Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lee Perry/Various: Voodooism

Lee Perry/Various - Voodooism
Pressure Sounds CD 009

"Voodooism" was Pressure Sounds' first compilation of the work of the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry at his equally legendary Black Ark studio (the others which followed it are "Produced and Directed by the Upsetter" and "Divine Madness... Definitely"). The tracks on it are all 7" vinyl rarities from the mid to late 70s, and span a wide spectrum of the Upsetter's inimitable sonic innovations, while remaining firmly within a cohesive theme of deep, spiritual roots.

The CD opens appropriately devotionally with "Psalms 20" by James Booms (aka James Brown), a half-sung, half-spoken recitation of the psalm over a riddim that is a close cousin to that of "War In a Babylon", if not quite close enough to be considered a version of it. The B-side, "Proverbs of Dub", is a typical Upsetter skank with snippets of both lead and background vocals fading in and out of the mix; somewhat by the numbers, but none the worse for that as an example of the unmistakeable Black Ark sound.

Errol Walker (who recorded 2 other Black Ark classics, "In These Times" and "John Public", to be found on Island's monumental "Arkology" box set) contributes "Better Future", an impassioned plea for an end to racism and senseless violence over a suitably swirling and energy-charged mix. "There will come a time when everyone shall know the real meaning of love, what a day that shall be..." There is some very nice echo on the vocal snippets in the bass-heavy dub.

Zap Pow's "River" is a real treat for fans of the thick, swirling, psychedelic sound of the Black Ark - its multi-layered, keyboard-saturated mix flows like its namesake, with jazzy bits of trumpet and trombone floating alongside dreamy, laid-back vocals that nonetheless carry a distant urgency. Its dub, "River Stone", while almost stripped of vocals, goes even deeper into reverberating, smoke-like textures of sound. "Chillout" music long before that was a genre.

The urgency comes back in full force on Earl Sixteen's "Freedom", an uncompromisingly dread chant for liberation and tribute to those "putting up the freedom fight", with clashing, metronomic percussion creating a heavy steppers feel without sacrificing the subtleties of sound that only Scratch could create. Sadly the sound quality on this tune is not great, with noticeable vinyl crackle, especially on the flipside version, "Right You", but the strength of the song itself more than makes up for it. The echo-laden dub emphasises the guitar melody.

"Mash Down" by the Roots (not to be confused with the hip-hop group of the same name), is a moving downtempo harmony tune, with a wistful feel reminiscent of Horace Andy's "Rome". The lyrics have that quintessentially Jamaican mix of testimony to tribulation, Biblical piety and paradoxical optimism, with the strong yet fragile, emotion-laden vocals reminiscent of "country style" groups such as the Maytones or Mighty Diamonds.

The Hombres' "Africa" is a repatriation tune with a dignified strength and devotional lyrics making it feel like a pan-African national anthem. The riddim chugs head-noddingly along behind the vocal, with just enough dissonance to lighten the tone without making it seem incongruous. The dub doesn't do as much in terms of sonic experimentation as many others on this set, but still brings a satisfied smile to the face.

Leo Graham's "Voodooism" is a sprightly tale of resistance against malicious witchcraft, typifying Perry's phase of interest in occult topics, with its half-pious, half-boastful proclamation of faith in divine protection against meddlers and traitors. "Dubism", its version, like many of the others here, masterfully showcases the perfect blending of elements into a warm, organic whole of the Upsetter sound.

"African Style" by the Black Notes is a deep, heavy roots tune, with a dark, deep bass and spooky rattling and hissing sound effects as well as ominous one-note piano lines in the mix, perfectly suiting the passionate demand for casting off Eurocentrism and reclaiming African identity. "Take back your English speaking, and give I I and I teaching". The reverb-drenched dub emphasises the dread, foreboding vibe - classic Black Ark roots to stand alongside that of better-known names such as Junior Delgado or

"Rasta Train", by "Lee & Jimmy" (Perry, of course, and, most likely, Riley), has a very different vibe, with an almost digital-sounding metronomic bassline and Scratch's half-sung, half-scatted toasting accompanied by humming female backing vocals. (Jimmy Riley, despite being credited, is not obviously in evidence, and it's the same riddim, though a different recording of it, to Raphael Green and Dr Alimantado's tune of the same name on "Arkology".) The next track is credited as "Yagga Yagga", also by Lee & Jimmy, but is in fact the dub to "Many a Call" by the Unforgettables, the only major mistake on this set; it's a nice dub, but unremarkable as Black Ark dubs go.

Watty & Tony's "Rise and Shine", however, is one of the great Black Ark oddities - a traditional-sounding Nyabinghi-style chant with obscurely religious lyrics over a fairly minimal percussive riddim, but with spooky atonal piping that distinguishes it from the many similar tunes and gives it the same kind of unnerving feel as parts of Scratch's self-produced, mostly-instrumental albums such as "Return of the Super Ape" or "Revolution Dub".

