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.