration of a rude boy playing a guitar and kicking one leg up in the air.
Artwork by CHema Skandal!
7" vinyl picture disc single
Jump Up Records/Specialized Records
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Originally recorded for Specialized Records' 2020 charity comp Blockbuster: A Tribute to Glam Rock (but it was delivered too late for inclusion), The Untouchables' new picture disc single is a cover of ("Suspicious Minds" composer) Mark James' "Hooked on a Feeling," which was recorded by BJ Thomas (1968), Jonathan King (1971), and Blue Swede (1974)--and received new life in the 21st century courtesy of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie soundtrack. While it seems like a stretch to put "Hooked on a Feeling" on a glam comp--this is a mega-catchy AM-radio pop track, after all--Blue Swede was tagged as a glam rock band and their version of this song (based on Jonathan King's 1971 arrangement) was a smash hit in the US, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands.

The Untouchables' excellent, straight-up sincere take on this song is in the same vein as their 1985 hit "What's Gone Wrong?" (which UB40 wanted to buy from them before The UTs recorded it). But the UTs' crack rhythm section and horns really give "Hooked on a Feeling" some real umph--something that's even more evident on "Hooked Dub." Rude boys want to convey messages of love, too, but don't have to be soft about it.

Long-time UTs fans, no doubt, will remember and have collected several picture disc singles ("Free Yourself," "I Spy for the FBI," and "What's Gone Wrong?") spun off The Untouchables' Wild Child LP (which was also released as a picture disc). Their UK label Stiff Records was mad about this format and always paid such brilliant attention to the design of their releases and merchandise. Jump Up notes that "Hooked on a Feeling" is the first Untouchables picture disc released in 37 years. Let's hope we don't have to wait nearly as long for more UTs recordings, 'cause right now they sound so damn good!

+ + + +

To read more about The Untouchables, check out The Duff Guide to the Untouchables. Also see my introductory chapter "1985: The Year American Ska Broke" to Marc Wasserman's book Ska Boom: An American Ska & Reggae Oral History.

+ + + +

Friday, June 10, 2022

Duff Review: Victor Romero Evans "At the Club" b/w The Detonators "Lift Off" reissue

The paper label indicates the song title, band, and label (Special Request)
12" vinyl single
Special Request
1980 (2022 reissue)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Remastered and reissued for the first time since 1980, the John Collins-produced/co-written 12" single featuring Victor Romero Evans' "At the Club" and The Detonators' "Lift Off" should be of interest to Specials' fans, as it's forever linked to their most brilliant release--the Ghost Town EP.

Back in the day, after the Evans/Detonators record was played on Radio One's "Roundtable" program and favorably reviewed (it also was #1 on Black Echoes' reggae chart at the time), Collins received a late-night call from Jerry Dammers asking him if he might be interested in producing The Specials' next recording. The band was very impressed with Collins' production (recorded on a four-track in the front room of his house and released on his own label) and, in the wake of More Specials' not completely welcome excursion into muzak/lounge and the hi-tech 24-track studio it had been recorded in (that offered Dammers too many choices!), The Specials wanted to capture a more authentic reggae sound for these new songs in a much simpler fashion. And they believed Collins was their man.

When The Specials' met John Collins, they didn't expect him to be white. Lynval Golding and Neville Staple told him, "We were expecting someone like Lee Perry; a wild rasta smoking ganja." Indeed, the seductive Lovers Rock of "At the Club" and mysterious outer space dub of "Lift Off" seem as if they could have come from the mixing desks of Dennis Bovell or Mad Professor, two of the top UK reggae producers back then--and now. (Trainspotters will be interested to know that Victor Romero Evans also played the part of Lover in Franco Rosso’s stellar 1980 film Babylon--an updated Thatcher-era The Harder They Come shot in South London, with a boss reggae soundtrack by Bovell, Yabby U, I-Roy, Cassandra, Aswad, Vin Gordon, and Michael Rose.)

Of these two tracks, the wonderful dub instrumental "Lift Off" is clearly the sonic blueprint for what Dammers wanted for "Ghost Town." It sports a clean, warm, roots reggae sound with electro percussion and trippy synth effects (shades of every B 1950s sci-fi film you've ever seen)--and features the same ghost synth that is later used to open and close "Ghost Town." (To these ears, John Bradbury's drumming on "Ghost Town" and "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" sounds like its programmed, even though it's not; but I think it's a combination of how Brad is drumming--reportedly influenced by Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse"--and how Collins recorded him.)

Specials' completists will want to snap up a copy of this (I ordered a copy through Juno.co.uk), but the Victor Romero Evans "At the Club"/Detonators "Lift Off" 12" is worth having in its own right. It's a fantastic slice of early '80s UK reggae that stands the test of time. 

+ + + +

Thursday, June 9, 2022

NYC Ska Calendar #4, Spring/Summer 2022

Friday, June 17, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Members of The Beat dressed in Harrington jackets, sport coats, and jean jackets are lined up along a fence facing the camera.
Strictly love and unity with The Beat

Subway to Skaville presents: The Freecoasters, Beat Brigade, Donut City (plus DJ Ryan Midnight & DJ Duff Guy)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

+ + + +

Friday, July 8, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Vive Murak 2022 with Royal Club with special guest Deals Olan, Tone Zone Ska, The End Times, Mutate plus Boss Selektah Diana and DJ Garrido

Soverign
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$30/18+
Info: (929) 414-3586

+ + + +

Friday, July 15, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: Dunia & Aram's "Bedfellows" album release party, plus Bachslider, and TBA (pluse DJ Ryan Midnight and Boss Selektah Diana)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

+ + + +

Saturday, July 23, 2022 @ 7:30 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: Buford O'Sullivan & The Roosters, Ensamble Calavera, Not From Concentrate (plus DJ Ryan Midnight)

Bar Frieda
801 Seneca Avenue
Ridgewood (Queens), NY
$10/21+

+ + + +

Tuesday, August 2, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

DJ Gorilla presents One Last Ska Punky Reggae Party featuring Joystick, Skappository, Dub Corps, and Eric Daino

Bar Frieda
801 Seneca Avenue
Ridgewood (Queens), NY
$10/21+

+ + + +

Saturday, September 24, 2022 @ 6:30 pm (boat departs at 7:00 pm sharp!)

