Duane Stephenson, Black Gold coverDuane Stephenson, Black Gold [VP Records, 2010]

Mind you don’t get this record confused with another bearing the same name by reggae singer Toussaint. The only things this Black Gold and that Black Gold have in common are identical titles and great music. And for the sake of further differentiating, here are a few facts about Duane Stephenson: He was once the lead singer of a harmony group called To-Isis; he’s written songs for Luciano, Jah Cure and Morgan Heritage; and he put out a debut CD called August Town a few years ago.

Even if none of that matters to you, Black Gold should. It’s a terrific showcase for Stephenson’s dual chops as a singer and composer. A couple of roots tracks – “Nah Play” and “Fire In Me” – make for a strong start, and things stay strong throughout. It seems the acoustic guitar Stephenson cradles on the back cover of Black Gold isn’t just there for show.

There is indeed a recurrence of ballads beginning with “Truth Is,” featuring the authoritative spoken voice of Mutabaruka. But Stephenson keeps his edge even when he softens the music a bit, maintaining a clear conscious vision on songs like “Sufferer’s Heights” (presented in both ballad and rockers versions), the violence-deploring “Cycle Goes On,” “Soon As We Rise” (with Ras Shiloh pitching in) and the title track, an appealing mix of nyabinghi and orchestral lushness that recalls Ijahman Levi. Of the strictly lighter moments, the best is “Members Only,” an empathetic tune of heartbreak that would likely be maudlin in lesser hands. Stephenson’s clear, crisp voice is an ideal blend of roots man and soul man, a good fit for the smooth but hard-hitting production provided mainly by Stephenson and sax wizard Dean Fraser. This gold is polished to just the right degree, and the music shines accordingly.