Wailing Souls
[Artists Only Records, 2003]

You’re not going to buy “Souvenir From Jamaica” merely because it was recorded at Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, nor because it is self-produced. You may be more influenced by the notable musicians (such as Sly and Robbie) who appear in the mix, and even more likely, by the fact that the Wailing Souls have had a long and productive career, making thoughtful and engaging reggae albums since ’76. If that last, single fact is sufficient to make you buy, wonderful; it means you and I are at the same stage of life. But if that’s still not quite enough to convince you to shell out, sneak a little listen somewhere, somehow. That will sure do the trick—you won’t rest afterward until you have “Souvenir From Jamaica” in your possession and on your CD player.

This is an uncompromising form of roots reggae, with many modern touches that are not only appropriate, but integral to the material. Not that I can claim that Wailing Souls have never made questionable concessions to popular tastes. They did “Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye”, remember. Or try to forget. Anyway, the point is that they have been known to…umm… occasionally supplement their albums with a superficially attractive bauble yanked from the impulse shelf of the recording studio checkout counter. But that hasn’t happened lately—not with “Equality” back in 2000, and not with this new one in 2003. Only strong, original material is welcome now, apparently.

Consider it a contradiction if you wish, but this “strong”, “uncompromising” material starts off with a song that might have been commissioned by a certain country’s tourism department to brag about its mountain ranges, deep blue seas, beautiful waterfalls and darling girls. “Souvenir From Jamaica” even optimistically mentions “one people” and “unity”. The song works beautifully, though, thanks to its appealing melody, lively but relaxed rhythm, creative arrangements, contrasting vocal textures, and most of all, the pure conviction of the singers. This expression of national pride is understandable and wholly acceptable, one of the few healthy brands of patriotism.

It has other highlights too. “Play the Tape” has a strong tune and unusual theme, its call-and-response vocals and sharp percussive effects underscoring lyrics that express the desire to know “what’s going on” in the news. The busy, aggressive arrangements in “Slip and Slide” are ideal for the song, and what follows—a gentle and pretty, though altered, rendition of Psalm 23—offers a welcome change of pace. The soulful, muted horns and strong ensemble singing of “You Are the Woman” make it stand out as well. My ears hear only one failure: in a song entitled “Got To Move”, the endlessly repeated phrase “you got to move” almost inspired me to move to fast forward. But what the heck, this is still a near-perfect album. Virtuoso singing and playing, creative arrangements, strongly appealing tunes, thoughtful content—close to perfect. That’s your incontestable reason to buy.