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.

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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.

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Thursday, January 6, 2022

Duff Review: Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem "Mi Vida Sin Tu Amor" b/w "I'm A Man"

The cover features an illustration of Laurel Aitken in a suit, pork pie hat, and sunglasses with a microphone in his hand.
Liquidator Music
7" picture sleeve vinyl single/digital
2022
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Following hot on the heels of their "Second That Emotion" EP (which I reviewed here), the Smoke & Mirrors Soundsystem--a rotating group of ska superstars under the musical direction of Unsteady's John Roy--rolls on with a fantastic new single featuring covers of songs by Laurel Aitken and the Spencer Davis Group. Aitken's schmaltzy but sweet Latin/rocksteady track "Mi Vida Sin Tu Amor" ("My Life Without Your Love") from his 1999 album En Español (I reviewed its 2019 reissue here) with The Bandulus' Jeremy Peña on vocals is a lovely tribute to the magnificent Godfather of Ska, and something to put on for a romantic slow dance with a special someone ("And now that you are next to me/I will never, never leave you/I don't want to live my life/Without your love"). On the flip side, the Spencer Davis Group's 1967 blues-rock hit "I'm a Man" is transformed into an awesome to behold funky reggae cut, with The Aggrolites' Jesse Wagner singing and Roger Rivas on keys--and everyone involved convincingly sells over-the top lyrics like these:

I got to keep my image
While suspended from a throne
That looks out upon a kingdom
Full of people all unknown

Who imagine I'm not human
And my heart is made of stone
I never had no problems
And my toilet's trimmed with chrome

I'm a man, yes I am
And I can't help
But love you so, no no


And since tomorrow, January 8, 2022, would have been David Bowie's 75th birthday, I'd be remiss if I didn't point you to a preview of Smoke & Mirror's terrific early reggae version of "Let's Dance," which will hopefully see a physical release at some point this year!

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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Duff Review: Rhoda Dakar "The Man Who Sold The World" b/w "The Man Who Dubbed The World"

The cover illustration depicts a teenage Dakar sitting on the floor, listening to a record on a turntable, and surrounded by LPs on the floor. In her hand, she holds a copy of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World" album.
Sunday Best
7" picture sleeve vinyl single/digital
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

In celebration of what would have been his 75th birthday (January 8), David Bowie acolyte Rhoda Dakar has released a great reggae cover of "The Man Who Sold The World" that captures the wonderful grandiosity, drama, and tension of Bowie's 1970 original, while recasting it so fits right in with her recent output (see my review of her "Everyday Is Like Sunday" single). The song also takes on another dimension in these gender-fluid times, since Dakar doesn't alter the pronouns in the lyrics--which are about a man meeting his spiritual or corporeal twin/self (read a fascinating analysis of this song at Pushing Ahead of the Dame); though it should be noted that Bowie and his Pin Ups-era band backed Lulu's 1974 cover of this track, too (which Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced). The repeating guitar riff of the original (performed by Ronson) is replaced here by Joff Watkins' harmonica--a fantastic touch--and celebrated reggae keyboardist Roger Rivas also contributes keys. Lenny Bignell's warm production and dub are excellent, as always. And Pete McKee's Clash-referencing cover art tops off a fine, heartfelt tribute to the Thin White Duke.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Duff Review: X-O-DUS "English Black Boys" (reissue with bonus tracks)


Factory Benelux
2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Factory Records was much more synonymous with legendary UK post-punk acts like Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio, and Durutti Column, in 1980 Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus released the first and only reggae release on the label (with a instantly recognizable sleeve by in-house Factory graphic designer Peter Saville) from ace Mancunian reggae act X-O-DUS. "English Black Boys b/w "See Them A' Come" was produced by the extraordinary Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell and featured Janet Kay (of "Silly Games" Lovers rock fame--another Bovell production) on back-up vocals. The band, which was founded in 1977 and played a number of Rock Against Racism and post-punk bills (including several Factory shows) in Manchester over the years, became one of a number of excellent, late '70s home-grown Black UK reggae acts, alongside Matumbi (Bovell's band), Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, Black Slate, and others.

