Friday, October 29, 2010

Ripple Reggae Round-up; featuring Toussaint, J-San and the Analogue Sons, and Lee "Scratch" Perry

It’s all about the riddim.

It’s about the message.  It’s about the rebellion.  It’s about the groove, and the spirit, and at its best, it’s about the euphoria.

That pretty much sums up my love affair with Reggae.  Always casually aware of the Jamaican sounds, it wasn’t until after college that my mind and soul delved headlong into the reggae groove.  Bob Marley had been a constant in my consciousness, but it was really Black Uhuru that ushered me in through the Rastafarian doors.  Different than Marley, way different, Black Uhuru was heavy and mean.  With the bass heavy riddims of Sly and Robbie way upfront in the mix, Black Uhuru rocked like no other reggae I’d heard.  They were heavy and dark.  They were mean and subversive.  They were dangerous. Everything I loved about metal and punk was there, only different, transformed into a melody dense groove that could elevate me like nothing else I’d heard. 

And at its deepest level, that’s what reggae is.   Reggae was/is the music of rebellion.  A yearning love of Jah Rastafari layered against a rampant anger at the status quo.  It was the music of a people no longer willing to be repressed to the ghettos of Kingston or elsewhere.  The people searching for spiritual union and political overthrow. 

Reggae was punk in every sense of the word.  The Clash knew this, as did many other punk bands from the UK.  In the ‘80’s I did a reggae show at KSDT FM where I concentrated on the reggae in rock music.  Elvis Costello, The Tazmanian Devils, The Slits; the soul of reggae was everywhere.

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to start a reggae column here; an occasional buyers guide to true reggae classics and new releases you may enjoy.  I had a friend once who, like so many people outside of Jamaica, liked Bob Marley, but had no idea where to go after that.  My collection became his learning ground.

 Let me know if this works for y’all.

Toussaint – Black Gold

 Reggae, like rock, comes in many flavors and textures, and the genius of roots singer Toussaint is his ability to blend several of these styles into a truly rapturous release.  Possessing a voice that simply drips with soul, reminiscent of Greggory Issacs or Freddie McGregor, Toussaint is just as adept dropping a little lovers rock into the mix with his roots and rockers style.  And even though Black Gold is rooted firmly in the grand tradition of reggae, Toussaint isn’t afraid to mix things up, drop in some modern flavors, play with the instruments, all the while keeping a solid message.  And then again, there’s that voice.  Very few styles of reggae work successfully if the singer can’t pull it off, and Toussaint’s the real deal.  The former lead singer of the band Soulive, Toussaint’s voice is deeply soulful, his tenor lilts and drifts around the driving rhythms and scatting guitar.

“Nobody Knows,” starts things off with about as solid a rockers style hit as I’ve heard in a while.  Check out the trickling runs of fingers across the piano keys, adding a rare jazzy, neo-ambient texture.  Toussaint harmonizes with his voice perfectly on some vocal double tracking while he rants against technology and a return to a more spiritually grounded life.   Bass and drums, always so important in reggae bounce and dance across the track.  This isn’t casual, lay-in-a-tourist’s-hammock-and-soak-in-the-sun reggae, this is heavy rockers style and it packs a punch. Toussaint lightens it up a bit on the next song “This Song,” bringing a gentler Marley-esque rhythm to the game.  Some key horn and guitar fills, and some killer work on the drums lift this one to heady heights.

I’m more a fan of rockers style reggae, which is touch more aggressive in message and tom and high hat drumming, so it’s no surprise that I’m more enchanted by songs like “Roots in a Modern Time,” which follows a Black Uhuru template in its killer vocal style and chorus, than I am by songs like “Hello My Beautiful,” which is pure lovers rock in the Bob Andy vein.  But truth be told, Toussaint does lovers rock as well as the best of them, great harmonies, melodies, and that voice . . . always that voice.  In truth, with Toussaint at the helm, I don’t really care which path he takes me down.  I’m just enjoying the journey.

Toussaint doesn’t shy away from controversy, tackling topics like his own cocaine addiction, (“Conquering Cocaine”), racism; racial pride and racial harmony (“Black Gold” and “Changing”) to the ongoing Rastafarian struggle against repression (“Marching”) and tackles each subject with passion, power and authenticity.  Toss in some gentler numbers like the find-yourself message of “Be You,” the pure spartan joy of “Rain Again” with it’s string accompaniment, and the dignified searching for understanding of “Patient,” and Toussaint has created a true modern classic of reggae, bringing in enough variety and styles to please the casual reggae listener or even the hardest reggae fan.  Highly recommended.