The Pietasters

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
Skyport Marina
2430 FDR Drive (at 23rd Street)
Manhattan, NY
$39.99/21+

+ + + +

Wednesday, September 28, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Hollie Cook

Elsewhere
599 Johnson Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$29.46/16+

+ + + +

Monday, June 6, 2022

Duff Review: Norwood, Angelo, and Chris Meet Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards "Too Many Dues" b/w Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards "Mercy"

The 45 sleeve features photos of Norwood, Angelo, Chris, and Eric.
7" vinyl single/digital
Bopaganda! Records & Tapes
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Fishbone's 1988 masterpiece Truth & Soul was largely an exposition on what it was like to be a Black American living in an unrelentingly racist America (see most of Truth & Soul's side two: "One Day," "Subliminal Fascism," "Slow Bus Movin' (Howard Beach Party)," "Ghetto Soundwave," and "Change"). When the album was recorded, a lot of the good that had resulted from the brutally hard work of the Civil Rights Movement and America's attempts at building an equitable and just Great Society was being rolled back during the regressive Reagan '80s. "Slow Bus Movin' (Howard Beach Party)," in particular, was written and recorded in response to the horrific 1986 death of New Yorker Michael Griffith, who was hit and killed by a car as he attempted to cross the Belt Parkway in Queens while fleeing a mob of white teenagers trying to attack him (acts of racial terror didn't only happen in the Jim Crow South). According to The New York Times:

"The events in Howard Beach began when Mr. Griffith, a construction worker, and three black companions traveled from Brooklyn to Queens to pick up his paycheck. Their car broke down late on Dec. 19 on a desolate stretch of Cross Bay Boulevard, and three of the four began walking into Howard Beach. As they were crossing the street, they were nearly bumped by a car in which several white teenagers were riding. Racial slurs were exchanged. The teenagers, joined by other young whites, confronted the black men outside a pizza parlor, New Park Pizza, and chased them.

Timothy Grimes, who was 18, escaped unharmed. Mr. Griffith was killed by a car on the Belt Parkway. Cedric Sandiford, who was 36, was beaten with a bat and other weapons...

...Jon Lester, Scott Kern and Jason Ladone were convicted of manslaughter and assault."

Flash forward 30+ years later and--while some things have changed for the better--much has not. Members of Fishbone (Norwood Fisher, Angelo Moore, and Chris Dowd)--plus Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards--still feel compelled to write and record songs about America's unrelenting racism and its abuse and murder of Black people. The terrific "Too Many Dues"--co-written by Eric Beaumont and Norwood Fisher--is an ironically chipper ska/jump blues cut that conveys some real anguish over the high profile murder of Breonna Taylor and permanent disabling of Jacob Blake (10% of the single's profits are being donated to Black Lives Matter). But it's also about the tragic inability of America to live up to its ideals and treat all people equally in every aspect of life--and under the law (we fought a bloody civil war over it and amended the Constitution several times in attempts to do so). 

"Breonna Taylor was a healer, but the jailer
Just had to invade her, viciously assail her
Every, every day here to the cross we nail her
The great experiment is a failure

What does a brother have to do
To reap respect already due
To stop the spiteful spew
To not be turning blue?"

On the flip side is the excellent 2 Tone-ish ska track "Mercy," which is a plea for the salvation of humanity, a mantra for our thoroughly horrific times, particularly in these fragmented United States of ours: "Mercy in destabilizer stormtroop’s face/Mercy, mercy when your blood boils over/Mercy to the driver in the bulldozer." It's a mournful track, like something off the Ghost Town EP, but interspersed with joyous and hopeful funk-soul breaks in the choruses. And it's protest music that's not about casting blame, but searching for something that can heal what's broken inside of us, so we won't be at each other's throats, and might even be able to begin to start caring for one other again.

+ + + +

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Duff Review: Horace Andy "Midnight Rocker"

The cover features Horace Andy in profile with grey dreadlocks.
Vinyl LP/CD/digital
On-U Sound
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Like his superb collaborations with Lee "Scratch" Perry before his death (Rainford and Heavy Rain, which I reviewed here and here), Adrian Sherwood's latest effort with Horace Andy yields another masterpiece. Midnight Rocker is easily one of the finest albums in Andy's catalogue and certainly one of the best new roots reggae records you'll hear this year.

At 71, Sleepy's seemingly ageless voice remains in top form--always wonderfully expressive, whether conveying empathy for those suffering or passing along Jah's unyielding judgment on the wicked. He's backed by an all-star band, including Gaudi, George Oban (Aswad), Skip McDonald (Sugar Hill Records house band, Tackhead, African Head Charge), Douglas Wimbish (Sugar Hill Records house band, Tackhead, Living Colour), Horseman (Prince Fatty, Mungo's Hi-Fi, Mad Professor), and more. And Sherwood's virtuoso production--his first for Andy(!)--bathes everything in crisp warmth and life, and leaves plenty of space for Andy to do his thing.

Midnight Rocker contains a mix of new tracks and re-worked versions of Andy classics, some surely chosen for their heightened relevance today. The album opens with a fantastic rendition of Andy's plaintive "This Must Be Hell" (first released as a Tapper Zukie-produced single in 1978), Things may have been bad in the late '70s, but they have nothing on our everyone's-always-at-each-other's-throats times. This more sparse take on "Materialist" (which was originally produced and released by Niney the Observer in 1977) still packs a punch: "Material comes first in this society/You can't afford a car or a house, no one knows you" (and the track also warns of giving into vanity and acquiring too much). Andy's 1976 reggae lullaby "Rock to Sleep" is beautifully and hauntingly updated with cellos. And even Sleepy's much-revisited, Studio One/Coxsone Dodd-produced single "Mr. Bassie" is given a great new spin with this tightened-up take. (If you compare all of these versions to their originals, you'll be pleased to find that Andy has much more control of his singing, and his voice is arguably stronger and more nimble than ever.)

Like the reworked classics, Andy's new cuts are like late-night, pirate broadcasts of hope and warning--a rebel counternarrative for these entropic times. "Easy Money" (penned by Jeb Loy Nichols and Sherwood) is a melodica-driven sequel of sorts to his 1975 Phil Pratt-produced single "Root of All Evil" (key lyric: "It make friends/It break friends/Judas betrayed Christ for it!") that is an oblique critique of our capitalist way of life: "Tell me why/Did I ever start/To make money money/You did me wrong/You been cheating me/My whole life long." The stately "Today is Right Here" (by Sherwood/Nichols/Oban) reminds one that life is tenuous and fleeting, so you need to enjoy/be in the right now ("See that old black bird flying/See that fox on the run/They don't think about tomorrow/'Cause it might never come"). Despite its topic, "Careful" (by Leigh Stephen Kenny/LSK and Sherwood) is a bright and jaunty track about the pernicious disinformation we're swimming in daily ("All that glitters is not gold/All that's written is not so/Pictures, scriptures always told through the eyes of victors, all I know"). With all the turmoil, dangers, and moral quandaries to navigate these days, Andy pleads to Jah--over a Lover's Rock cut (written by LSK/Gaudi/Roydel Johnson aka Congo Ashanti Roy)--to "Watch Over Them." We need all the protection we can get.

