The Skapones: “Cradle to Grave” Album Review

Readers of my on-again, off-again blog have probably come to realize that I only write reviews of albums that I like. Perhaps I just don’t like offending anyone, or perhaps my goal is simply to share with you good music. Why should I waste my time and yours writing about something uninspiring to me?

When I spoke to Dave Wakeling (yes, I am name-dropping) about this a few months ago, he made a rather valid point. He said something along the lines of, “Bobby, if you love everything, that makes your reviews seem less credible.” Never to argue with The King of Ska, I can only say in my defense what I opened with: I am not inspired to write about “bad” music. I am only inspired to write about music that I truly love. So, yes, it may appear that I “love” everything. Not so. I only write about it if I love it, at least for now.

And the latest record that I truly love is the debut masterpiece of The Skapones, Cradle to Grave.

Skapones

The 9-member band hails from the Tees Valley in northeast England, and they have branded their sound as “Northeast 2Tone Ska.” When I first heard three of The Skapones’ singles, two of which appear on this debut gem of an album, I found myself coming up with my own name for their unique sound: “Soulful Ska,” a mix of ska and 1960’s Northern Soul. But I’m not sure my description quite effectively captures their sound. On “Betrayal of Trust,” for example, I am transported to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” a song I have loved since I was a child. Think of a mix of “Downtown” and the classic 2Tone music of The Specials.

Speaking of The Specials, “(From) Cradle to Grave,” a single that hit #1 on the UK Reggae charts, sounds like a fresh reinterpretation of “Gangsters.” Another single that does not appear on the album, “The Ghost in Me,” harkens to the soulful and romantic style of Dusty Springfield, with rich 2Tone undertones from the horn section.

Paul Willo’s crisp, clear, and poignant tenor voice shines on this album, and his bandmates back him up beautifully, particularly that aforementioned horn section.

“The Rolling Years” kicks off the album. “I remember the crackle you only got from vinyl,” Willo plaintively and nostalgically croons. But somehow, the song is not sorrowful, with the upbeat horns leading the way to the final, hopeful lyric, “The childhood memories, how it used to be, keep me warm as time goes by.” “The Rolling Years” is a perfect beginning to the album, setting the stage for our trip down ska’s memory lane.

The aforementioned “Betrayal of Trust” is next, a song I could honestly play on repeat for an hour or two without the nostalgic smile ever leaving my face.

Just when you think you’re in store for 12 tracks of nostalgic memories, “track 3, “Benefit Street,” brings you right back to the modern reality of single mothers and hardworking immigrants. The song is unabashedly political, making a bold statement about right-wing moral corruption. I’m blown away by the unexpected electric guitar solo blazing through the middle of the song. It’s sheer brilliance.

“Masque of Anarchy” is next, and it continues the thoughtful consideration of modern political sins in the form of a rollicking, “patriotic” ska tune — quotation marks around “patriotic,” because I sense a dose of well-intended parody here. The song ends with a beautiful round and harmonies.

“My Lady” continues the carefully considered political discussion, a beautiful sax solo breaking through midway.

“From Cradle to Grave,” a well-deserved hit single, follows, and it’s an absolutely perfect homage to ska. “From cradle to grave/It’s been Ska, Two-Tone, New Wave/I’ve lived the life that I wanted to live/from cradle to grave” are perfect lyrics for a perfect song.

A lone harmonica takes us right into “JB’s body,” as we move from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to “Taps,” to an upbeat, electrified dirge. What a song! The electric guitar, the horns, the ska beat throughout … JB gets a proper send off.

The next two songs are about girls — “The Girl Inside” and “Redhead Girl.” But don’t expect predictable, cliched lyrics: expect, instead, a continuation of the intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics that permeate the album.

Back to politics, and the Tories (the song title is “T.O.R.Y.”): “they want your money and they want your soul.” At this point, I’m quite happy to give both my money and my soul to the Skapones, mostly because they have done what few others do: write intelligent lyrics set to rip-roaring ska beats. And I’ll take that trumpet solo any day of the week.