J-San & the Analogue Sons – One Sound

With all respect to J-San and his boys, I gotta be honest, I approached this CD like a man being forced to handle nuclear waste.  Nothing personal, but I’ve been accosted with a seemingly endless stream of self-produced, American reggae (think Big Mountain) that the mere thought makes my skin blister.  I just can’t get into reggae that’s been filtered through two generations of American television and nothing more than the love a full bong.  Reggae is so much more than that.

But dropping this gem into the player, I quickly changed all my opinions.  J-San and the Analogue Sons are the real deal.  Fusing a rockers style with some of the melodica-heavy dub style of Augustus Pablo, J-San has put himself firmly onto my reggae map.  Perhaps one of the things that makes this stand out so much is the production, the entire album recorded on a borrowed analog reel-to-reel.  Man, does that give warmth to J-San’s voice and add just the right fullness to the occasional horns and melodica.  It’s like a warm blanket on a cold night, One Sound is an album you want to wrap yourself in and snuggle down for the night.

Then, of course, there’s the songs.  J-San has studied the traditions well and doesn’t push things too far.  Bringing in a touch of Ben Harper soulfulness, J-San’s music is totally organic..  In addition to the Augustus Pablo touches, there’s a Dennis Brown quality to J-San’s approach, a romantic pain to his voice, a yearning that just can’t be faked.  J-San lives the roots, that’s clear.  “One Sound,” is a horn-laden rocker with a solid riddim that just never lets up.  Harmony vocals are subtle but so effective.   The bass locks in with the rampant snare while the guitar drops in the perfect fills.  Maybe there’s a touch of Junior Reid in the dubness of the style and it’s message of music being the key to overcome one’s struggles.   I don’t know, but it rocks.  “Time Hard,” lightens the tone a bit with a gentle guitar intro over the constant beat, but maintains it’s focus on the hard times right now felt by so many who’ve lost their jobs.  A potent reggae style of bringing a jubilant air to a time of struggle.  Times may be hard, but we can still bond together under one groove and celebrate life.   Nicely done.

“Solid” is so well crafted, and J-San’s voice so laden with soul, I could’ve sworn I was listening to a lost Dennis Brown classic.  “Walk Alone,” drops down into a bass heavy rockers style, while “No Give Up,” finds fertile ground in a deeper dub-thick style.  “Yes We Can,” could be an unrecorded Augusts Pablo standard, with it’s horn/melodica intro and spartan beat.    A little bit of everything here, and it’s all good.

Lee “Scratch” Perry - Revelation

We’ll end this first reggae column with a contribution from a true reggae legend.  Other than Bob Marley himself, Lee “Scratch” Perry may just be the next most important figure in reggae music.  Some call him a genius, others call him a madman, certifiably insane.  Both are probably correct and there’s just no denying the importance Perry has had over Jamaican music for the last 40 years.  A producer, mixer, songwriter, performer, along with King Tubby, Perry created the genre of reggae we now know as dub.  Perry produced many of the seminal Bob Marley and the Wailers tracks like “Small Axe,” and “Duppy Conqueror,” and was single-handedly responsible for slowing down the hyperkinetic ska beat to create the looping bass-driven beat that has become known as the reggae “riddim.”

With a pedigree like that, any new release from Lee “Scratch” Perry is worthy of attention, and Revelation is a rock solid Perry release.  Featuring huge looping runs of bass in the typical Perry dub style, Revelation is just that, a Perry revelation.

The man has it.  Simply put.  Mad, crazy, insane, whatever you want to call him, no one else in reggae ever so successfully pushed the boundaries of the music away from the pop formula that drowned the genre in the ‘90’s towards something vibrant, unique and, simply wild.  “Fire Power,” with it’s “having a party” refrain is about as far away from “One Love” as reggae gets but it’s still totally recognizable with it’s defiant beat and looping bass.  Most importantly, it’s totally infectious.  “Used to Drive a Tractor in Negrille,” is classic Perry; the master delivering his left-field lyrics over a futuristic reggae beat. 

As always, in the eccentric world of Perry, no topic if off limits when it comes to lyrics.  While most of the songs parlay Perry’s devout Rastafarian views, with a strong preponderance of incorporating judeo-christian beliefs and bible mythology, Perry’s not adverse to tossing a song like “Freaky Michael” into the mix where he proclaims that he likes his big nose and decries black celebrities who alter themselves.  Over the years, Perry’s voice has become more weathered and definitely slightly weaker, but that’s not a distraction.  If anything, it adds that sense of grandfather wisdom to Perry’s tales of “Holy Angels” and “Revelation, Revolution and Evolution.”  I mean the man is 74 years old, and damn, if he doesn’t still sound magnetic.

Eccentric, totally original, bizarre at times, but never less than captivating, Perry is a true treasure.  52 albums into his career and he’s still as enticing as ever.


Buy here: Revelation
buy mp3: Revelation

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