Various: Bambú Station presents Talkin’ Roots II, Mt. Nebo Records, 2005
Is it tacky to start off a record label compilation with a song blatantly in praise of that label? I would have thought so before witnessing Talkin’ Roots II, which does exactly that. But given the quality of “Good Works,” the song in question, I would be dead wrong. In fact, I have yet to see or hear anything tacky about Virgin Islands-based Mt. Nebo – or about Bambú Station, which acts as the label’s house band. Tackiness is a foreign concept to them. Even their artwork (by Mark “Feijão” Milligan II) is sophisticated and tasteful.
So if it’s not tacky, what is it? It’s inspirational, that’s what. The song is an affirmation of purpose, a declaration of independence, the most enjoyable vision statement I’ve ever come across. Sure, it brags about their capabilities and advertises their wares, but there’s so much pride, sincerity and confidence involved that you want to cheer them on as well as buy their product. The liner notes call it the “Mt. Nebo anthem,” and it makes a fitting introduction to the album.
Bambú Station contributes the authoritative supporting music throughout, while various guests (most from the Virgin Islands) supply words and vocals. The resulting wide range of voices, styles and arrangements means there’s something new around every corner – always within the dynamic realm of reggae, of course. With almost uniformly literate lyrics and impeccable attention to production detail, these songs are winners – from the breathless dancehall of Ijah Menelik to Danny I’s mysterious, laid-back vocal quality (yet urgent delivery) to Army’s placid and beautiful singing to the deep-throated chant of Bashan to the dread world-weariness of Ibednego to Black Culture’s reverent, almost whispered, hymn to Rastafari that concludes the album.
And everywhere in between. To quote from that inspirational first track, “roots reggae is a ting that cannot be diluted, polluted, corrupted…,” at least not at the hands of the crew at Mt. Nebo. If you aren’t familiar with that crew, it’s time you were, so go get this album. If you are familiar with that crew, it’s time to renew your acquaintance, so go get this album.
NiyoRah: A Different Age, I Grade Records, 2005
I wonder if NiyoRah has a little too much talent. Or rather, too many talents. Is that possible? I’m asking because A Different Age is a highly enjoyable debut solo album encompassing almost 72 minutes of interesting musical and lyrical ideas. And those ideas are all over the map, and therein lies my concern.
Let me restate that. This is well over an hour’s worth of great reggae (with a bit of hip-hop and other influences), a virtual showcase of vocal technique and song writing skill. He attempts much and accomplishes it all. Yet the feeling I’m left with at the end is more akin to admiration than satisfaction. I am in awe, but I am not moved. I am entertained, but I am not inspired. A Different Age has everything except focus.
Alright, it’s true that my expectations are extremely high. But NiyoRah has no-one to blame but himself, because he is so obviously capable of making a major artistic statement. He has a way with a melody, he possesses a luminous but substantial tenor voice, his conversational lyrics are refreshingly direct, and he has the well-deserved good fortune to be backed up by the formidable musical talents of “Tippy” Alfred and his colleagues at I-Grade. So everything is in place. All NiyoRah needs now is to focus his ambitions.
Until he does make his masterpiece, this one will satisfy in many respects. The first track’s thundering nyahbinghi drums create a dread backdrop for a fresh, optimistic chant. In track 2, instead of repeating the clichéd Rasta threat to burn down Babylon, he refers to natural forces: “No no no we nah deal with no matches/The heat of the sun and volcanoes will burn them to ashes.” There’s a great horn chart and supremely catchy chorus in “Fullest Confidence.” Later he adopts a low-key, supple vocal for his narrative about a son who “…was good but him end up in badness” as chirpy background singers repeat “so sad, so sad.” His buoyant “Sandy Weekend” could be a promotional ditty for the whole Caribbean area, yet his troubled lyrics in “Twisted Atmosphere” show the converse side to his personality. The perfect match between arrangement and lyrics makes for a powerful expression of black pride in “Black Smokey Mountains.” Finally, to close the album with a soft, acoustic tune (with flute accompaniment, no less) instead of something more bombastic shows confidence and good taste. Other good examples abound.
Yes, there’s lots of talent on display in A Different Age. And there’s lots of potential for something more mature; something at a higher level. I can hardly wait.
Corey Harris: Daily Bread, Rounder Records, 2005
The promo material that came with Corey Harris’ Daily Bread CD talks mostly about the artist’s background performing “the blues.” But when I listen to it, most of what I hear is more like “singer-songwriter,” maybe even “folk,” with some African sounds and a huge, healthy dose of reggae rhythms to sweeten the deal. Sure, it gets pretty bluesy at times, but primarily stays in an acoustic mode.
