Toots and the Maytals: True Love, V2 Records, 2004
True Love is partly Tribute to Toots album, partly Toots Duets With album, partly Toots Greatest Hits album, partly an experimental reggae reinvention of great songs.
A Willie Nelson song starts things off, Toots and Willie switching lead; it works despite, not because of, the vocal contrasts. On the other hand, True Love Is Hard to Find sounds very natural; Bonnie Raitt not only sings but adds her bluesy slide guitar to give the song some sting and a bittersweet taste. Another guitar great, Eric Clapton, helps Toots on an appropriately fast and furious version of Pressure Drop, but what advantage was to be gained by having Ryan Adams on the slow, unadventurous duet of Time Tough is hard to fathom.
Next comes the early Toots song Bam Bam, which survives a strange treatment by Shaggy and Rahzel. On the famous 54-46 Was My Number, Toots does the vocals alone, but Jeff Becks electric guitar adds color commentary. No Doubt has fast ska fun with Monkey Man, which includes an interesting vocal twist in Toots duet with Gwen Stefani and great scatting at the end: Monkey monkey monkey yah yah yah monkey monkey na na na monkey monkey.
Trey Anastasio doesnt add much as guest on Sweet and Dandy, where the tempo and whole vocal/musical arrangement are much the same as on the original, but thats okay, the song was always delightful as is. Funky Kingston becomes very different, though: kind of busy and messy, as funk can be, with our attention flitting all over the place, but the trio of Toots, Roots and Boots (Bootsy Collins and The Roots are aboard) makes great chemistry. In fact, I like this better than the original recording: Toots vocal isnt so strained this time around. Not really reggae, but then it never was. There is a big, deep, heavy sound to Reggae Got Soul with Ken Boothe and Marcia Griffiths, who concentrate on the soul part. U-Roy introduces Never Grow Old, an album highlight with a strong and perfect ska-gospel sound; give thanks to The Skatalites for this much fuller arrangement than on the original. Bunny Wailer adds passionate vocals to Take a Trip, another powerhouse that offers Claptons guitar as a bonus.
The slow, sincere Ben Harper-Toots duet Love Gonna Walk Out on Me takes some getting used to, unlike the immediately appealing Careless Ethiopians, where Keith Richards vocal adds an interesting, contrasting texture and his guitar is subdued and gentle. Bringing up the rear is an intense, intimate drama between Toots and Rachael Yamagata on the swirling, smoky, spacey Blame On Me, a relatively recent composition.
You are hereby on your own to decide whether you want this CD. Excellent songs, yes. Interesting versions of them, yes. Artistically better than the originals? Yes and no. Necessary? Not easy to say.
Various: Reggae Anthology: The Channel One Story, 2 CDs, VP Records, 2004
Channel One really does have a story. This ghetto recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica is where Joseph Hoo-Kim produced a host of highly influential reggae tunes from the mid-70s to early 80s. Turn to this albums liner notes and you can read all about it, from lowly beginnings to the height of fame to abrupt decline. Interesting, sure, but the important element is the music, and with thirty-seven chapters of that part of the story now available to us on this double-disc set, its time to rejoice, buy, and listen hard.
One of the things youll hear when you listen is a very busy drummer. Channel Ones studio band, the Revolutionaries, included Sly Dunbar prior to his days as half of the production and rhythm team of Sly and Robbie. This was the era when he developed the rockers drumming technique, and sterling examples abound. Dont worry about it being described as a militant style, its great fun to listen to.
Youll also hear some beautiful examples of roots harmony singing: The Mighty Diamonds with I Need a Roof and Right Time; The Meditations with Woman is Like a Shadow (why do some not like the lyrics? Ive always taken them as expressing frustration and hurt rather than prejudice); and Wailing Souls with Things & Time. In each case, the harmonies, the arrangements, the songs themselves are of wondrous quality, almost matched by The Jays three versions of previously recorded songs, Yaho, Truly, and Queen Majesty.
Rockers drumming, roots harmonies, what else? Well, the excellent and often dubbish production, for one thing. For another, the several instrumentals performed by those fine musicians, The Revolutionaries; Burial is the best, with its beautiful, relaxed brass solo over a quick shuffling beat. Then there are the deejays: Dillinger, Lone Ranger, Rankin Trevor, Clint Eastwood, Yellowman, I Roy, and at the next to last spot on the album, Super Chick, whose single outing is a stark signal that Channel One sure didnt do much with the women of reggaeheck, they didnt even do much with Super Chick, who bravely tries to sing a few lines from the folk song 500 Miles. Her chatting is fine, but the singing, yikes.
Finally, theres all the rest: love songs, sufferer roots, dancehall, et cetera from solo male vocalists ranging from the melodic John Holt to the soulful Ernest Wilson to the sweet Sugar Minott to the tuneless but sincere Leroy Smart. And of course, Fade Away by Junior Byles, stark reggae perfection. There you have it; a varied collection37 tracks, rememberof mostly great and classic Jamaican music, a number of which even some fanatics probably dont already own. Channel One has a story well worth being told. Also well worth being heard.