The album closes with “Captain Cutlass” and “Skapones a Go Go,” two upbeat numbers that serve as a fitting close to this instant masterpiece. I try to avoid hyperbole, but it’s almost impossible to do in this case. Cradle to Grave is an album that does the ska genre justice and then some.

However you would like to categorize the sound of The Skapones — “Northeast Ska,” “Soulful Ska,” or perhaps even “Downtown Ska” — I am confident you will file Cradle to Grave at the very top of your collection, within easy reach, to enjoy again and again and again. You might even like it so much, you decide to buy a t-shirt.

Skapones t shirt

Ghost Town Steppas, “!FROM DA FRONTLiNES!” — album review

The Ghost Town Steppas step out in a big way with their impressive, jazz-infused, reggae/ska debut album, “!FROM DA FRONTLiNES!”

Ghost Town Steppas

Clearly influenced by the 2 Tone movement and its architects — The English Beat, The Specials, and The Selecter, to name a few — The Ghost Town Steppas carve out their own masterful niche as a “4th-wave, 2 Tone” band. These reggae/ska underpinnings are further augmented with echoes of The Police and The Clash, particularly in the bass lines of songs like “She Light Mi Fire.”

Lead singer and guitarist Christian Simeon (aka “Skabz”) provides soulful, heartfelt vocals that range from a rich baritone, to a Sting-like 1st tenor, all the way to luxurious falsetto notes. The talents of saxphonist “Muggz” are prominently on display, as his soulful saxophone interludes thread their way through each and every track, often in a call and response interplay between the sax and the vocals. “Monkee” provides the aforementioned bass lines, while “Cowboy” (drums) and “Pauley” (keyboards) round out this supremely talented band.

The opening track of the album, “Steppas Tonight,” gives a great big nod to the Specials’ classic track, “Ghost Town.” This methodical, groovy opening track sets the stage for even bigger things to come.

“This Girl is Mine” is an upbeat, straight up reggae/ska track with a resplendent organ-synth line. “Lost in Love” follows an oft-repeated (and quite successful) formula on the album, starting with simple piano notes as the song slowly intensifies, adding instruments to each verse. “No Way Out” follows this irresistible formula as well, starting with a simple piano intro, adding beautiful vocals in accompaniment, and then slowly adding in the drums, a catchy guitar riff, and more of that gorgeous saxophone work.

“Kiss Me, Kiss Me” is an absolute gem, its smooth saxophone solo kicking off the song and weaving its way throughout the track. “Beatriz” give us a xylophone intro and provides some of the best lyrics on the album:  “You’re my moon and stars/you’re my history/I want to study all you are.”

The beginning of “Love Me” harkens back to the heavy-bass intro of  “Maneater” by Hall and Oates and also gives a nod to David Bowie with the lyric,  “Major Tom is in control.”  “Time Warp”  is an upbeat, energetic, catchy track with several reminders of The English Beat’s “Too Nice to Talk To.”

The pièce de ré·sis·tance is the album’s eighth track, “Finally.” The guitar intro of “Finally” immediately summons The English Beat’s glorious “Save it For Later,” while the chorus harkens back to General Public’s “Tenderness.” The rich baritone vocals are purposeful, convincing, and, quite simply, beautiful.  Lyrics like “Too many times I tried to find you/ too many drinks and too many hearts torn apart” are relatable and haunting.

Every track of “!FROM DA FRONTLiNES!” is an enjoyable journey through the history of reggae, ska, and pop, with electrifying infusions of jazz and soul. The Ghost Town Steppas have stepped impressively into the realm of the 2 Tone movement, and having firmly planted their feet, invite us take one of the most enjoyable strolls of our lives.

Ghost Town Steppas 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Persian Claws: “Mini” album review

Take equal parts jangly guitar, garage band aesthetics, California coast vibes, and a crisp female vocal you’ll immediately fall in love with.  Add two tablespoons of mid-sixties psychedelic rock.

Mix.

Persian Claws 2

Voila, you have The Persian Claws. The band’s October 2014 eponymous release, available on the Bandcamp.com music site, is a stellar effort. With no song longer than a scant 2:31, the album reminds me of my High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts: go hard for a couple of minutes, take a quick breath and a drink of water, and then go right back at it. It’s exhilarating, as is this album.