The set closes with Lloyd & Devon's "Wolf Out Deh" and its version "Shepherd Rod", another condemnation of hypocrites in timelessly Biblical terms sung in a blissful falsetto over a mellow downtempo riddim with warm, swirling keyboards and echoing percussion in the background, and of course Perry's quirky imitation of a wolf's howl among other vocal interjections.

Overall, this is definitely the rootsiest and in my opinion the strongest and most consistent of the Pressure Sounds Lee Perry compilations. While many of the artists and most of the songs on it are fairly obscure compared to, for example, those on "Arkology" or "Open The Gate", they are equally strong (if perhaps not quite reaching the gnostic heights of the latter) and this set amply shows that Perry was and is no respecter of fame or standing, giving the same devotion and inspiration to his productions for lesser-known singers as for the "big names". Any Perry fan, or indeed any roots fan, is unlikely to regret dabbling in a little "Voodooism"...

Monday, June 2, 2008

Lee Perry/Various - Divine Madness... Definitely

Lee Perry/Various - Divine Madness... Definitely
Pressure Sounds PSCD32

This is the third in Pressure Sounds' series of compilations of Lee "Scratch" Perry productions, following "Voodooism" and "Produced and Directed". Like the others, it concentrates on tunes from the mid-70s prime of the legendary Black Ark studio; however, this compilation also comes with a bonus CD of radio interviews with Scratch (from one of which its title is taken). The tunes presented here are a varied selection, showing off a full selection of the proliferation of styles and trends at the Ark, yet bound together by the inimitable Perry magic.

D. D. Dennis's opener, "Woman and Money", is lyrically rather questionable to say the least, with its equation of women to currency as "the two most dangerous things in this world, that a man just can't live without". However, its chugging, R&B-influenced riddim is head-noddingly satisfying, and more so on its B-side, "10 Cent Shank", which, stripped of the vocal, is dominated by its boogie-style piano solo, making it one of the nicer, if less freaked-out, Perry produced instrumentals, and one which shows the heavy, if often overlooked, influence of 50s and 60s US music on his style.

"River To Cross" by the Viceroys also has an "old-fashioned" feel, though in a different way, with rocksteady, country and gospel being the points of reference. Simple yet effective spiritual harmonies make this an unashamedly joyful, if sadly rather short, track. In contrast, Milton Henry's "Sweet Taste Of Memory" is a fine example of the lovers side of the Black Ark, comparable to some of Perry's work with the likes of Junior Byles or George Faith, a soaring and oddly isolated vocal weaving its way around a multi-layered, esoteric yet laid-back mix, giving far more depth than such a lyric would usually command.

Eric Donaldson's "Stand Up" is a blissful roots classic, with the swirling, mesmerising Black Ark mixing turned up to full effect, featuring reverberating percussion and snippets of melancholy but somehow simultaneously joyful trombone. Eric is passionately charged with righteousness, yet relaxed and triumphant as only a Scratch production could make one, joyfully proclaiming "Don't you shed no tears for me, don't you cry no more... everything is alright". The dub is a particularly mad one, with cut-up bits of echoing vocal (not on the original tune), ringing cowbells and extreme use of reverb and distortion: Scratch in deranged genius mode to the fullest extent.

"So Many Ways" by Reggie Antonie is somewhat more conventional, although still rather odd in its combination of a cliched love song lyric, crooned in the style of an easy listening track from the 50s (Elvis and Sinatra both come to mind), laid over a typically slow and eccentric Upsetter skank. Again there is an odd isolation effect on the vocal, one of Scratch's trademarks on tunes by solo singers. The dub is basically a straight version overlaid by random percussion solos which seem (and probably are) totally improvised.

Time Unlimited (the group which first brought to fame Junior Delgado, later to record the magnificent roots epic "Sons Of Slaves" for Scratch) provide the repatriation tune "Africa We Are Going Home", punctuated by dramatically yelping and howling scat vocals (perhaps meant to imitate various African animals). The dub emphasises the jaunty keyboard skank, with ghostly echoes of the group vocals somewhere far in the background, but almost indiscernible on a casual listen. There is a dark yet playful, slightly cinematic mood here that is reminiscent of some Prince Buster ska tunes.

Bree Daniels's "Oh Me Oh My" is another fairly insignificant lovers lyric, yet again given weight and depth by Scratch's inspired mixing, that blissful, swirling vibe in effect again, with fuzzy keyboards in the foreground and distant echoes of percussion like waves crashing somewhere behind. The dub emphasises the fluid, mixed-up textures, bringing back the vocal and various instruments, then dropping them again, and extending for over a minute longer than the vocal to produce a whole which feels a lot more than the sum of its parts.

