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

(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!

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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
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).

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