One of my favorite tracks on Midnight Rocker is the cover of Massive Attack's "Safe from Harm" from Blue Lines. For all of Andy's past work with Massive Attack, this song from their 1991 debut--inspired by Martin Scorsese's neo-noir nightmare Taxi Driver (it's about Travis Bickle expressing his compulsion to protect the teenage prostitute Iris)--was originally sung by Shara Nelson. Yet hearing Andy singing it in this urgent, slightly futuristic dubstep-reggae setting (that rumbling bassline is ominous!), you don't think of Jodie Foster, but rather whoever means the world to you and you'd be devastated to lose: "But if you hurt what's mine/I'll sure as hell retaliate/You can free the world, you can free my mind/Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight."

While Midnight Rocker immediately appealed to me from first play on the turntable, I've been listening to it on and off for weeks now--and still don't think the album has fully revealed itself to me yet.

+ + + +

Friday, May 13, 2022

NYC Ska Calendar #3 Spring/Summer 2022

Sister Nancy sings into a microphone on stage.
Sister Nancy
Friday, May 13, 2022 @ 10:00 pm

Brooklyn Dub Club, Chapter IV: What a Bam Bam!

Sister Nancy (JA), Mungo's HiFi featuring Gardna (Scotland), Bukkah (Spain), Bent Backs Sound featuring JonnyGo Figure (BK), El Grand Latido Sound System (Colombia), Dub-Stuy & Hilla Bundem (NYC)

Brooklyn Monarch
23 Meadow Street
Brooklyn, NY
Tix: $20

+ + + +

Saturday, May 14, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Playing Dead, War Honey, Barbicide, Skappository

Ridgewood Presbyterian Church
59-14 70th Ave
Queens, NY
(Closest subway stops are the Forest Ave. M line or the Halsey St. L line)
$10/All ages

+ + + +

Friday, May 20, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

DJ Gorilla & Scenic present: Beat Brigade, Eastern Function, Sweet Babylon, Eye Defy

Bushwick Party House
1288 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10 in advance/$12 day of show
21+

+ + + +

Saturday, May 21, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Authentic Productions NYC & The Kingsland present: Hub City Stompers, The Prowlers (Montreal), The Press, The Ladrones, Execütors

Sovereign SmokeHouse
173 Morgan Ave
Brooklyn, NY
$20 adv / $25 dos
18+

+ + + +

Sunday, May 22, 2022 @ 5:00 pm

The Apple Stomp presents: Big D & the Kids Table, J Navarro & The Traitors, Sgt. Scag, Brunt of It, The Pandemics

The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
Manhattan, NY
Tix: $25/16+

+ + + +

Friday, May 27, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: Stop the Presses, Flying Racoon Suit, Stuck Lucky, Megawatt (plus DJ Ryan Midnight)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

+ + + +

Friday, June 17, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: The Freecoasters, Beat Brigade, Donut City (plus DJ Ryan Midnight & DJ Duff Guy)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

+ + + +

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Duff Review: Ska Singles Going Steady: Ska Jazz Messengers and Travelers All Stars

The cover illustration features a skinhead girl in a space suit floating in space shooting a ray gun that emits hearts at a skinhead boy in a space suit.
(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

In the wake of their incredible 2020 Introspección LP (which I reviewed here), Venezuela's Ska Jazz Messengers have released a sweet early reggae version (via Lloyd Charmers) of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions' "It's Alright" b/w their own song "Aunque Todo No Esté Bien," which translates to: "even if everything is not alright" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single/digital, Liquidator Music, 2021; ska fans in the US can order the 45 and other Liquidator releases through Beat Surrender Records in Portland, OR).

"It's Alright" was, of course, featured in the Pixar movie Soul (and was performed by Jon Batiste) and follows a string of great SJM covers of pop tracks by Pharrell Williams ("Happy"), Bruno Mars/CeeLo Green ("Forget You"), and Carole King ("It's Too Late").

+ + + +

Mexico's Travelers All Stars' new single "Love in the Stars" b/w "Weekend Lover" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single/digital, Chez Nobody Records, 2022) is another fantastic set of luminous, organ-drenched, instrumental skinhead reggae cuts (read my review of their "Reggae Gordo for Days and Extra Days!" single here). Spin these space-age reggae tracks to brighten your mood (or get in the mood) or shake some action on the dance floor!

+ + + +

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Duff Review: Perkie & The Co-operators "(Mumma Was a) Bankrobber" b/w "Dubbers Delight"

The single's paper label includes the Happy People Records logo, as well as the name of the act and title of the song.
(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

I'm always crazy for well-done Clash covers and the boss new single from Perkie & The Co-operators, "(Mumma Was a) Bankrobber" (7" vinyl single, Happy People Records, 2022), is no exception. According to Tony Fletcher's book The Clash: The Music That Matters, after London Calling--which was a bit too America-centric and American-sounding for many UK fans and some in the British music press (though the record was a bit hit in the USA because of it all)--The Clash intended to release a series of singles in 1980 in the UK to placate all the disgruntled naysayers.

Initially (and bizarrely), CBS refused to release "Bankrobber" as a single and only did so after it appeared on a B-side in Holland and sold rapidly as an import in UK record shops. Once it was issued as an A-side in the UK, it shot up the charts to the #12 position. Sadly, The Clash decided to scrap the rest of the series of singles, even though they were vindicated in their selection of "Bankrobber." Instead, they then decamped to NYC to record the magnificent, if messy, triple-LP Sandinista.

As much as I love "Bankrobber," I have to admit to never examining the lyrics of this song closely (I could always make out the chorus, but Strummer's oftentimes ragged enunciation obscured some of the verses for me--I always thought "someday you'll meet your rocking chair" was "someday you'll meet your rocketeer" and couldn't make out the rest of that verse!). In addition to being another in a long string of Clash rude boy/rebel/outlaw-glorifying tracks (see "Guns on the Roof," "Rudie Can't Fail," "Guns of Brixton," "I Fought the Law," and many others), "Bankrobber" slips in a fiercely anti-capitalist message about the exploitation of workers--which sort of provides a rationale for the banditry, but definitely gives it much more depth and meaning. (And the bankrobber's gender has been switched for this cover because women can be just as equal opportunity bad-ass and rebellious as men...)

