(from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 6, 2004)
Record labels have lots of sneaky ways of padding the material on a boxed set to fill up multiple cds. Some sets include snooze-inducing 'original mono' and 'remixed stereo' versions of the same songs. You might also get alternate takes that you quickly discover were alternates for a good reason. As a last resort, the box will eat up disc space with the dreaded live concert material that either sounds as if it were recorded in the restroom or involves an audience sing-along. Armed with your handy cd burner, you'll usually have no trouble at all boiling down a typical four-disc set into a single disc of must-have songs. But not so with This is Reggae Music (Trojan/Sanctuary). Toss out the nonessential tracks on this four-cd album, and you won't end up with anything less than three cds.
The Trojan label has the edge over other record companies in being able to give their boxed sets instantly credibility by plugging in tracks from the founding fathers of reggae. The Wailers, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibberts are all onboard with absolutely fundamental entries. The included songs are so fundamental, in fact, that if you own other Trojan boxes, you'll experience some overlap. Otherwise, you'll appreciate finding "Small Axe," "Israelites," "Many Rivers to Cross," and "Pressure Drop" all in one place. The Paragons, The Ethiopians, Lee Perry, The Melodians, The Heptones, Big Youth, I-Roy, and Burning Spear are other big names that stake out their place in history here. But it's the lesser known artists that provide This is Reggae Music with its biggest kick.
I hadn't heard Dave and Ansel Collins' "Double Barrel" in over 30 years. One of the local Top 40 radio stations in Grand Rapids liked to play the song to fill time before the hourly news, presumably because Ansel's shouted boast, "I am the magnificent," and the one-finger piano melody pushed it into novelty song territory. I hadn't realized it was reggae at the time. In fact, I didn't know about reggae in 1970, so it was a hoot to run into this wild romp again. Andy Capp's "Pop a Top" is another great example of how a simple idea gained sufficient traction to chart big in Jamaica and the U.K., though the song isn't well known here. The lyrics, such as they are, couldn't be more natural. Andy's repetition of "pop a top, pop a top" mimics the sound of the electric organ, which seems to be singing the exact same words. The song also stakes the claim of being the first dub recording, but its wonderful atmosphere evoking a carnival game of chance involving a monkey (or Canadian soft drink, if you want to be literal-minded about it) makes this ditty unforgettable.
The chronologically arranged songs make it fun to chart the development of Jamaican music beginning with the mento-flavored "Iron Bar" by Lord Tanamo. Along the road from ska to dj-style reggae come American soul styles adapted to the new island rhythm like Bongo Man Byfield's "Bongo Man," which borrows liberally from Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," plus Alton Ellis and the Flames' "Cry Tough" and other tracks indebted to doo-wop. Alongside these somewhat derivative pieces are full-blown forward-looking songs that take advantage of the musical sea change, including Hopetown Lewis' "Take it Easy," with bare-bones lyrics that perfectly complement the rock steady cadences.
The first disc, featuring the earliest ditties, is the one I'll keep coming back to, but each one is packed with both obvious pleasures and choices that lead me to the attached booklet that explains the historical significance of each song on board. Early songs by The Wailers barely hint at the genius to come, while every note sung by Toots Hibbert in his inimitable church shouting style is barely contained by the recordings. There is much to listen to and marvel at here, and the slick packaging plus fun booklet add up to another big plus.
If you want to hear da future of dub, or at least its antecedent, listen no further than the Sons of Armageddon's The Softest Touch (Magic Pony Records), which is so heavily electronified, it's hard to tell where programming ends and production begins. Jamaicafication is on the back burner, too. An identifiable reggae beat doesn't pop in until five-minutes into "ES Smothered," and by then the video games and children's toys have all but taken control of the mix. This is definitely the bleep-bloop school of modern dub by way of acid jazz, though fastest tongue in the west Kirk Knuffke takes these spacey soundscapes to legato land with his Miles of cool trumpet solos. And is that a harmonica in the middle of "Shambles Factory," and how does it morph so seamlessly into a horn? Funk, hip-hop, Indian film music samples and the occasional theremin contribute to the otherwordly perks.
Mixologist François K. postulates an alternate-universe future for dub on Deep Space NYC, Vol. 1 (Wave Music/Deep Space Media). Deep space is exactly right. These black holes of sound swallow just about everything except drums and bass. If Joe Claussell's "Awade (Joe's Jungle Sounds Dub)" were any more minimal, we'd be listening to an unmodulated sine wave. But while few tracks here can actually be called songs, that's because they're less about musical development than they are about constructing a rhythmic atmosphere for New York City's weekly Deep Space dance parties. And you don't have to be a club initiate to experience the bliss. On "Rootsman Dub," François K. transports the legendary dj U-Roy to a shiny high-tech setting that will compel you to keep inching up the volume as this beautiful nebula of a track goes supernova. A Skatalites' tune gets twisted into "Fugitive Dub," while Mutabaruka inveighs against the usual human stupidity on "What Goes Around Comes Around." Other artists include Detroit techno dj Jeff Mills, Berlin producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, and UK dub ninja Jah warrior. [www.deepspacenyc.com]
Lee "Scratch" Perry benefits from diminished expectations on Panic in Babylon (Moll-Selekta). Things have gotten so bad with the legendary reggae producer-performer's artistic output over the past decade, that an update of a marginal song like "Inspector Gadget" as "Inspector Gadget 2004" is cause for celebration. At least we can assume the latest version won't be any worse than the original. In fact, most tracks end up being fairly listenable due to the stellar instrumental backup of the tight White Belly Rats. Producers P. Brunkow and Dj Startrek liquefy the horn parts and puree Scratch's acid poetry with tastefully applied dub effects. As for Perry's pot poetry, suffice it to say that the best audience for the extremely basic wordplay may be toddlers. But for heaven's sake don't play "Pussy Man" – not because it's too suggestive, but because the 'Dr. Lee,' 'Dr. Me,' 'Dr. Tree' rhymes are probably too juvenile for kindergarteners. Give the disc extra points for its off-again, on-again obsession with Hindu deities - plus the catchy keyboard groove of the aptly named "Baby Krishna." And don't miss venerable trombonist Rico on the title cut.