Dee Claw’s vocals are clearly the star; they cut a straight line right through the energetic guitar riffs and persistent drumming and bass. The music creates a tight circle around the tight vocals, and my hands grip the steering wheel tightly as we blast forward through the album. This is great road trip music, though I’ve got to be careful – my Mini Cooper (perfect car for this perfect album) is capable of some high intensity intervals as well.

Mini Blackjack WSU

My final take on The Persian Claws: 6 stars. Out of 5.

“The Raw Facts” by King Schascha: album review

The Raw Facts by King Schascha

Album Review, May 30, 2018

Robert E. Rubin (Bobby)

the raw facts

 

Two albums with a strong reggae vibe were released on April 20th of this year. One of them is very good. The other is quite simply outstanding.

44/876 by the somewhat unlikely, but ultimately satisfying, collaboration of Sting and Shaggy is a very good album. But we’ll talk about those two cats another day.

Today is all about King Schascha, whose own April 20th release, The Raw Facts, is every bit as satisfying as the Sting and Shaggy record, but, as the title suggests, exponentially more raw. That’s a good thing, by the way, because while Sting and Shaggy take very few risks in their project, King Schascha’s album is all about raw intensity and personal catharsis, which requires a great deal of risk to be successful. The passionate vocals and infectious beat couple to produce an outstanding record that is anything but “safe.”

Let’s first do a quick rundown of musical royalty, shall we?

  • Michael Jackson = The King of Pop
  • Elvis Presley = “The King”
  • Dave Wakeling = The King of Ska
  • Prince = his name kind of says it all
  • Queen = one heckuva band

KING schascha blog

And then, there is King Schascha.

Don’t you dare call him “Roger.” King Schascha, Toaster and singer for The English Beat, has carved out his own niche in the band. I don’t have the exact calculations at my disposal, but it’s safe to say that King Schascha has been with the band for at least as long as Ranking Roger was. That’s really where the comparisons should end, and where this paragraph should end. King Schascha brings his own brand of infectious energy and charm to The Beat. He also brings it, big time, in his solo work.

Back to the facts: The Raw Facts. This is a beautiful album. The first time I asked Alexa to play it for me, I was transfixed. “Turn Ova” is the first track, and I think it might be my favorite. This is classic reggae all the way, with King Schascha’s raw vocalizations telling us that “the old days are over.” Yes and no. The track preserves the classic reggae rhythms loved by fans of the genre worldwide, but it brings the genre squarely up to date with Schascha’s equal parts singing and persuasive toasting.

He continues the singing and toasting balance on “Long Long Road”, beginning first with a melodic chorus. The singjaying style works well again, the interplay between melody and toasting nicely in balance throughout the song.

“Rudeboy Skankin,” featuring Neville Staple, is next on the album, and it’s a huge crowd favorite at English Beat concerts. This comes as no surprise, as the danceable track juxtaposes Schascha’s trademark speed chatting with a “speed” horn section. The result is one of the most energetic tracks on the album and in King Schascha’s catalogue.

Neville Staple is not the only impressive guest to appear on the album. Sister Nancy joins “Mr. Policeman,” and Richie Spice brings a brilliant guest vocal to “Ghetto Story.” These two tracks, along with “Cold World” and “Never Give Up,” provide sharp, smart, and timely political and social commentary, something somewhat less prominent in the Sting/Shaggy collaboration.

In “Tougher Than a Congo,” in the running with “Turn Ova” for my favorite track, Schascha proclaims, “I’m looking for a queen to be my lover, so can we start it tonight?” The resulting upbeat narrative tells the timeless story of courtship under the backdrop of infectiously danceable rhythms.

Anthony B. provides strong vocals for “Holding On,” bellowing, “I keep holding on to my roots.” King Schascha follows with more of his trademark toasting in a song about being proud of one’s heritage. “Holding On” is a stellar contribution to the album.