"Take Warning" by Ralph Haughton and the Ebony Sisters has a classic roots feel and is heavily reminiscent of Perry's work with Max Romeo, particularly in its use of the female vocal chorus, but also in Haughton's preacher-like phrasing and combination of Biblical and anti-gang violence lyrics, and in its satisfyingly solid Upsetter riddim. The version is also reminiscent of those to Max's well-known tracks, with the bass to the forefront, tantalising snippets of vocal (Perry plays on words by cutting the "war" from "warning") and striking, powerful rhythm guitar.

Jimmy Riley's "Sons Of Negus" is even dreader, the most uptempo track on this set, with a powerful, foreboding riddim, and Riley testifying passionately, over dramatic organ crescendos and in his trademark raw, soulful yet uncompromisingly rootsy voice, against false Rastas and acts of slander, while exhorting the true faithful to "stay red now, in the kingdom of dreadlocks". On the version, "Kingdom of Dub", Perry overdubs a spoken-word dialogue between a news reporter and a Rasta elder (played, of course, by Scratch himself), while the heavy riddim bubbles in the background.

The set finishes with a glorious, nearly 10 minute long instrumental version, by the inimitable Augustus Pablo (here playing both synth keyboards and melodica), to George Faith's "To Be A Lover", on which Pablo's playing is so lyrical in tone that, if you know the lyrics to the original (which can be found on the Island box set "Arkology"), it's almost impossible not to start singing along by the middle of the tune, while playful studio effects complement the rich, warm mood: a beautifully mellow closer to a satisfying, if not necessarily all heavy roots, selection which is guaranteed to leave the listener with a smile.

The accompanying radio interview CD features Scratch talking to reggae journalists Roger Eagle and Steve Barker, starting out in relatively straightforward style (talking about Coxsone Dodd, Bob Marley and other contemporaries), but soon getting into the typical Perry rhyming, preaching, quoting lyrics and cryptic plays on words forming a sometimes scary, sometimes funny, sometimes deep and sometimes seemingly wilfully stupid, yet always entertaining stream of consciousness; it's not actually one continuous interview, but edited together from various sessions of the seminal radio programme "On The Wire" from 1984, 1986 and 1991. While probably not something that most listeners would want to listen to particularly often, it's certainly a valuable and fascinating, if tantalising, document of the thought processes of one of the most legendary of eccentric geniuses, including his explanation of his infamous burning down of the original Black Ark and his comments on what is often regarded as his masterpiece, the 1977 album "Heart of the Congos": however, the highlight is Scratch's 3 minute freestyle toast over the super heavy "Ark of the Covenant" riddim from that album, which is track 10 on the disc.

Roots fans may be slightly mystified at first listen by the preponderance of lovers tracks on this set (although they will certainly not be disappointed by tunes like "Stand Up", "Take Warning" and particularly "Sons Of Negus"); however, despite some lyrical quality control issues, sonically this compilation represents the full spectrum of inspired insanity of the Black Ark, and is essential for Scratch fans who want to hear something beyond the better-known tunes from his immensely prolific 70s output. Another nice one from Pressure Sounds.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Misty In Roots - Roots Controller

Misty In Roots - Roots Controller
Real World CD

"Roots Controller" is not exactly an original Misty in Roots album, and not exactly a retrospective compilation, but a sort of mixture of the two - containing 6 tracks newly recorded for its release in 2002, and 7 tracks from previously released albums (3 from 1983's "Earth", 2 from 1985's "Musi O Tunya", and 2 live tracks from the classic 1979 performance at the Counter Eurovision. It's also just about the only album by this classic UK roots band which is readily available, certainly on CD, as unlike their contemporaries Aswad and Steel Pulse, Misty have not yet had a comprehensive reissue program...

The 2002 tracks open the compilation, but there is very little about them to suggest that they were recorded any later than round about 1980, and without checking the dates it would be difficult to tell which were the "new" and "old" tracks. "True Rasta" opens in classic roots style with a spirited horn riff and lyric quoting from the Book of Revelation, as well as borrowing some lines (tho not the riddim) from 70s Black Ark classic "Vampire" by Devon Irons - a tune that fits well alongside any of Misty's early material.

"Cover Up", with its reference to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, is the only track betraying its relatively recent vintage - however, sonically it's pure late 70s business, with a horn refrain slightly reminiscent of the Specials' "Ghost Town" (itself derivative of Prince Buster's "Seven Wonders Of The World") giving it a slight 2 Tone feel. "How Long Jah" is a dark, powerful roots harmony tune, again with superlative horns, reminiscent of Israel Vibration's classic work with Tommy Cowan, and dissolving into a satisfyingly echo-heavy dub, with lyrics addressing the age-old Rasta themes of slavery and its legacy of poverty.