Mumma was a bankrobber
But she never hurt nobody
She just loved to live that way
And she loved to steal your money

Some is rich, and some is poor
And that's the way the world is
But I don't believe in laying back
Sayin' how bad your luck is

So, she came to jazz it up
Never learned to shovel
Break your back to earn our pay
Don't forget to grovel

Old girl spoke up in a bar
Said, "I never been in prison
A lifetime serving one machine
Is ten times worse than prison"


Perkie's laid-back/matter-of-fact and almost delicate delivery can be read as world-weary--certainly not a bad thing since it contrasts so well with the crisp, bright 'n' brisk music underpinning it.

The flip, a take of sorts on "Rockers Delight," is a sweet dub version of the A-side, with long instrumental stretches ripe for toasting over when the soundsytem is set up, should anyone be up to the task.

+ + + +

Additional reading: Check out my reviews of Perkie & The Co-operators' "Concrete, Steel, and Stone" single, The Co-operators & Friends' LP Beating the Doldrums, and the Phoenix City All-stars' LP Clash Version Rockers

Fun fact: Tony Fletcher also wrote the liner notes that appear on the back of The Toasters' Thrill Me Up LP.

+ + + +


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Duff Review: Out of Control Army "From Mexico to the World"

The cover illustration features a cat headed version of The Specials' Walt Jabsco leaning on a Vespa scooter in front of a wall of speakers.Black or white vinyl LP
Jump Up Records
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

By all indications, the Mexican ska scene is massive, and the reason you've seen top name ska acts (like Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Madness, The Selecter, and Bad Manners) bypass much of the US in favor of playing festivals there. With this in mind, Jump Up's Chuck Wren, who seems to have his finger on the pulse of every ska scene, has just released a killer new compilation from Mexico City's Out of Control Army (led by Deals Olan, who's played with The Toasters and Bad Manners) titled From Mexico to the World

For this release, Wren selected some of the best cuts from Out of Control Army's three most recent albums (Cat Nation (2018), The Spooky Ska Orchestra (2019), and Una Noche En Las Piramides (2021)) that reflect the band's love of--and great proficiency in---British 2 Tone and '60s Jamaican ska. Highlights include brass-heavy, Scofflaws-like original instrumentals like "El Chulo" (which features a beautiful piano intro; its title translates to 'bad-ass,' among other meanings), "One Note Samba," and "Tenor Madness"--and the pumped-up, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra ska-jazz of "Lilith." 

Out of Control Army also ratchets things up with raucous, knees-up 2 Tone ska tracks, such as "Unity" (with King Hammond--who declares, "we are living in troubled times, what the world needs now is love, love and unity!"--and Los Furios), "We Do The Ska" (with Neville and Sugary Staple, and members of Oreskaband and Kingston Rudieska), and "Global Ska." There's even some lounge-y, Rat Pack ska with their cover of "Just a Gigolo" and the big band-sounding "My Darling."

All in all, Out of Control Army's From Mexico to the World is a blast and shouldn't be missed!

+ + + +

Bonus cut: Check out Checkerphil, the host of the long-running Manhattan cable access music show Checkerboard Kids, along with Deals Olan and Daniela from Inspecter 7, in the new Out of Control Army video for "Dance Jerico!" that was shot on various locations in NYC.

+ + + +

Monday, April 25, 2022

Duff Review/Ska Singles Going Steady: Eric Blowtorch & The Bodyguards, King Kong 4, Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
The cover features an illustration of the palm-side of a hand with light radiating from it.

Eric Blowtorch is always doing interesting and unconventional things out in his home base in Milwaukee. For the past decade or so, Blowtorch has been on my radar with incredible releases like 2018's 12" EP Horace Andy backed by Welders "Straight To Hell" and Big Youth backed by Welders "Pair of Dice" b/w Horace Andy v. Big Youth "Asylum Seekers" and Eric Blowtorch "Christmas in Ladbroke Grove" (read my review here) and 2021's triple LP (!) Quality Items (read my review here). But I feel like a dope for not realizing much sooner that I've heard his stuff going back to the '90s with his involvement with Highball Holiday (who released an album on Moon's Ska Satellite Records imprint that I ran and were featured on my comp Skarmageddon 3; and Highball Holiday are now back in action, by the way!).

With an opening guitar riff borrowed from Andy & Joey's "You're Wondering Now," Blowtorch & co.'s great digital single "Sanctuary City," is about welcoming refugees on America's southern border fleeing dictatorships and drug gangs ("Come one, come all/Lift your heart/Crack open the wall/Gunmen on the other side/But maybe love and amnesty, too/Sanctuary city opens/Millions of arms to you"). This track, released just weeks into Russia's appalling invasion of Ukraine, takes on even more significance with millions more people fleeing chaos, death, and destruction in their home countries. The question remains if America can ever find its bearings again to champion human rights and fully welcome and embrace large numbers of refugees from around the world, no matter what their color or religion. ("You're wondering how you should pay/For the way you did behave," indeed.) A portion of this single's proceeds is being donated to the International Rescue Committee, which was founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein (a refugee himself) to help people fleeing fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

+ + + +

It's really heartening to see singer/songwriter extraordinaire Mitch Girio return with new music from his incredible King Kong 4. It's been two years since Punch It, KK4's brilliant compilation of singles, was released by Jump Up (read my review here), and during this period Girio suffered from a virus that caused some sort of brain injury. Thankfully, he's recovered and back in action. This time out, in his fantastically searing "Paper Sky" digital single, Girio sings about an embattled relationship where there's no shelter from the biting lyrics or the metaphorical bombs that rain from above (I can't help from associating this song with nuclear war with Putin's recent threats to use the bomb):

Here we go as we run for cover
Somewhere underneath a paper sky
Is there a place that's the same for lovers
Who never really try?

And you will give your word
Then try to break it


This ska-rock track--shades of Emotional Fascism (aka Armed Forces) era Costello--culminates with an unexpected and thrilling, kick-ass instrumental outro.

Girio also has contributed a hauntingly lovely cover of Umbrella Heaven's "Soulmate" ("Breaking my back for you/You never asked me to") to Perverted Pleasures, a new tribute album to this cult 1990s UK indie rock band. 