“I See,” “Who Jah Bless,” and “How” are fine examples of classic reggae, while “Clean and Fine” adds some serious Dancehall beats. Speaking of the dancehall, “Inna Di Dancehall” closes out the album with the help of another of Schascha’s friends, Luciano.

When it’s all said and done, The Raw Facts transports listeners to the dancehalls of Trinidad, or perhaps to one of King Schascha’s energetic shows in the U.S. and the U.K. Wherever it takes you, enjoy the raw ride of real reggae. This is the genuine article.

 

“Here We Go Love” – The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling album review

dave 2018

photo credit: Les Mcluckie

Here We Go Love, The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling

Album Review by Robert E. Rubin (Bobby)

May 29, 2018

Let the Grammy buzz begin. The only question — and it’s a big one — is to which category does this long-awaited album belong? Is it pop? Reggae? Ska? Jazz? Soul? Rock? The answer, as you may have guessed, is that Here We Go Love is all of the above, and then some. This should come as no surprise to hardcore fans of The (English) Beat. After all, the first three albums defied compartmentalization. No one had quite heard music like the music of The English Beat before. Grounded in the 2Tone/Ska craze of the late 70’s England, The English Beat emerged as a band that could not be categorized into a neat little compartment. Amazingly, roughly 40 years later, Dave Wakeling and company have managed to capture the magic of 1978-1982 while confidently putting a fresh, modern stamp on the sound.

Dave Wakeling is arguably the best lyricist of the 1980’s; his smart, poignant, political, and often playful lyrics remind us that “words like conviction can turn into a sentence” (Tenderness), that “sooner or later, your legs give way, you hit the ground” (Save it for Later), and that humans “create the kind of problems only radiation cures” (Get a Job). In one of his most political moments, a kind of non-violent protest that a generation earlier the Civil Rights Movement espoused, Dave and The Beat politely but persistently ask Mrs. Thatcher to “Stand down, Margaret, stand down, please.”

These songs, musically and lyrically, have stood the test of time. Hits like Save it for Later, Tenderness, and Mirror in the Bathroom seem to have conquered time, in fact, much like Mr. Wakeling himself. Now in his 6th decade, the spry and youthful-looking Godfather of Ska, cheekbones and dimples still very much in place, continues to write poignant, passionate, and, well, fun songs.

No need for more of a history lesson about The (English) Beat. Longtime fans know the history; they know about General Public and Dave’s subsequent solo album (a brilliant record in its own right); they know about the various iterations of “The Beat” led by Dave, Ranking Roger, and drummer Everett Morton, respectively. What is important to note here is that The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling have managed something that almost no other artist ever manages to do: repeat history while simultaneously carving out a new path forward.

Here We Go Love preserves the band’s original, groundbreaking sound while offering a fresh, modern approach. It’s a delicate dance, but we’re talking about The English Beat here. You must dance when a Beat record comes on. It is physically impossible not to. So let’s dance!

The first song on the album, How Can You Stand There (no question mark, interestingly enough – this song is making a statement), picks up where Stand Down Margaret leaves off. Just as the band politely insisted that Mrs. Thatcher take a hike, How Can You Stand There asks all of us to re-examine our own role in a world that seems to be swallowing itself whole in a quagmire of environmental, political, and social destruction. Dave asks, or rather, emphatically states, “How can you stand there/when all around you is a lie/how can you stand there/and wonder why.” Lyrically, this is serious business. Musically, the song is glorious and infectiously energetic. If you don’t get up to dance to this one, you’re dead. Full stop. Ranking Full Stop. The song builds, adding layer upon layer with each verse and chorus, until the listener is pulled toward the final minute of glorious, ska-sational frenzy. Musically, you cannot stand there; it’s absolutely impossible. Lyrically, you realize that you can no longer stand by while so much is wrong with the world. Thus, How Can You Stand There is more than just getting up on your feet to dance; it’s about getting up out of your comfortable middle-class chair and making a change in the world.

The One and Only follows, and it harkens back to General Public’s first album, All the Rage, a modern-day Tenderness and Never You Done That rolled into one. GP fans will especially like this one.