"Almighty (The Way)" is a slight down-turn in quality, with an overly bouncy and "happy"-sounding major key riddim somewhat at odds with its pious lyrics; however, it stops just short of cheesiness, and still carries conviction. "Dance Hall Babylon" is also a little disconcerting lyrically, with its blanket condemnation of newer dancehall music ("heathens, they don't praise Jah in the dance, all they want is sex and vanity") feeling rather reactionary and anachronistic, but still serving to nail their colours clearly to the table as uncompromising defenders of pure roots music, and the mellow, spacious steppers riddim is nice enough.

"On The Road" is another mellow, downtempo track with a celebratory feel, despite its lyrics telling of homelessness and hard times; it's a heartfelt tale of the UK immigrant experience that's reminiscent of the early UK roots collected on the Pressure Sounds compilation "Don't Call Us Immigrants". In all, I doubt any other reggae band was producing anything remotely near to as authentic late 70s to early 80s style roots in 2002 as Misty In Roots were, drawing a powerful contrast with contemporaries who tried to go dancehall or pop in the 80s and 90s, with usually cringeworthy results.

From the 1983 album "Earth" there is "Follow Fashion", another laid-back yet lyrically serious tune condemning escapism and the superficiality of commercial and pop culture, "New Day", with its blissful yet edgy feel, vocally reminiscent of Burning Spear in its almost trance-like devotional tone, accompanied by a subtle, slinky trumpet and echoing guitar, and "Dreadful Dread", with sprightly trumpets and a soaring, floating lead vocal lightening its pleading sufferation lyric; it is obvious that Misty's sound was already something of an anachronism in 1983, ignoring the more minimal, bass-heavy early dancehall sound that was dominating Jamaica at the time for a lush, layered international roots sound drawing on the likes of Culture and the aforementioned Spear and Israel Vibration.

"Musi O Tunya", the follow-up 2 years later, provides 2 contrasting tracks, "Ireation" with its powerful, uptempo skank using a relatively minimal soundscape of bass, echo and percussion - perhaps a slight adaptation to the times, but still clearly UK and uncompromisingly roots, while the title track, named after the original name of the waterfall renamed "Victoria"(?) by the British empire, has a nostalgic, elegiac feel, paying tribute to African heritage, the mood only slightly interrupted by some possibly ill-advised synth keyboards.

However, the real highlights of this set come at its end: the 2 live tracks from 1979's "Live At The Counter Eurovision" (itself a legendary concert and a coming together of several strains of anti-imperialist musical radicalism), which are among the heaviest live reggae tracks on record anywhere (up there with Bob Marley's "Live At The Lyceum"). "Man Kind" opens hard, with a horn riff charged like living electricity, followed by an irresistible skank and a fiery, impassioned vocal delivering a lyric of apocalyptic warning with an ambience of unparalleled power and dread; even during the long instrumental section the vibe remains utterly compelling.

"Ghetto Of The City" is, if possible, even heavier, punctuated by gasps and yelps of pure passion, and a depth of emotion in the delivery of its testimony to poverty and oppression that is almost overwhelming, accompanied by the same inspired organist. This music feels like it has the force to utterly destroy the "ignorant minds, corrupted and confused" that it chants down. Both tracks are almost impossible not to dance to.

Overall, while it has a couple of weaker tracks, this is a compilation of very strong roots music that shows a remarkable consistency considering the tunes on it span a period of over 20 years. It is, however, frustrating in its tantalising offering of a few selections from albums which are almost impossible to get hold of, and it would have been nice for Misty's original albums, in particular "Live At The Counter Eurovision", to have got a full release rather than being plundered to seemingly provide filler tracks for a new album, when Misty were very clearly on form enough to easily provide a full album's worth of roots equalling their older output. Still, while the more laid-back studio tracks take a few listens before they start to come out of the shadow of the ultra-heavy live killers, this is a set that is unlikely to disappoint those who know what they like, if what they like is Roots.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jah Stitch: Original Ragga Muffin (1975-77)

Jah Stitch: Original Ragga Muffin (1975-77)
Blood & Fire, BAFCD010

"Original Ragga Muffin" is a collection of the tunes cut by foundation DJ Jah Stitch in the classic rockers/steppers period of the mid to late 70s, primarily for the near-ubiquitous kingpin producer Bunny Lee (many of whose riddims here were recut incredibly prolifically in the contemporary dancehalls), but also featuring 2 tunes cut for the equally legendary Vivian Jackson aka Yabby You.

The opening track, "Give Jah The Glory", is a recut of the riddim to Burning Spear's "Invasion" (aka "Wa Da Da"), on which another singer (possibly Ronnie Davis) makes a creditable attempt at covering the usually hard if not impossible to cover well Spear. Stitch chants devotion to Jah as well as judgement on Babylon over a typically Spear-style rolling horn riff and a very satisfying deep, dubby mix.

"African People (3 in 1)" is over Johnny Clarke's recut of the perennial classic "Declaration of Rights", in which Stitch takes as his starting point the words "Africa", "Zion" and "Ethiopia", deconstructing each letter by letter into a startling improvised sermon of symbology, one of the most inventive DJ tunes to come out of the roots period.