+ + + +

Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem's quest for world dominance continues with a cracking new single released on Steady Beat Recordings. (If you don't believe me, check out the slew of records that have come out since their debut 2021 album Strength in Numbers--singles on Badasonic ("Second That Emotion" b/w "Mad World"--read my review here), Liquidator ("Mi Vida Sin Tu Amor" b/w "I'm a Man"--read my review here), and a forthcoming 12" on Jump Up Records featuring Roy Ellis and Monty Nesmith.) As Luis Correa's Steady Beat often focuses on Latin sounds, Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem's new 7" picture sleeve single features two super crisp Spanish-language Latin ska cuts: John Roy's original "Nadie Te Lo Hizo" b/w a cover of Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe's 1973 salsa cut "El Dia de me Suerte." The theme running through this release is essentially that you should seize the day (side A's title in English is "Nobody Did It To You"; the flip is "My Lucky Day," a tale of passivity in the face of life-long woe: "Soon my lucky day will come/I know before my death/My luck will surely change"). With a never-ending pandemic, worsening global warming, and the looming specter of WWIII, it's probably time to lead your best life while you can. Everybody's got an expiration date.

+ + + +

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Duff Review: The Clash & Ranking Roger "Rock the Casbah" b/w "Red Angel Dragnet"

The cover features a young, smiling Ranking Roger wearing a wide-brimmed hat.Editor's note: On May 20, 2022, Sony/BMG is releasing an limited edition, picture sleeve 7" single of "Rock the Casbah" b/w "Red Angel Dragnet" that features The Beat's Ranking Roger (RIP) toasting over these cuts. Previously, these tracks only have been available as bootlegs, one of which I reviewed back in 2013. So, I'm reposting this review for anyone who may be interested in picking up the legit version. I should also mention that an expanded 3xLP and 2XCD version of The Clash's Combat Rock with a few unreleased cuts is being issued at the same time.

Ska Boots Series
2013
Fuschia vinyl 7" record (with Go Feet paper label)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

God, if these two tracks had seen the light of day back in 1982--say on a 12" single, which were all the rage in the 80s--my head probably would have exploded from the sheer euphoria of experiencing this union of The Clash and The English Beat (two of my favorite bands, both then and now). Truth be told, I didn't even know that these demos existed until I read about them in the Marco on the Bass blog last summer. But it makes complete sense that some sort of collaboration was inevitable between these bands, as they both loved and successfully mined similar musical territory in ska and reggae.


Whether due to some wonderful cosmic coincidence or a brilliant pairing concocted by an unusually savvy promoter, The Clash and The Beat shared the stage for seven shows in Paris at the Theatre Mogador in September 1981 and the bands got on so well that The Clash invited Ranking Roger to toast during their covers of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" for the duration of the Paris residency (and a few years later, Mick Jones joined Dave Wakeling's and Ranking Roger's post-Beat group, General Public, though he almost immediately departed to form Big Audio Dynamite with Don Letts). When it came time to record The Clash's follow-up to the extraordinary Sandinista, Strummer and Jones invited Ranking Roger to toast on two of their new cuts, "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah." Initially, the title for this post-Vietnam War-obsessed double album was Rat Patrol from Ft. Bragg and Mick Jones handled all of the producing and mixing. However, when the rest of the band heard the results, they were less than thrilled--and classic rock pro Glyn Johns, who had produced albums for The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Eagles, amongst others, was brought it to finish the job (with only Strummer at his side). In the process, the double album was culled down a single LP and retitled Combat Rock (and the Rat Patrol mixes were later repeatedly bootlegged and now can be found, of course, on the internet).

The unnamed Brits behind the Ska Boots series (which has released ska and reggae covers/tracks by Joe Strummer, Amy Winehouse, The Specials, Madness, Lily Allen, No Doubt, Billy Bragg, Ian Dury, The Pogues, Jools Holland, Eddie Vedder, and a pre-Madonna Madonna) have released Mick Jones' demo mixes of the sweet, dubby extended versions of "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah" with Ranking Roger toasting over these cuts. While the sound quality is what you would expect for a demo--and Roger's vocals aren't fully integrated into the mix of these songs, they're riding on top--I doubt most Clash/Beat fans will mind, since it's so cool to have these versions in such a nice, tangible package. (Cheeky of them to use the Go Feet paper label for this bootleg, but it works well and in plays out a crossover fantasy that I'm sure exists in many a fan's mind.)

Of the two cuts here, the "Taxi Driver"/Guardian Angels/Jack the Ripper mash up "Red Angel Dragnet" works better; there's more menace in Roger's chatting and vocal effects--and it's far more effective than Kosmo Vinyl's Travis Bickle imitation (though here I miss his recitation of "One of these days, I'm going to get myself organizized" that appears right before the end fade of the Combat Rock version of this song). Also, the loping song structure of "Red Angel Dragnet"--somewhere between reggae and rockabilly, courtesy of Paul Simonon's songwriting--lends itself better to a dub version and gives Roger the space to do his thing. I've always had a soft spot for this deep album cut, as it taps into and reflects the seamier, lawless, and dangerous side of New York City in the early 80s (and celebrates a movie that revels in it) that was very real to me. I was seeing Curtis Sliwa's red windbreaker and beret outfitted Guardian Angels (the police shooting of Guardian Angel Frank Melvin inspired Strummer's lyrics for this song) who were citizen patrolling the grimy and decrepit (but sometimes stunning) subways I had been riding alone since fifth grade beneath the burning South Bronx, back and forth between Manhattan and Yonkers, and I had survived my infrequent, but unpleasant and nerve-wracking trips through Times Square, which was packed with porno theaters and heavily populated with con artists, drug dealers, and pimps and prostitutes--all of whom were depicted pretty accurately in Martin Scorcese's vigilante movie "Taxi Driver."

Lyrically, Ranking Roger's toasting in "Red Angel Dragnet" makes reference to the horrifying January 14, 1983 London Metropolitan Police ambush and shooting of Stephen Waldorf, whom they thought was escaped prisoner David Martin (it should be noted that Combat Rock was released in May of 1982--so this track could not have been part of the pre-Glyn Johns Mick Jones mixes). Roger also refers to the very real threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation in the early 80s (a few years earlier, the UK government had disclosed that American cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were being stored on British air force bases and could be launched against the Soviets from British soil; this, of course, made England an obvious target for the Russians in the event of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers): "Di Russian, di American/Dem both have a plan/and if we no careful/They involve a England/So what's the worry?/It's the cruise missile/Cause if we not careful/We end up in a pile." Not surprisingly, Roger makes a plea for "love and unity" at the end of the song, which was a repeated (and very much worthwhile) theme during his tenure with The Beat (see "Stand Down Margaret").