X-O-DUS was brought to Factory's attention by Joy Division (and later New Order) manager Rob Bretton, which was immediately interested in working with the band (Tony Wilson: "Factory and Rob were always obsessed with the black music scene in Manchester"). Even though these tracks were recorded in spring of '79, X-O-DUS' single wasn't released until fourteen months later, due to delays in both Bovell and Factory's production schedules. Nonetheless, the record received positive reviews in Sounds, Melody Maker, and NME, and did quite well on the independent singles charts (John Peel dug it). A follow-up 7" single and LP with Factory was agreed upon, though with the condition that X-O-DUS produce the recordings themselves, as they didn't feel that Bovell's extended, dubby versions of their songs accurately represented their tighter and more rock and jazz-influenced live sound. While the band recorded seven songs for their debut album in 1980 at Drone studio, Factory's resources for the remainder of that year were devoted to capitalizing on Joy Division's success (and their transition to New Order, post-Ian Curtis). By 1981, X-O-DUS had split (with some members going on to form reggae act Partecs), and their album was shelved by Factory (the Drone tracks first emerged on CD in 2012 and can be listened to here; this reissue is the first time five of those terrific cuts have been released on vinyl).

Dubbed "rainy day reggae" (a nod to their gray, crumbling industrial necropolis), X-O-DUS' two tracks for their fantastic Factory debut single were concerned with the experience of being a native Black Briton at a time when many of your White countrymen refused to recognize you as a fellow citizen and human being. Written in reaction to the rise of the fascist National Front, the sparse, rootsy "English Black Boys" is about questioning one's identity and place in society--being literally disoriented--when your mother country rejects you based solely on the color of your skin.

My skin is black
What difference is that?
We're an English breed
With an English dream

My school days were innocent and smooth
It's where I learned all the English rules

But now that I'm a man
An English black man
But now that I'm a man
I don't know who I am

Now they talk about repatriation
To make this country an all-English white nation...


Similarly, the heavier and more combative "See Them A' Come" (not a Culture or Misty in Roots cover) is a defiant response to the oppressive stop-and-frisk policing of young Black Britons via the despicable Sus laws, where the state expressed its racism by giving the coppers the legal cover to regularly harass and humiliate Black people for merely existing--see the movie 1980 Babylon. (Sus allowed the police to stop and search anyone an officer merely suspected was behaving in a criminal manner and that they suspected had the intent to commit an arrestable offense.) 

I see them a' come every day
But I not go run
Said, I see them come every day
But I not go run

For every day I say
There is war
But policeman going to learn
That with war he's got to stay far

'Said only the innocent suffer
The wicked they always recover


The Drone demo tracks (which are much more polished than many typical demo tapes) certainly reinforce the notion the X-O-DUS was justifiably unhappy with Bovell's production. All of the cuts here are punchier and showcase other facets of band's sound, including some spectacular Lovers rock ("Take It From Me") and amazing post-punky reggae that's not too far afield from The Ruts and New Age Steppers

"Society" is certainly a comment on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's regressive conservative policies that favored the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else (she privatized many government services and industries, made deep cuts to the social safety net--during a time of record unemployment--and waged war on the unions).

What we want is equal opportunity
Times are changing
Not for the better, but for the worse
The rich keep on making all the money
For them, their days are always sunny


The Basement 5-sounding "Leaders"--which should have been the lead single off this album--advocates for solidarity in the wake of Thatcher's cruelty and indifference:

The people are fighting for freedom
The government opposes, they don't see them
Three million unemployed--who's gonna save us?
The thing we should do is love one another

So what are we gonna do, now that the time is near?

Anyone interested in '80 Black UK reggae--that sounds just as vital and relevant over 40 years later--shouldn't sleep on this essential reissue.

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