"Ragga Muffin Style" is Stitch's take on Horace Andy's anthemic "Money Money (The Root Of All Evil)", its sharp horn riff and rumbling rockers bassline mixed into raw dub deconstruction while the DJ's vocal is delivered in an almost hypnotically charged dread bass tone, affirming his authentic dread credentials as a "raggamuffin" (one of the first uses of the term "ragga") from the ghetto.

Horace's magnificent "Zion Gate" and Stitch's accompanying toast "Every Wicked Have To Crawl" are presented next as a nearly 7 minute long 12" discomix, with both singer and DJ masterfully riding one of Lee's deepest, heaviest roots riddims, with dread horns rolling like a river. Stitch riffs on Andy's Revelation-inspired message of warning against iniquity, proclaiming that "Righteousness shall stand for all who know that Satan kingdom got to fall" and chanting devotion to the "red, gold and green" over eerily floating snippets of a typically spellbinding "sleepy" vocal.

Next are 2 back-to-back toasts over Johnny Clarke's bass-heavy Bunny Lee-produced version of Bob Marley's much-versioned "Crazy Baldheads" - "Watch Your Step Youthman" following the lyrical theme of the original by calling down fiery judgement on gunmen and warmongers, while "Crazy Joe" re-uses the riddim for a playful attack on rival producer Joe Gibbs, branded here as a "follow fashion monkey" while Stitch and Lee are "the original foundation in dis ya record creation".

"No Dread Can't Dead" is a joyful, defiant proclamation of survival recorded following Stitch's recovery from a near-fatal shooting in 1976, with floating backing vocals and echoing percussion making this one of Bunny Lee's more complex and satisfying mixes. "Sinners Repent Your Soul" appears at first to be a return to stern Old Testament themes, over a rather more minimal mix of the Johnny Clarke song of the same name, but Stitch soon segues from the religious to the radical: "I and I don't want to be left behind in this poverty and frustration... must be a revolution". Repentance and revolution are elided together in a classic example of roots reggae's fusion of secular and spiritual radicalism.

"Judgement" is a version to Yabby You's mighty, apocalyptic "Judgement On The Land" (which can be found on the utterly essential BAF compilation "Jesus Dread"), with its thunderous bass perfectly complemented by righteous horns and ethereal flute, over which Stitch demands in uncompromising terms freedom "from all captivity", while "Militant Man" keeps up the heavy cultural vibes defending the true, righteous and militant Rasta against hypocrites and impostors over an appropriately martial steppers riddim, with nice echo on the piano and snare drums.

"Real Born African" takes another well known Johnny Clarke tune, "Roots Natty Congo", and elaborates on its theme of African diaspora identity, adding to it a conviction in divine guidance for the "chosen people", regardless of circumstances, with some Big Youth-style hollering and swirling synth effects, while "Cool Down Youthman" is yet another biblically styled warning to the youth to stay away from violence, with a Tubby's mix particularly heavy on the echo and reverb.

"African Queen" is the other Vivian Jackson produced track, focusing (atypically for the man known for being the epitome of dread eschatology) on the mellower side of the roots vibe, with a warm, celebratory affirmation of black feminine beauty, in which Stitch quotes Curtis Mayfield and The Last Poets over lazy, muted horns and keyboards.

The set closes with "King Of The Arena", a celebratory (in a different way) cut to the well-versioned classic riddim (one of the first to make Bunny Lee famous in the 70s dancehall landscape), mixing Rastafari themes with joyful sound system boasting, neatly showcasing in one tune the two sides of Stitch's toasting personality.

Very nicely packaged, with typical Blood & Fire photo-collage artwork, and interviews with Stitch himself giving his own story of the making of the tunes, this is a compilation that is sure to find favour with any fans of DJing in the classic 70s roots style. It also nicely complements B&F's first compilation, "If Deejay Was Your Trade", which features several more of Stitch's (alongside other DJs') tunes cut for Lee. Together, these 2 compilations make the ideal introduction to the great mid-70s Jamaican DJ explosion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Twinkle Brothers - Countrymen

The Twinkle Brothers - Countrymen
Virgin Frontline CD CDFL29

Despite having a name sounding like children's entertainers or a cheesy cabaret act, the Twinkle Brothers (led by brothers Norman and Ralston Grant) are in fact one of the heaviest and most principled roots bands of the 70s right up to the present day. Similarly, despite the tourist brochure looking artwork of their 1979 "Countrymen" album, it is a lyrically wide-ranging, yet totally musically uncompromised, album of bass-heavy steppers sure to please any fan of late 70s roots.

"I Don't Want To Be Lonely Any More" sets the scene with its heavy, intense intro and deep bass riddim. The lovers lyric is delivered by Norman with a passionate intensity rarely seen in reggae, reminiscent of 60s US soul singers, but entirely Jamaican. The foreboding horn riff and heavy drumbeats make this a riddim that would be perfectly suited for an apocalyptic roots lyric.