Mega-hit "Rock the Casbah" (The Clash's only top 10 single in the USA)--music by Topper Headon, lyrics by Strummer that were inspired by Iran's new(ish) religious fundamentalism that severely cracked down on popular music, amongst many other things--is almost too tightly wound of a pop/dance song for Ranking Roger's toasting; the backing track is too busy and dense. Having said that, it's still a great version of this song that should have been further developed (like "Red Angel Dragnet") and released back in the day. The audience was there and eager for this kind of experimentation, though the band (Strummer, in particular) was more focused on making a more mainstream hit album that would generate the financial reward and true fame in the USA that had eluded them (see Tony Fletcher's "The Clash: The Music That Matters"). I cringed when I learned that they were opening for classic rock dinosaurs The Who at Shea Stadium in Queens on the Combat Rock tour and didn't even try to go see them because of it. It's too bad that The Clash couldn't split the difference between Strummer's rock star ambitions and Jones' desire to further explore musical avenues in hip hop and reggae (and that Topper Headon couldn't quit the drugs and rejoin the band). They should have realized both the hit pop album and released Jonesie's more experimental dub/alternate versions as related singles--and maybe this might even have kept the band together long enough to release one more great Clash album with (most of) the original band (instead, we had to settle for Big Audio Dynamite's good to great Strummer/Jones collaboration in No. 10, Upping St. in 1986).

+ + + + + 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Record Store Day 2022: Ska & Reggae Releases

The cover illustration features the members of Madness on a city street, with one of the members comically stretching out his baggy trousers.As Chuck Wren told me--and you'll see below--this year's crop of ska and reggae RSD releases are pretty "sparse" (and some of them are not being released on Saturday, April 23, but on June 18). If you want to avoid the RSD price gouging (which is likely to be even more outrageous as there are shortages of PVC and other LP supplies) and boycott the majors for bullying their way to front of the lines at the vinyl pressing plants, keep your eye out for Jump Up's surprise, non-official RSD ska releases to be announced/for sale that same day.

+ + + +

US 2022 RSD Ska & Reggae Releases

Jimmy Cliff: Follow My Mind LP (LAW Records)
Madness: Baggy Trousers 12” (BMG)
Various Artists: 100% DYNAMITE! Ska, Soul, Rocksteady & Funk in Jamaica 2 x LP (Soul Jazz)
Various Artists: Greensleeves Ganja Anthems LP (VP Records)
Various Artists: Love Is All I Bring 2 xLP (Trojan) (6/18/22 release)
Various Artists: Soul Power ’68 LP (Trojan)
Various Artists: Studio One Classics 2 x LP (Soul Jazz)

UK 2022 RSD Ska & Reggae Releases

Alpha & Omega: Tree of Life, Volumes 1 & 2 LPs (Mania Dub)
Joseph Cotton: Zoom Zoom Shaka Tacka LP (Room in the Sky)
Fun Boy Three: The Best of Fun Boy Three LP (Chrysalis) (6/18/22 release)
Madness: Baggy Trousers 12” (BMG) (6/18/22 release)
Mikey Dread: “The Gun” b/w "Jah Jah Style" 10” (Music on Vinyl)
Peter Tosh: Complete Captured Live 2 x LP (Rhino)
Various Artists: 100% DYNAMITE! Ska, Soul, Rocksteady & Funk in Jamaica 2 x LP (Soul Jazz)
Various Artists: Greensleeves Ganja Anthems LP (VP Records)
Various Artists: Love Is All I Bring 2 xLP (Trojan) (6/18/22 release)
Various Artists: Soul Power ’68 LP (Trojan)
Various Artists: Studio One Classics 2 x LP (Soul Jazz)

+ + + +

Friday, March 4, 2022

Duff Review: Flying Vipers "Green & Copper: The First Two Tapes"

The cover features an illustration of a viper with wings and its forked tongue sticking out.
Vinyl LP (green or copper vinyl)
Jump Up Records/Music ADD Records
2022

Editor’s note: Since the Flying Vipers’ first two cassette-only releases were just issued on colored vinyl for the first time by Jump Up Records and Music ADD Records, it seems like a good idea to revisit my reviews of each of these tapes! 

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

[The Green Tape; review originally published September 21, 2015] 

Brothers John and Marc Beaudette (the former on bass, guitar, and melodica; the later on drums and percussion) from Boston's mighty roots reggae outfit Destroy Babylon have teamed up with keyboardist Zack Brines from Pressure Cooker for a new dub project titled Flying Vipers--which is inspired by the incredible analog dub reggae of the 1970s and early 1980s produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry, Keith Hudson, King Tubby, Dennis Bovell, Scientist, and many others.

In seeking to capture that spirit, sound, and vision for their own original tracks, Flying Vipers recorded their instrumentals on an old-school, Tascam 8-track cassette console (and performed using vintage drums, bass, and keyboards). The final dub mix (by Jay Champany of Truth and Rights) was recorded live on the same Tascam deck, utilizing classic dub techniques and effects--and the results are really pretty phenomenal (and having Kevin Metcalfe, who has worked with David Bowie, The Clash, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Dr. Alimantando, UB40, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Prince Far I, and others, master the final mixes certainly must have helped!).

Flying Vipers' The Green Tape contains six fantastic tracks of tangibly warm, vibrant, and crisp dub instrumentals with great melodies--earworms, really--that will move your body and elevate your mood. My favorite cut here, "Beacon Street Version," features a lilting, very Rico-like trombone melody on a song that sounds like it could have been off Warieka Dub. Other great touches abound throughout the tape--from the jazzy, bell-like sound of the Fender Rhodes on the lovely "Bell Crickets," to the haunting melodica lines on the slow spooling of "Tape Hiss," as well as the urgent and slightly dangerous "Dragon Snout," to the trippy, wah-wah pedal effects on the guitar line of "Cannabaceae" (which is a family of small flowering plants including Cannabis and Humulus, or hops), and the tension on display between the relaxed sax and the hyper, almost martial percussion in "Coffee Kush" (yes, apparently a strain of coffee-flavored marijuana now exists--does one have the Pavlovian jolt from the taste of coffee, but then mellow out when the THC kicks in?).

My only complaint about this release is that I want more of it. For now, hook up your dad's old tape deck to the stereo or bid on a used Sony Walkman on eBay--and then have someone over forty show you how to insert the cassette (and enjoy)!

