(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Recording review - Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Ska Me Forever (2015)

One step back and one step beyond


Music reviews shouldn't start with a history lesson, and ska fans are already familiar with the twists and turns of how Jamaica’s interpretation of R&B evolved through the Two-Tone revival, leading to third wave’s pop punk approach. A review would come in handy in this case, though, because Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra works their way through the whole rainbow of chank beat experience on Ska Me Forever. They adroitly leap from DYI, rough punk jams to tightly arranged horn masterpieces, replete with retro pop cool. That perspective grows out of the band’s own extensive back story, starting in back 1988. While they've been a mainstay of the Japanese scene for most of that time and they've build a strong fanbase in Europe, their biggest exposure in the US has been their 2013 Coachella appearance. Ska Me Forever aims to expand on that toehold.

The Japanese have demonstrated plenty of talent for taking on jazz, classic rock, metal, and garage rock, but I wasn't quite sure how they’d do with ska. It turns out that Skapara, as their fans call them, brings a deep love for the genre, especially its older forms, but they retain a playfulness that is rooted in modern third wave ska. Except for the smattering of Japanese language across these tracks, it would be easy to imagine Ska Me Forever as the product of a SoCal band that still respected the roots. I especially enjoy how they reach beyond the obvious, such as with the opening track, “Peddlers”, which leaps from a surf guitar riff into a hyperactive Eastern European vamp, or with their jaunty cover of the mariachi standard, “Cielito Lindo”. In both of these songs, Skapara takes the natural rhythms that already favor a chop beat and they bring in other ska elements to add their own twist, like the percussive hiccup vocalization.

“Peddlers” is also a great start because it builds up a frantic energy that sets up the next track, “One Way Punk”, to propel the album forward. That fun tune blends “Blitzkreig Bop” with “I Fought the Law” and shows off sneering English vocals. Like so much of the Ramones’ work, it can’t decide whether it’s a love song or an outsider declaration of freedom. The “Hawaii 5-0” tagline wraps it up with a bit of light irony.

My favorite track on the album, though, is “Damned”, which features the DJ Fantastic Plastic Machine (Tomoyuki Tanaka). The band lays down a jazzy, spy music groove, with FPM contributing a busy mechanical percussion against the chank beat and some great glitchy breaks. The guitar fills are full of greasy twang, anchored by a bassy sax. The organ solo is phenomenal, but the tune never loses sight of the nightclub dancefloor, eventually accelerating into a full-blown “oonce” beat accented with a Latin horn line. As if that wasn’t enough, FPM added another layer of surprise, punctuating the song with a vocal sample (“Ai!”) that I thought was lifted from the intro of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. Instead, it turned out to be the start of a non-sequitur phrase, “I want more discos,” delivered in a Bart Simpson voice. This chopped and mutated cubist soundscape finally collapses, but it’s a false ending that slides right back into the original jazzy progression to take it home.

“Damned” is an extreme example, but Ska Me Forever sticks its fingers in everybody’s pies, and each time pulls out a ska plum. Even at their strangest -- Skapara’s cover of “Tennessee Waltz” is a Jimmy Smith inspired soul-gospel revival, but with jaw harp in the background -- they never lose the joy and movement that ska embodies. The bulk of the album stays on more familiar ground, with tracks like "Senkou" and "Wake Up!" capturing the party attitude of bands like Reel Big Fish and Skankin' Pickle. Ska Me Forever succeeds on several levels: it's a great introduction to the band, it shows off ska's evolution and connections to popular music, and, with songs like "Damned", it offers some ideas for taking ska into future without losing the core character.

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