"Patoo", while lyrically somewhat cryptic, rides a similarly insistent riddim, with prominent syndrums and bird call effects, and the trademark Twinkle bass sound that gives the tune a feeling of floating in deep space. While nice enough in itself, however, it effectively serves as an intro for the undisputed sound system killer that is "Never Get Burn", a deadly steppers anthem which opens with a thunderous rewind sound effect. This tune is simply epic - a Biblically inspired anthem proclaiming transcendence of death with testimonies of the Old Testament prophets surviving captivity in Babylon. "Jah protect I and I bassline!"

"Free Us" is equally transcendent and anthemic, with a majestic, soaring horn line courtesy of the great Dave Madden, and lyrics of deep eco/theological mysticism. "Set us free from the garbage of decay to enjoy the liberty of today". Ralston, his voice more fragile than his bother's, takes lead vocal here, delivering a particularly moving, ethereal performance. The dub, with its deep, swirling echo and emphasis on the horns, extends the mystical journey still further into an intensely gnostic soundscape, with percussion, guitar and keyboards fracturing and reflecting off one another until the bass overwhelms them. A truly heavy musical experience.

"Jah Kingdom Come" is more minimal, with Norman back on militant, righteous form, chanting judgement on false preachers and deceitful politicians, and a fairly minimal, almost Nyabinghi style backing, leavened by judicious application of horns and keyboards, but clearly showing the Brothers' uncompromising Rasta worldview and refusal to deal with "politricks".

"Since I Threw The Comb Away" is a passionate testimony of the social rejection of Rastas by everyone from parents to employers. The riddim is as intense and charged with fiery energy as the vocals, making this another classic, rousing steppers anthem, fuelled by the same deep faith in the face of adversity as "Never Get Burn". "Go away with your victimisation, your discrimination!"

"One Head" warns piously against intoxicants, in particular alcohol, a common if somewhat strange theme among particularly religious devotees of Rastafari. The springy, slightly Lee Perry-ish sounding keyboards and clattering percussion interweave nicely for a mellow vibe despite the rather stern message. The strangely titled "Bite Me" is actually a rather moving, bittersweet love song, with particularly nice harmonies and plaintive guitar work, perhaps harking back to the group's origins in the rocksteady era. Another mellow tune, evoking the rural vibe alluded to in the title.

The album closes, arguably too soon, with another heavy roots tune, the apocalyptic "Babylon Falling", on which Norman sounds almost tortured in his proclamation of the coming fall of urban civilisation. "I and I sit upon the mountaintop and watch how Babylon falling"; a deeply prescient vision of economic and ecological disaster which rural, agricultural communities will survive, but which will leave cities as wastelands - a message which, albeit somewhat hidden under theological metaphor, is there in the whole album for those who have ears to hear it, explaining the significance of its title.

Like all Virgin Frontline reissues, this comes exactly as it did on the original LP. It would have been nice to have a few bonus tracks in the form of more dubs or (particularly) DJ versions (which definitely exist of several tracks here). However, the sound quality is excellent, and this is still a very strong album of hard yet soulful roots - one of the relatively few reggae LPs which are solid from beginning to end. May it never get burn, nor get eaten by no worm.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Prince Jammy/Various: The Crowning Of Prince Jammy

The Crowning Of Prince Jammy
Pressure Sounds CD PSCD25

"The Crowning Of Prince Jammy" is a collection of some of the man born Lloyd James's greatest productions from the late 70s and early 80s, while he was emerging from his "Prince" status as King Tubby's protégé and establishing his own identity as a producer alongside contemporaries such as Jah Thomas and Junjo Lawes, but before the digital revolution of 1985 allowed him to undisputedly claim his position as "King".

The set opens with Black Uhuru's " King Selassie I" (aka "I Love King Selassie"), taken from their Jammy-produced first LP "Love Crisis"; this appears to be the original 1977 version, rather than the overdubbed 1979 version, and is a classic example of the early Uhuru, and Waterhouse, sound. (It can also be found on the Greensleeves re-release of both versions of "Love Crisis"/"Black Sounds Of Freedom").

Next up is Wayne Smith's evocative "Time Is A Moment In Space", a mournful song of lost love which in fact originates from an old country and western tune. A wonky, spooky keyboard is reminiscent of some of Lee Perry's later Black Ark work (eg. Danny Hensworth's "Mr Money Man"), but the heavier, more monotone bass vibe of early dancehall is already evident. The dub has the classic Tubby's echo techniques, but in a pared-down, strong yet subtle context.

Johnny Osbourne's rousing steppers anthem of theological devotion, "Jahovia" was, oddly, not released as a single at the time, but only on the "Fally Ranking" LP. "The Earth is the Lord and the fullness thereof, but it's heating like a melting pot", and the riddim is suitably hot and unrelenting. The version is a particularly bass-heavy, echo-laden workout, "warrior style".