[The Copper Tape; review originally published on April 2, 2017] 

This is the second release from Boston's mighty Flying Vipers, which is comprised of members of Destroy Babylon and Pressure Cooker, who specialize in '70s-sounding instrumental roots reggae and dub recorded on analog equipment that reminds this reviewer most strongly of Dennis Bovell's output. The Vipers create incredible, mesmerizing dub tracks that never quite deconstruct things to the point where the tune is entirely lost--melody is everything here (like on all Bovell productions). I love this whole tape (eight cuts on the cassette), but standout tracks for me include the sublimely ethereal "Smoke and Dagger" (paging Jackie Mittoo!), the Western reggae-ish "Heady Topper Headon" (of course, named after The Clash's phenomenal drummer), and the mysterious Lee Perry-like "Return of the Living Zero" (which rely on organ, melodica, and clavinet respectively to carry each song's tune). You may think me bold, but Flying Vipers' The Copper Tape is most likely the best new dub release you'll hear all year.

+ + + +

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

NYC Ska Calendar #2 Winter/Spring/Summer 2022

Prince Buster appears in a suit in various photos, including playing some percussion and posing with several women.
The Prince
Saturday, March 19, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville & Electric Avenue present King Django, Sonic Libido, Barbicide (plus DJs Ryan Midnight and Duff Guy)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street, between Avenues A and B
New York, NY
21+/No cover (but bring tips for band bucket!)

+ + + +

Saturday, April 16, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

DJ Gorilla & Scenic Present: Ska Punky Reggae Party with Vinny & The Hooligans, Skappository, Ensamble Calavera, But, Pyrite

Bushwick Party House
1288 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
Tix: $10/21+

+ + + +

Friday, April 22, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

The Kingsland presents Mephiskapheles, Mustard Plug, Catbite

The Brooklyn Monarch
23 Meadow Street
Brooklyn, NY
16+/$20 in advance, $25 day of show

+ + + +

Saturday, May 21, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Authentic Productions NYC & The Kingsland present: Hub City Stompers, The Prowlers (Montreal), The Press, The Ladrones, Execütors

Sovereign SmokeHouse
173 Morgan Ave
Brooklyn, NY
$20 adv / $25 dos
18+

+ + + +

Sunday, May 22, 2022 @ 5:00 pm

The Apple Stomp presents Big D & the Kids Table, J Navarro & The Traitors, Sgt. Scag, Brunt of It, The Pandemics

The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
Manhattan, NY
Tix: $25/16+

+ + + +

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

NYC Ska Calendar #1 Winter/Spring/Summer 2022

Blondie singer Debbie Harry is dressed as a rude girl, with pork pie hat, white shirt and skinny tie, and flight jacket.
Debbie Harry, rude girl, 1979 (photo by Brian Aris)
Reminder: You'll need to show proof of vaccination (plus ID) for entry to these venues.

Saturday, February 12, 2022 @ 9:00 pm

Beat Brigade

The Bitter End
147 Bleecker Street
New York, NY
18+/$10

+ + + +

Saturday, February 19, 2022 @7:00 pm

Skappository, Winter Wolf (HC/punk), Barbicide

The Hideout
8415 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY
21+/No cover

+ + + +

Saturday, March 19, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville & Electric Avenue present Barbicide, Sonic Libido, + TBA (plus DJs Ryan Midnight and Duff Guy)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street, between Avenues A and B
New York, NY
21+/No cover (but bring tips for band bucket!)

+ + + +

Friday, April 22, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Mephiskapheles, Mustard Plug, Catbite

The Brooklyn Monarch
23 Meadow Street
Brooklyn, NY
16+/$20 in advance, $25 day of show

+ + + +

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Duff Review: Detroit Riddim Crew meets Crazy Baldhead "Instru-Mental"

The cover features an abstract design of spiralling circles.

Abbey Productions/Jump Up Records
12" vinyl LP/digital
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Instru-Mental, the sophomore LP from Eric Abbey's Detroit Riddim Crew, is an entirely different beast from their great debut album Detroit Riddim Crew and Friends (read my review of it here). That record featured ska-ified secular Christmas cuts on the A side and a collection of ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dancehall tracks with a rotating cast of musicians on the B. This time out, the concept is five wonderfully moody Abbey-penned ska and reggae instrumentals (acely performed by members of Mephiskapheles, J. Navarro & the Traitors, Dub is a Weapon, Monkey, Full Watts Band/Uzimon, Pilfers, Unsteady/Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem, 1592, Dirty Notion, and even a few Abbey offspring) paired with dub concoctions created by Crazy Baldhead (AKA Jayson Nugent)--and the resuts are pretty sweet.

Like its cover artwork that borrows elements from Saul Bass' graphic design work for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the songs on Instru-Mental have a filmic quality to them. "Dark Dance" sounds like the theme song to a horror movie (think "Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Evil Dead") and it would have fit in well on Mato's phenomenal Scary Dub LP. "Midnight Walk," which was unearthed after two decades in lying in Abbey's archive (or, um, crypt!), is appropriately eerie, particularly in its dub version. "Traveling" is superb Upsetters-styled early reggae and the spaghetti Western reggae "Forward" sports an awesomely dramatic surf guitar solo. And Crazy Baldhead's masterful dub work takes everything to a new level, deconstructing and reassembling the originals in all sorts of clever and electrifying ways.

Instru-Mental already makes on my list of top 2022 releases (can't wait to get my hands on the vinyl), and I look forward to listening to it repeatedly to keep me going no matter what the rest of this year brings.

+ + + +


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Duff Review: No Sports "Twang!"

A young boy sings or screams into a recording studio microphone.
Black Butcher Records
(Available in the US through Jump Up)
CD/LP
2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

For the few, proud, and brave (and ska-starved) American ska fans keeping the faith in the late '80s/early '90s, the German ska scene was a marvel to behold, even at a distance. The records from The Busters, No Sports, The Frits, El Bosso und die Ping Pongs (which yielded Dr. Ring Ding when they were done), Skaos, The Braces, The Butlers, Blechreiz (sound it out), and more (see the comp It's a Skandal) that managed to find their way to the US via Unicorn Records mailorder or specialist record shop import bins (like Bleeker Bob's) were extraordinarily good. 

No Sports' 1989 debut album King Ska--crammed full of hyper-charged, slightly demented 2 Tone ska songs about trying to get by in a mad world--was one of the finest releases of that era, and its follow-up 1990 EP Stay Rude Stay Rebel (the title track is an anti-racist/anti-fascist anthem for the ages--still applicable today!) was equally as essential (read my review of its recent reissue here; Black Butcher also reissued King Ska, too). 1992's $uccessfools had some amazing songs on it ("Summer," "Five," "Radio," and "Crazy Girl"), but overall, the album wasn't as much of a knock-out as their debut (maybe there were too many downbeat songs?).