Clinton Fearon and Boogie Brown Band: Give and Take, Kool Yu Foot, 2004
I listened to Give and Take with my brother Dave, a classical music accompanist and voice coach, who was visiting for a few days. Its very relaxing, he said, apparently surprised. He started counting. I dont think I brought a metronome with me. Too bad.
Darn, I replied, mine are all at the cleaners.
But he was serious. Its around 72 beats per minute. Just like a heartbeat. Thats why its so relaxing. I beamed. I told him reggae is known for that.
I asked for advice on how I would describe for readers one particular aspect I really enjoy on this album: Fearons effortless ability to carry his vocal line across the changing musical background from one part to another. He listened approvingly to my first example, where Fearon sings: Dont shed no more tears/I said dry your weeping eyes now/ I want you to know/Love is the conqueror.
Hey, that is nice, he said. He suggested I write this: the vocal is carried over different musical phrases. Thanks, Dave.
It sounds very sophisticated to me, I persisted, so I wonder whether its consciously composed that way or if its a natural, spontaneous thing. Hard to say. Could be that it just comes naturally to him. Thanks, Dave. He should host an Ask A Professional Musician radio show.
In fact, Give and Take has many highlights. The title track has a fragile but seductive flute arrangement balanced by dominant vocal. Then theres Blood for Blood, with soulful singing, subtle organ and lyrics pointing out that Its a gruesome situation everywherealthough optimism wins out in the end.
Wages of Love is a beautiful hymn with beautiful voila accompaniment; if that worries you, remember that The Beatles Yesterday was a simple vocal over string quartet, and this has the added benefit of reggae rhythm in the foreground. And oh yes, the lead vocal in this one carries over from one musical phrase to another, providing sophistication.
Parable Sound has a memorable melody and bubbly rhythm with juicy horns and inventive percussion. I also like the a cappella intro of the spry and catchy Feel the Spirit, and the delicate organ riff of Stop the Hate as well as its Bob Marley-like vocals and tune. Then theres the emphatic lyrics and guitar solo of Rise up. Many highlights amidst overall high quality music.
Clinton Fearon has a great reggae history, true enough, but the issue is really his great reggae present. He now counts among his fans at least one new-to-reggae classical musician, thanks to a wonderful album that is possibly sophisticated, but definitely tuneful andoops, its time to pick up my metronomes at the cleaners. Gotta go.
The Meditations: Stand In Love, Meditations Music, 2004
Meditation should be comfortable, I figure. Asceticism may have its place, somewhere, sometime, but hey, after a day of stress, let me do my meditation in comfort. The pleasanter the better.
Thats where The Meditations come in. The much admired harmony trio from way back in Jamaican musical history is still with us, intact and fruitful and making music. Their new album, Stand in Love, delivers a very full 16 tracks of timeless, tuneful, honest roots reggae: practically the dictionary definition of comfort, as far as Im concerned. Nothing very different from what theyve done in the past, mind you, but thats fine with me.
The first track is a strong start, with an aggressive warning about war; its followed by a faster, lighter, organ-led piece with sing-along harmonies in the chorus and rose-tinted lyrics: make yourself happy so others can be happy too. An organ adds spice to the next song, but the horn arrangement is what makes it memorable. Then comes the title track and its lively percussionalmost a necessity to keep up with the double-quick tempo; it also fits the fun, shoo-bee-doop background vocals. This song comes back at the end of the album with a spirited toast by Flourgon, and its a good addition, his rough vocal texture contrasting with the smooth harmonies of the trio. The catchy Stranger in Love has some wordless harmony vocals and a supple lead vocal that moves effortlessly into falsetto territory; the following Curtis Mayfield tune sounds as though it should always have had this kind of reggae arrangement. The next two tracks are among the best: Glory Hallelujah, as vigorous a hymn of praise as one would expect given that title, and Wicked Men, with wailing horns, powerful lyrics, great tune and a nyahbinghi feel to the drums.
Stand in Love tends somewhat toward the generic in the second half, but houses several more highlights and never falters in giving pleasure. Born in War, for example, has a quick, propulsive rhythm and surprisingly light touch to both lead and supporting vocals, and Not Responsible gets me singing along to its level the vibes lyric. I also love the sprightly drumming of Youth Teach Wisdom.
Obviously deeply concerned about individuals and society (and about war, both in general and in its contemporary manifestation), the three members of The Meditations deliver their messages in true roots reggae fashion: uncompromising lyrics beautifully sung to attractive tunes. Sure, Im looking for comfort, and I find it here. But comfort doesnt mean oblivious self-satisfaction. What it does mean is that Ill be glad to return often to meditate with The Meditations.