Half Pint's "Puchie Lou" is a completely different vibe, breaking the chronological sequence by skipping forward to 1983; it's a bouncy, melodic love song in an uptempo yet mellow dancehall style, Half Pint showing the lighter side of the Waterhouse singing style. Mighty Rudo's "Waterhouse", a joyful tribute to both the studio and district, is on a similar riddim, despite being from after the birth of digital reggae in 1985. The lyrics resonate with localism of a wholly positive kind and a loved yet never idealised community, while at the same time pleading for an end to violent "political" rivalries conducted on a petty parochial basis: "I'm not here to build no strife, I just want to see everyone staying alive... I don't want to live in the sophisticated kind of cities..."

Earl Zero's "Please Officer", however, takes it straight back to the dark side with another rumbling, bass-heavy steppers riddim and a strident lyric of police brutality which pulls no punches in its condemnation of the whole Babylonian system. This 12" version is extended with a full-length dub to over 7 minutes, and is followed by its equally long and equally heavy B-side instrumental "Pablo In Moonlight City", one of Augustus Pablo's dreadest melodica pieces.

Half Pint returns with "Mr Landlord", over the classic "Hypocrites" riddim, its strong reality lyrics attacking exploitative ghetto landlords leavened by an irrepressibly funky horn riff. The following dub is the one which gives this compilation its title, a thunderous version to Junior Reid's classic "Jailhouse". Why the vocal of this is not included here, I don't know; however, enough snippets of it remain to make the tale of unjust imprisonment and torture comprehensible, adding an extra layer of paranoia to the spine-chillingly dread, wild and multi-layered dub mix; a true classic of "versioning" reminiscent in feel of Black Uhuru at their darkest and most industrial.

"Mr Vincent" by the fairly unknown group Black Crucial is another anti-landlord testimony of poverty, again lightened by the major key sweetness of its riddim, with a particularly nice piece of piano floating in the mix. Johnny Osbourne's "Mr Marshall", however, is another relentlessly heavy steppers tune, opening with powerful crashing of guitars and cymbals and propelled by militant double drumming, the stridently passionate lyric chanting down all warmongers and hypocritical authority figures, making no distinction between state and gangland hierarchies; another of Osbourne's most crucial tunes from the "Fally Ranking" album.

"Return of Jammy's Hi-Fi" is a masterful dub deconstruction of Horace Andy's classic Tubby/Harry J produced "Pure Ranking", showcasing the heaviness and inventiveness of Jammy's mixing, with the blissful keyboard melody melted down and echoed into wild, tantalising swirls of percussion, without even needing to retain any of the vocal. Sugar Minott's "Give The People What They Want" is probably the least memorable track here, due to its relatively conservative (at least in comparison to most of the ultra-heavy tunes here) mix, but still a nicely mixed and sweetly voiced, if rather staid, plea for rights and justice.

The closing track, Hugh Mundell's "Jah Fire Will be Burning", is, while not having as much radical studio deconstruction as most tracks here, still a highlight of the set for being simply one of the heaviest, most apocalyptically dread roots tunes ever recorded, with Nyabinghi style drumming, deep lo-fi bass, and a haunting, majestic trumpet underneath one of the Blessed Youth's darkest and most passionate vocals, describing, in imagery straight from the Book of Revelations, the downfall and bleak aftermath of industrial society. "The smoke of the dreadful furnace turns the sun and the air into darkness... what a great, great day that shall be." Prescient, terrifying and revelatory.

This is by far one of the heaviest collections of late 70s/early 80s tunes out there; almost every track on it is a killer for anyone who likes music which is dark, tense and political, yet also joyful and spiritual. While there are many other Prince/King Jammy compilations around, many of them overlapping with this one, you cannot go wrong with this as an introduction to one of the foremost second-generation reggae producers. My only (slight) gripe with it is the non-inclusion of the original vocal of Junior Reid's "Jailhouse" (I'm still looking for that on CD), which seems odd considering its dub provided the title for the compilation; however, this album proves Pressure Sounds' status as a worthy ascendant to the throne of reggae reissue labels.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Chantells & Friends - Children Of Jah 1977-79

The Chantells & Friends - Children Of Jah 1977-79
Blood & Fire CD BAF028

"Children of Jah" brings together some of the finest roots productions of Roy Francis, released on his Phase One label in the late 70s. While there are only 10 tracks here, unlike most Blood & Fire compilations, they are all 12" discomixes, and thus all well over 5 minutes (the longest reaching 8 minutes), meaning that this release is better value for money than that would imply, with over an hour of music here.

