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"...