Redemption Time is next, with elements of UB 40 and dancehall reggae. “You can’t say no” to this song, nor should you. This song is pure bliss, with elements of Forward as One by General Public.

If Killing Worked repeats the formula of How Can You Stand There, upbeat and very danceable music obligating your feet to move while the lyrics obligate you to examine your own political and social conscience, exactly what the best social and political music of the 1980’s – much of it written by Mr. Wakeling — did. Dave gives us a mirror (in the bathroom, perhaps?) and asks us to look directly into it: “Turn on your TV/see what we’ve done/our culture looks like a setting sun.” If Killing Worked is straightforward pop/rock, a stark but brilliant contrast to the previous reggae-infused track.

Here We Go Love gives us insight into Dave’s marvelous sense of humor and magnificent use of double-entendre: “here we go love/heavens above/ God only nose/all covered in blood.” That clever play on words is one of the few lyrics in this song to get a PG rather than R rating. But Dave clearly doesn’t give a f—.  At this point in his career Papa Dave can say and sing what he wants, and he doesn’t mince words with this one. But somehow, rather than sounding angry, the song sounds playful. I’m not sure how Dave accomplishes this, but he just does. I found myself grinning ear to ear as I sang along with a lot of words that end in –uck, -ick, and –unt”. Serious fun, this one. It would be a hit song on the radio, but, bleeping out that many words makes it problematic. Great f—ing song!

Never Die is a beautiful, touching song, and a crowd favorite at shows. This song feels like a big Papa Dave hug to his fans, a timeless gift to listeners who need a big English Beat embrace. Soft and gentle, Never Die builds into triumphant victory over sadness, rather than wallowing in sadness, embracing it and overcoming it by song’s end. “Just try to live your life like each day was your last,” Dave implores us, and we have no choice but to agree. Never Die is a testament to the fact that The English Beat’s music will indeed never die.

The Love You Give takes us by the hand for a hopeful stroll that fits as the perfect complement to Never Die.  The Love You Give reminds us that we are indeed never going to die, because “the love you give lasts forever.” Love is eternal, and although Joy Division contended that “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Dave reaffirms that love will bring us closer to immortality. Infused with gorgeous harmonies, Dave’s vocals make us believe that we will live forever, and we can feel him smiling knowingly as he sings this absolutely gorgeous song.

You Really Oughta Know is the perfect poster child for Here We Go Love:  a mix of jazz, reggae, and pop, it is immediately satisfying, with a horn section reminiscent of “Come Again” from General Public’s second album, Hand to Mouth.

You’re Stuck starts off with a hard-driving guitar riff, and it never lets up off the gas pedal. Blinding song, the band rockin’ out from start to finish.

Everytime You Told Me, with its smooth sax solo, is a bluesy tune. Both musically and lyrically, this song harkens back to to Workin’ for a Livin’ by Huey Lewis and the News, one of the best blue-collar tunes of the 80’s. “Damned if you do/damned if you don’t” are lyrics shared by both of these hardworking songs.

Dem Call It Ska brings us back to classic ska/reggae all the way: “All this and you still want more?” Dave asks, almost perplexed. Yes, we are spoiled by this Grammy-worthy album, so while we are immensely satisfied, near the end of this masterpiece of an album, we do indeed still want more.

In Drive Her Away, we get more! More pop, and it’s more than welcomed in this eclectic mix of musical mastery.

The final track is Be There For You, a reggae song with a slight calypso feel to it, reminding us that this album will be there for us, just like the other Beat albums, an instant and timeless classic that we’ll want to hear again and again and again. There’s a dignified nod to Bob Marley to close the song out. The sax solo at the end of Be There for You is something that the legendary Saxa would be proud of, all of it culminating in Whistling Wakeling’s trademark sibilance.

With Here We Go Love, Dave Wakeling and company have once again hit the Jackpot. For fans and listeners, it’s not The End of the Party, but just the beginning of a new chapter in the sublime, and uncategorizable sound that is The English Beat.

  • Robert E. Rubin is a freelance writer, English and Spanish professor, and kickboxing instructor in Dayton, Ohio.