Rootz Underground continues their roots-rock-reggae sound on their sophomore release, Gravity. The CD doesn’t stray far from their Movement roots, but they’re a little more… experimental, a little more… trippy, a little more… jamband. Is jamband an adjective? I don’t know.
So first let’s start on why Rootz Underground is the best band to come out of Jamaica in a long while. First, their instrumentation is super original and exciting. For example, “Enlighten Me” has a rave-esque quality like when Madonna was in what I call her “Om Shanti” phase. Then you have warm horns of 70s reggae – think Burning Spear “Slavery Days” or Dennis Brown “The Promised Land” – on “Unknown Soldier.” The third full track, “Jah Love Is the Solution,” features a jazzy muted trumpet intro that brings us back to 1950s-Birdland-Miles-Davis-All-Blues feel. There’s a bit of house, dub, R&B, spoken word, groovy jazz sax, and most of the CD is overlaid with a jamband guitar-riffy Grateful-Dead-Phish-like sound. I’m not kidding.
The second reason I love these guys so much (besides the fact that they’re really nice and super humble) is that they write great empowerment lyrics. Lead vocalist Stephen Newland is a fiery spirit and embodies that universal fire. In “Raging Bull,” he sings, …and even when the times got cold, I maintain the fire – fire, balance and self control. Now I see them raging cause we break those chains away. It’s impossible to enslave me. On “Unknown Soldiers,” he affirms, guns against my drums. Guns against my drums. Guns against my songs. Iya love against dem war. This is for the Unknown Soldiers. One of my favorite verses on the whole album is from “Jah Love Is the Solution:” Are we headed in the wrong direction? Love your enemies, it gets so critical in times like these – you got to free your soul if you want to live up in the higher keys. I said you hold on to what you know and cherish things that you used to believe. Love it conquers all; hatred is a social disease. Check out the message in “Searching” and “Modern Day Jericho” as well.
The third brilliant aspect of this CD is that they’ve given themselves a lot of leeway for live performance. Each of these songs can be played a million different ways with a million different variations. In fact, the live versions are going to far surpass the finite quality of the recorded material. With the access of streaming video and YouTube, I will be following the variations across the summer landscape.
Having said all of that good stuff, I have to address my two issues with the CD. The first is the CD’s tempo. All the tracks are around 60 beats per minute. I am not sure if that was intentional a la Midnite, or if it just happened that way. I think a few of the songs would sound a little better if they just picked up the pace a bit, like on “Searching,” “Rocket,” or “Marching On.” Of course this can be addressed at live shows.
My last issue with the CD is that at times Stevie sounds like he’s straining his voice – ease up, my yout’! If he backed off like 5-10%, it would settle, I think. This straining is particularly noticeable on “Fly Away,” “Streets,” and “Searching.” The quality of his voice is sincere, raw, and soulful, and I much prefer his voice to the other vocalists on the CD.
So, my assessment? You definitely need Gravity in your collection, if only for the courage and innovation that Rootz Underground has brought to the industry. But, then add great instrumentation, great lyrics, and great improvisation, and it’s a no brainer. It didn’t speak to me as much as their first CD, Movement, however, there isn’t much out there that has (which, BTW, speaks volumes for their debut). Lastly, I will try to catch every YouTube, Facebook, and Myspace chronicle of their tour to hear the live versions this summer. Even better, can I just send a cable with you guys to record straight from the boards? 🙂