This mix of genres comes across as very natural; it’s attractive in a flowing, seemingly spontaneous way. That non-artificiality extends to the lyrics too, with simple, recurring themes expressed in plain language. The first song, called “Daily Bread,” includes this line: “Got to be a better way,” and two tracks later a song entitled “Got to Be a Better Way” contains this: “Still singing for my daily bread.” That same theme (more or less) is repeated again with a cover of Sylford Walker’s roots reggae ode to the herb, “Lamb’s Bread.” Other repetitions: the first four songs include the word “see,” “water” is a key image in three songs, and two back-to-back songs contain the exact same line: “Hoping and praying.”
I like all those obvious recurrences. They make you think the album was conceived as a whole. More importantly, they make connections, which smacks of truth – that is the way of the world, after all.
Connections are also inherent in cover songs – they always represent a link between the performer and a wider world. Harris makes several such links. His version of the old blues tune, “A Nickel and a Nail,” is more laid back than you might expect, matter-of-fact rather than pitiful. That same light touch extends to “I See Your Face,” an early song by reggae master John Holt (not that the song was ever heavy), whereas the aforementioned “Lamb’s Bread” gets pretty intense thanks to an aggressive vocal, a vamping Hammond B-3 organ accompaniment and a sparkling trumpet solo. (The song returns later in dub mode, tacked on as a pleasant surprise to the bonus track at album’s end.)
Variations and repetitions, connectivity and originality, intensity and tranquillity, all side by side. Those are the ingredients that art is made of, and those are the tasty and wholesome ingredients of Daily Bread.
Various: Reggae for Humanity, Volume 1, Manila Jeepney, 2005
The concept of “fair share” may not be universal among all of humanity, but it is the organizing principle for this first volume of Reggae for Humanity, an intended series of multi-artist CDs. I’m talking about the almost equal treatment between the two reggae rhythms comprising the whole of the album: seven tracks for one, nine for the other. The “Dark Skin Girls Riddim,” marked by a bubbling bass, is somewhat less emphatic than its twin, the “Guide Us Riddim,” with is forceful brass. Yet what the artists do with the first is every bit as interesting as the second.
Peter Hunningale’s nimble tenor and perfect diction lead off the CD in a song about living with faith in a world of stress and fear. Dona V applies a very different melody line and neat vocal hook to the same rhythm, crooning background voices added. Switching rhythms, Tony Roots’ insistent vocal carries an appropriate entreaty: “Guide us and help us, Father/For we don’t know what’s around that corner.” JD Smoothe’s prayer is just as passionate but less frantic, the horns now mixed deeper and replaced in the foreground by some falsetto soul harmonies. Luciano comes next, still prayerful in words and approach; then Frankie Paul, also contemplative, with ardent, hoarse vocal and catchy chorus.
The mood lightens with Carleton Livingston’s appealing little tune about girlfriend problems, but Mykal Rose turns serious again with “Fly the Banner”, in praise of the red, green and gold. Then Chrisinti comes along “…to defend Jah’s glory.” Tony Roots returns, on the alternate rhythm this time, with a long, wistful melody line. Sylvia Tella’s alluring vocal quality adds to the gospel feel of “Talking to Jah People” to make it the album’s “Dark Skin Girls” highlight.
The dancehall would not be complete without a deejay bantering with a singer. In this case, it’s JD Smoothe and Rusty Mac proclaiming that “dark skin girls are better” (assume it’s a case for pride rather than prejudice, and don’t even contemplate a lyric that says “white skin girls are better.”) Karen Vibes is initially sultry but becomes fresh and joyful, her lyrics detailing reasons why “he’s still my man.” Dona V’s second go-round, “Down Deh,” features contemporary political allusions (“Sadam and Gomorrah”), vocals that alternate between bemused and urgent, and a full, attention-grabbing arrangement. For me, this one is the “Guide Us” highlight.
At the close we have dubs of each of the featured rhythms, the perfect way to end. Maybe future volumes will follow that model; in fact, I’d be pleased as Punch if future volumes emulate the creativity of this first in every respect. Volume 1 is a great start.
Various: Sufferation: The Deep Roots Reggae of Niney the Observer, Auralux Recordings, 2005
Reggae seems right at home in compilations. There must be thousands of them out there: collections and anthologies galore, the best ones organized by label or theme, and some of the very best by producer. That’s what we have here.
The producer showcased on Sufferation is Winston Holness, a.k.a. Niney the Observer, one of the prolific, creative and tasteful old-timers. If you are a fervent roots reggae fan, you will know that there are already a number of CDs available that compile Niney’s productions, including recent output. So, you wonder, does this duplicate too many tracks to make it worthwhile? Or if it doesn’t duplicate, then is it dredging up lesser works, either contemporary stuff or from the vaults?
Be reassured. The tracks are from the reggae’s “classic” period, the late 1970s, and although only a few were familiar to me, all have their attractions. Indeed, the liner notes claim that “nearly all” the tracks have never before been available on CD or vinyl album. The Jewels, for example—now there’s a vocal group you don’t hear often; their tuneful “Jah I” has strong lead and perfect high, responsive, doowop harmonies flavored by organ riffs, with a dub tacked on for good measure. Bet also that you don’t have the two tracks by the very dread harmony group The Rockstones, complete with Burning Spear-style “ta-roop-ba-boop” vocalizing.