The harmony trio The Chantells, despite giving their name to the compilation (as perhaps the best-known act on it), only provide 3 tracks here, as opposed to 4 by the solo singer Lopez Walker, the first of which, "Children of Jah" is extended with its DJ cut, "Time To Unite" by U Brown. "Children of Jah" has sweet yet raw harmonies, somewhat reminiscent of Israel Vibration, but also of older "country style" groups such as the Maytones, the lyrics on the classic Rasta theme of survival of the righteous and innocent despite suffering and exploitation. U Brown picks up the theme and runs with it, and while his lyrics may be somewhat clichéd, his effortless delivery is still a pleasure to listen to, and the riddim is a warm and sweet head-nodder with a lazy Ansel Collins organ lick.

Lopez Walker (oddly often described as "Spear-style", despite a greater vocal similarity to someone like Prince Alla) delivers "Jah Jah New Garden" over a similarly warm and blissful, downtempo yet still powerful riddim, with passionate conviction in his voice aided by floaty piano and strong yet subtle echo in the dub portion of the tune.

Errol Davis's "Path I Have Taken" is a re-titled "Free Speech and Movement", originally by the Royals, combining liberation theology with condemnation of the "heathen", yet uplifting rather than doom-laden in tone, with a punchy horn riff and mellow, rolling guitar work. The dub contains nicely worked echoed vocal snippets along with reverb to keep the vibes mellow yet complex enough not to be dull.

"Assemble Not Thyself" by The Terrors, however, is one of the true highlights of this set, a beautifully anthemic piece of "country style" roots in which the relatively unknown vocal group bring the great Jamaican art of harmonising to one of its undisputable pinnacles. A stern lyrical warning against associating with "sinful people", laced with Biblical imagery of destruction, it nonetheless transcends its arguably conservative message to produce something genuinely moving and timelessly powerful which could as easily be seen as a slightly veiled astute observation of the inherent hypocrisy of "democratic" state politics. While less rich and multi-layered than Scratch's work on that album, the riddim is reminiscent in its ancient-feeling dignity combined with blissful transcendence of "The Heart Of The Congos", and the Terrors nearly equal that group in the beauty of their vocals. A track every reggae harmony fan needs to own.

Walker returns with "Send Another Moses", another cut to the same riddim as "Jah Jah New Garden", again on an Old Testament-inspired theme of repatriation, but this time calling for a revolutionary saviour in much more martial terms, "to whip them [the "heathen" again] with the rod of correction, to throw them in the pit of destruction". The dub is choppier and more kinetic than the first cut.

Steve Boswell & Jah Berry's vocal/DJ combination piece "Cool Rastaman Cool" is the most uptempo track here, with a propulsive, syncopated riddim (Sly Dunbar in "metronomic" style on drums), equally suited for head-nodding or energetic stepping, and a righteous lyric warning against deception and violence, accompanied by complementary solos on both guitar and piano. Berry's toast is in the tough late 70s style which foreshadowed the transition from roots to dancehall, punctuated by charismatic whoops and yelps, and keeping on going for a full 4 minutes, equal in length to the vocal.

The Chantells return with "Desperate Time" (re-using the riddim from their previous lovers hit "Waiting In The Park"), the sweet riddim combining with the stark lyric to produce a tune which manages to uplift while testifying to harsh, bitter reality. Franklin "Bubbler" Waul's fluid, tinkling piano is showcased on the lazy, mellow dub.

Lopez Walker's "Trial Days" has a similar message of injustice and suffering, combined with wry proverbial condemnation of the oppressors who punish without thought: "the horse who gallop on the track no care what him back foot say". Again the depressing tone of the lyrics is mitigated by the sweetness and warmth of the music and the subdued yet blissful feel of the mixing.

The Chantells' last tune, "Natty Supper", is the other highlight of this set, a powerful, passionate testimony of community and celebration as resistance, and of the divine power to be found in the natural cycles of growth and life, providing a bounty of food for all; an ethos deeply rooted in the understanding that food and therefore agriculture is essential to human life, and, despite the obfuscations of politics and economics, the only true key to survival. Anthemic horns and an inspired dub mix drenched with swirling reverb and echo confirm this tune's status as a roots classic (and probably one of the best tunes possible to cook or serve a meal to).

"Fly Away", Lopez Walker's final track, is the only one in which his vocal style is in any way similar to or imitative of Burning Spear, but he still does not sound like a Winston Rodney copyist, just someone using the same kind of rootsy, semi-improvisatory vibe. The wistful lyric again draws on the concept of a transcendent "promised land", far beyond everyday sorrows, and is complemented by a bluesy guitar and another laid-back, head-swaying riddim.

Like 129 Beat Street, this compilation profiles artists who are relatively unknown (at least outside serious reggae collector circles), but entirely comprises top-quality, sophisticated yet authentic roots to rival anything by more familiar artists. Another compilation which, while perhaps likely to be overlooked due to its lack of a "big name" and its short number of tracks, is certain not to disappoint fans of classic 70s roots and harmony.