Eddy Grant: Hit Collection, 2 CDs, Ice, 1999
If you were among the many millions who made mega-hits out of I Dont Wanna Dance and Electric Avenue, leaden rhythms and all, then youll love Hit Collection. Its more of the same, spiced up by Grants biggest-sellers from earlier times. The quasi-reggae, quasi-soca-funk-rock genre is hard to label, although Grant himself did come up with a name I cant remember at the momentapparently not a natural or obvious one. The music is pretty obvious and unsubtle, though, especially in the beat: its definitely! emphatic! but! the! forward! momentum! suffers!
Nevertheless, there are reasons why I will return to this album:
Gimme Hope Joanna, a highly influential apartheid-era release in South Africa.
The surf guitar in Killer on the Rampage.
My nostalgia for 68 as tweaked by Baby Come Back.
The funky horn charts of Walking on Sunshine.
The electronica, doo-wop and heavily textured bass of Living on the Frontline.
The drama and reggae rootsiness of War Party.
The deep, rhythmic African-Caribbean groove of Hello Africa.
The songwriting and vocal lessons learned from John Hiatt in Put a Hold on It.
The light, good-time Latin-reggae of Welcome to La Tigre.
The jazzy, atmospheric feel and lowdown, backroom vocal echo in Dont Back Down.
Pretty much the whole of Disk Two.
Yes, indeed, Disk Two may not have the big hits, but it is the better music here, with nine original 12 mixes. Living on the Frontline becomes a 13-minute opus with a synthesizer-heavy last half, while Hello Africa lasts for 12 minutes, with naked, complex percussion taking over halfway through to urge and tease us along to the end. Preachin Genocide is seven-plus minutes of heavy lyrics, carefree soca rhythms and an appropriately sharp-edged guitar solo. Exiled is reggae, more than nine minutes of it; Nobodys Got Time, with its soulful vocal and throbbing base, is over seven. Perhaps there is some excess in the extended mixes of this second disk, but give me these any day over the more predictable, stringent pop of Disk One.
You have to admire the accomplishments represented by this collection, as the liner notes go to lengths to suggest. All tracks written, produced & performed by Eddy Grant, it says here. Eddy plays virtually all musical instruments, it also says. In case you didnt keep count, in less than four years he had eight major international hit singles, and in case you just didnt know, he was one of the first artists to write about the destruction of our oceans and the Whale population and is a great humanitarian and acute political and social thinker. Quite the remarkable guy. So here you are; Hit Collection is your chance to acquire what Grant himself apparently considers his greatest musical legacy so far. Im not arguing.
Latty Guzang: one love!, Massive International Records, 2004
Welcome to Name That Tune!, the compact disc game show where you Guess The Composer, Identify The Riff, and Specify The Influence!
Its easy and fun, and to get you going, take a glance at the track listing. There youll see besides the 16 mentions of our host just four composers names: J. Holt, J. Mittoo, Winston Samuels and Brent Dowe/Melodians. Ahhh, but there are so many more, creditless and unheralded. Thats where you come in! First we set the disc player on random. Where will it land?
Number 12! Listen to the words and tune: Jammin on a reggae rubadub afternoon. Used to be groovin, right? YES, its a reggae version of The Young Rascals hit; five points. Okay, another. Number 4! Those introductory horns; its itsyes, you can almost hear that long draw on the kouchie: its The Mighty Diamonds! Five more points. Lets go againnumber 7! Okay, that horn riff and tune on the bridge; they sound very familiarbut nope, cant quite get it. No points, but dont worry, itll come to you. Number 17! If I had a hammer, Id hammer in the morning. No contest: this is the old Lee Hays/Pete Seeger song. What about the bridge? No sweat, its the old folk protest tune, We Shall Overcome. Ten points for that double header.
Number 9! A quick dancehall rhythm; now listen to the lyrics: Fire a mus mus tailthe higher the monkey climbs The Ethiopians and Justin Hinds? Okay, but only two points each because those are just brief phrases, Jamaican folk sayings, so it could be coincidence. Go again: Number 2! Another attractive concoction with a big chunk of the tune and some of the words directly fromright! Larry Marshalls Throw Me Corn; five points. Number 8! Jackie Mittoos name is right there in the credits beside L. Gourzong (reviewers note: I take this be our host), but hey, this song is called I Did It; Mittoos was Who Done It. Good, one point for knowing that. Number 14! Hmm, lively, with bits of various gospel songs, but mostly Rock My Soul. Right. Five points.
Now we move into that part of the game we call Tried and Now Trite. Quickly, for three points each, tell us whats been used before: Brothers and sisters, why cant we live as one. Good. Love is so lovely and war is so ugly. Good. What a situation; what a confusion. My girl lollipop. Stop your carry go bring come. Mother long tongue. Oh, oh, there are way too many to get to, because we are OUT OF TIME. But 53 points; thats terrific! Join us again on Name That Tune! when well ponder whether the grunts in Please Dont Go were taken from Sam Cookes Chain Gang. So long for now; its been great musical fun.