As for the well-knowns, we’ve got a true delight from Dennis Brown, “Blessed Are the Men,” which uses the Beatitudes as a point of departure for “sufferation” lyrics over steady high-hat. Tyrone Taylor provides tension in the title track as the vocal builds and becomes urgent, then insistent, then passionate, with lyrics about the desperation of children living in poverty and lacking education. With a drum roll, the piece turns into a dub and the mood suddenly shifts from acute urgency to concerned reflection. It’s about as powerful as reggae gets. On “Rock On,” Gregory Isaacs does a good job doing his usual thing, accompanied by a wonderfully fat trombone that is particularly potent in the dub.
One warning about this album: although Auralux claims the highest quality sound possible, a number of the tracks are obviously from mono recordings, and several of those are scratchy. So don’t expect total purity of sound. But you can expect instead over 72 minutes of strong, honest roots reggae, expertly compiled for our listening pleasure.
Al G: Signature…, AWG Music, 2005
In the liner notes to Signature…, Al G is referred to as a reggae “veteran,” and that’s easy to believe. His performing and song writing skills are those of a journeyman, which is the major clue, and his portrait photos also suggest that he has been around for awhile. So the question is why I hadn’t heard of him before now, especially given that Signature… is referred to as a compilation.
The answer is likely that I’m not based on the Virgin Islands, while Al G is, so maybe his extensive involvement in the music scene has been somewhat confined, geographically speaking. I can only hope that word will spread and his fame substantially increase. He deserves the attention.
One reason is his fondness for frank, concrete lyrics to his well-constructed songs. While not terribly original in idea or mode of expression (in fact he’s not averse to using clichés), he does have a directness about him that can be disarming. Whether singing of love (“But baby the first time I saw you/I felt a change way deep down inside”), or his roots (“When mi look in de mirror/Mi see one African”), or social justice (“Grass won’t grow without the rain/We have to try and make a change/To help our brother and sister/There in Africa”), or simply the power of music (“Put away your stress/Let de music soothe you…”), he uses plain one- or two-syllable words that get the message across.
Speaking of letting the music soothe, that brings up the other reasons to pay attention to Al G – his way with a melody and his adeptness in the various methods and modes of reggae. In Signature… he covers the territory: breathy lover’s rock, propulsive “rockers” rhythms, preachy Bunny Wailer-style voice-over, harmony backup singing, contemporary R&B/reggae hybrid, hymn-like balladry, deep roots and more. Topping everything off are two remixes and finally two dubs, the first almost an instrumental, the second more adventurous in its studio manipulation, percolating beat and all.
Al G’s Signature… is no forgery. It may not be the most original handwriting you’ll ever lay ears on, but it’s definitely personal. It is also clear and strong and confident. You can trust it.
Terence Blanchard: Flow, Blue Note Records, 2005
Terence Blanchard is a trumpeter, and Flow is jazz. Now jazz lovers tend to think of themselves as both knowledgeable and sophisticated (unlike roots reggae lovers who think of themselves as morally superior, rap lovers who strive to be cool and country lovers who just want to change the oil in their trucks). I enjoy jazz, but I ain’t no expert, so I can’t pretend to offer a highly urbane critique based on intimate knowledge of the genre. You may wonder, then, why am I including this album in The Boot Box?
First, because of the African influences. It’s probably true to say that a bit of Africa exists in all jazz performances, but that element is definitely front and centre in the third track, “Wadagbe” and its preceding “Intro.” It’s as if Blanchard wants at the outset to pay homage to his primary and deepest roots. Good for him; it creates an earthy and possibly more accessible grounding for some of the highly innovative sounds to come later in the album. These are imaginative, abstracted, synthesized interpretations of African music, but powerful all the same.
Second, we Boot Box writers tend to like our dub, and there are certainly dub parallels here: in the heavy, throbbing bass that propels certain tracks; and in the atmospheric, spacey ambiance of other tracks. Like some of the best dub, it has stunning dynamics: quiet and reflective at times and bang-crash-loud-noisy-intense at other times. I’m not saying this could be considered dub music; just that the parallels are there, and if you like those elements in one genre, you might appreciate them in another too.
Third, reggae tunefulness is often based on subtle variations, and only after several hearings do those subtleties kick in, but when they do, ohh – niceness. Same here. Fourth, we are used to expert “players of instruments” in both reggae and African music. In Flow, the various flow-ers are definitely adroit. Blanchard himself sounds at times very much like Miles Davis, shimmering, bright, free. Sometimes his trumpet is as mellow as Chuck Mangione’s pop-oriented flugelhorn from back in the ‘70s. And sometimes Blanchard becomes a big-band leader, spurring his musicians along to greater heights.
There. Four reasons why I’m impressed enough to recommend this album, even though The Boot Box doesn’t usually cover jazz. I just had to let it flow.