I lost No Sports' thread for the remainder of the '90s (apparently they expanded their sonic palate to include non-ska sounds and released No Rules in 1994 and Riddim Roots An' Culture in 1998)--and they broke up in 2002. A version of the band reformed in 2005 as Nu Sports, but then officially reformed as No Sports in 2015. Twang! is No Sports' first new album since the late '90s and it's a very good one.

Like much of King Ska, there is a strong contrarian and absurdist streak running through Twang! The super catchy "Looting" is silly take on the 1960s rude boy record ("We're looting and we're shooting/We're hooting and we're footing/We're faking and we're taking...In shanty town it's all okay/You'd better stand out of my way/And call the police!"). The single off the album should be "Maybe," which swipes The Ethiopians' "Train to Skaville" riff plus a Madness lyric, and is about not caring what anyone thinks about you or what you do, since we don't have enough time in our lives to waste on all that. King Kong returns for a cameo in "The Sacrifice," a dream (or is it?) about the animal world passing judgment on humanity for its tremendous cruelty and abuse of all things great and small--and someone has to answer for all our crimes. 

Several of these tracks were clearly written in response to the pandemic. The upbeat and encouraging "No Coincidence" speaks to the "Groundhog Day"-like malaise everyone's feeling stuck in ("Don't give in to your sorrow/Don't give in to you pain/You think there is no tomorrow/And everything is in vain/See the world keeps on turning/Turns around just for you/Keep your passion burning/And I keep burning for you"). And there's nothing like a deadly worldwide plague to make you realize that "Tempus Fugit" (Latin for 'time flies'), we all have an expiration date: "Every minute, every hour/Kronos offers us the chance/So we better use the power/Live life bright and full of prance."

If you loved No Sports back in the day, Twang! doesn't disappoint. And if you like 2 Tone/modern ska but don't know the band, you should grab a copy of this and King Ska as well.

+ + + +


Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Duff Review: Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra "Tombstone"

The cover features silhouettes of a group of cowboys and the a group that represents the band in a desert setting. The sun sets in the background behind them.
Vintage Vault Records
LP/digital
2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After releasing two Skatalites tribute albums, the magnificent Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra--an incredibly gifted platoon of ska and jazz musicians led by Eitan Avineri (The Allentons)--have finally recorded an album of their own ska-jazz-big band originals (mostly written by Avineri), plus one Chris Murray cover that's been part of their live set for several years now. And, boy, it's been worth the wait. Tombstone is packed with memorable songs, features impeccable and compelling performances, and is one of the best sounding ska records in recent memory. It's a class album from start to finish.

As its title and cover art suggest, Tombstone has a loose Hollywood Western movie theme to it. Lead track "Monolith Ska" is one of several dramatic widescreen cinematic cuts (also see "Naftuli")--music that can fill the vast expanse of Monument Valley (featured in many of John Ford's Westerns), while "Tombstone" (which sounds a bit like The Specials "Vote for Me" in parts) has some menace to it, which is appropriate, since it was the location of the notorious Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Ford made a movie about it, too: My Darling Clementine). "Nostalgic Ska" is bright and chipper; "Grizzly Ska" is majestic; "Fortified" is a lovely jazzy reggae cut that could have come off Ernest Ranglin's Monty Alexander-produced Below the Bassline album; and "Sunrise from the East" is an awesome spaghetti Western ska track via the Far East.

Interestingly enough, the two cuts that don't really fit in with the theme of the album--but are great, nonetheless--are the two vocal cuts. Having said that, they're both about picking yourself up when you're in the dumps and seizing the fleeting day. It's wild to hear Chris Murray as a crooner fronting a big band singing "Moment" from his album Raw (key verse: "Hope and dreams are what we're made of/And those dreams should never die/It was given, this reason for living/Each moment the present no future can buy"). And we veer into Dean Martin/Rat Pack territory with "Habit of Happiness," co-written by The Aggrolites' Jesse Wagner and Avineri. Wagner urges the listener to rewire their brain to help survive this insane ride we're all on:

When the times, they seem tough
And you feel you've had enough
You give up and say there's nothing else that's left
To do
Oh, that ain't you
Let there be
An extraordinarily
Create that habit of happiness!


Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra's Tombstone is one of the best ska albums released in 2021, and will be high up on ska fans' playlists for years to come.

+ + + +

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Duff Review: Lucky Devil Trading Company "Exotic Exports Volume 1"

The cover features an illustration of a red, horned Maneki-neko (or waving Lucky Chinese Cat).
Self-released
Digital
2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Even though he's been involved in the NY/NJ-area ska scene since the '90s (in bands like Inspecter 7 and The Rudie Crew), Lucky Devil Trading Company is Bret Calder Curran's first solo project--backed by some of the best musicians on the ska scene (Buford O'Sullivan, John Roy, Eddie Ocampo, Agent Jay, Ali Presses, Anton Major, Spencer Katzman, and Irena Jaroszewska)--where he's written both the lyrics and music. The terrific Exotic Exports Volume 1 features his first two tracks, which boast a razor-sharp, Third Wave take on traditional ska sound married to hardcore/Lee Ving-ish vocals by Casey Eastmond--an unorthodox pairing that stands out for working so well (as it does for his other current band, The End Times, whose debut EP I reviewed here).

"The Haze" is a Tales from the Crypt-like story about seeking release from a demonic possession set to a blue beat (and the bass line, appropriately enough, reminds one of Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra").

Into the alleys of Cairo I go
Search for the man with the face no one knows
I have travelled across the world to get set free
I know there’s only one man who can help me

Another coin and I'm told where to go
A hidden den just the Mysticals know
Open the door to the man that I seek
He knows black magic that’s not for the weak

The Shaman’s found
Elixer downed
This time I know
The endless pit I go
I start to lose my grip
I feel the world has slipped
And I fall in to The Haze

The sinister and stellar Skatalites/Scofflaws horn-driven cut "Tornado" is about being the baddest MF in an unforgiving place: "Whirlwinds and room shakes/Lost lives, tough breaks/Living in this world, there’s no room for mistakes/Walking in loud, walking in proud/Rolling in…like a tornado..." Crank this one up to 11 the next time you're about to confront your fears and feel like you're about to walk through the valley of the shadow of Death.

+ + + +