The shimmering vibraphone notes echo greedily in space at the opening of "Belleza," signifying a new age opus, perhaps. The percussion doesn't give away the game as it bounces in, but the accordion suddenly plunges us into Latin elevator music territory. Charanga Cakewalk's Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge (Artemis/Triloka Records) introduces us to the pleasures of The Virtual Cumbia Lounge, complete with all the whimsy, odd instrumentation, and retro-future ambience you might expect. The chirpy, noncombustible "Volcanico," for instance, is as nightmarishly happy as anything on Brian Wilson's Smile and the best soundtrack for driving in the rain since Kraftwerk's "Autobahn." Quite unexpected is the fire of the mambo-flavored "La Cumbia Lounge" on which Mexican-American producer, multi-instrumentalist, and one-man-Cakewalker Michael Ramos – late of The BoDeans and The Rembrandts – gives us a full-tilt, near-melt-down big band arrangement that's anything but subdued. Vocal samples, hip-hop beats and unusual instrumental textures work beautifully supporting traditional cumbia and charanga motifs. And just when you think the damped-down mood is starting to make you feel itchy, a track like "La Negra Celina" pops up with George St. Claire's ebullient lead vocals and a feel that's anything but laid back. Producer Hex Hector closes the disc with a trippy remix of "Celina," too. Think of Cumbia Lounge as the inspired Tex-Mex equivalent to Manuel Galban and Ry Cooder's wayward Mambo Sinuedo.
The Best of King Sunny Adé, King of Juju (Wrasse Records) draws most of its selections from King Sunny's Island Record releases. A full six tracks hail from 1982's Juju Music, two from 1983's Synchro System, and "Ase" from 1984's Aura. Two songs are from Nigerian lps from the same time period and "Jingo" from Manu Dibango's 1994 Waka Afrika. Look elsewhere for earlier tracks or material from the last 20 years. But given the constricted time period, Adé and Andy Frankel did a good job of choosing songs that stand apart from one another, considering that listening to a typical King Sunny album is often to get far too well acquainted with a few endlessly recycled riffs. Thus, "Ase" boasts a wonderful Stevie Wonder harmonica solo, "Synchro System" a dubwise propulsion, "Ja Funmi" an infectious melody, and "Samba/E Falabe Lewe" a druggy steel guitar figure. That makes Best of King Sunny a nice introduction to the King, though Americans may find the import price a wee bit steep. [Distributed by Caroline Records]
What do Yiddish music, Celtic music, and Kentucky have in common? All three are inhabited by David Roberts and Tina Sue Larkin, better known as Fortuity. Senka's Joy (Fortuity) showcases an intimate recording style and the unlikely but highly effective blending of Yiddish and Irish instrumentals, sometimes within a single track ("Kolomeyka/Tashi's Joy") and elsewhere going it alone. Violin, harp, and mandolin feature most prominently in these tastefully arranged songs, and the folkie, playing-on-the-porch directness is a nice counterpoint to over-produced fare. If you enjoy strong melodies and good fiddlin', it's more than fortuitous that Fortuity finds you. [www.fortuityduo.com]
Anthologies of pop music from the South Pacific come along about as often as Halley's Comet. Consider it a bonus that the Putumayo label's South Pacific Islands disc doesn't only satisfy the curiosity, it's also great listening. Most of the 11 selections feature arrangements centered around acoustic guitar, which either argues for common traits throughout an ancient pan-Pacific culture or simply tells us that most islanders listen to the same shortwave pop music broadcasts. One of the best reps of an inclusive sound is New Zealand-based band Te Vaka, featuring seven members from Western Samoa plus people from Maori, New Zealand, Samoan, and Cook Island backgrounds. Sweet harmonies, an infectious beat, and a whistling solo show up on "Abebe" by Papua New Guinea's Telek. Three cuts by two bands from New Caledonia plus the cheery "Mana Ma'Ohi" from Rapa Nui/Easter Island's Matato'a open the keyhole to a couple of the more obscure musical locales you'll ever run into. The warm vibes and lovely vocals make this collection perfect for shivery winter nights far north of the equator.
You don't have to buy the concept. Treat yourself to a Hershey bar instead. But the music is reason enough for Putumayo's Music from the Chocolate Lands, which offers top-notch songs from the standpoint of easy listenability. Because chocolate production, from crops to manufacturing, involves a huge chunk of the world, the artists hail from just about every continent except Antarctica. I'd heard of exactly one, Susana Baca, so pieces by India's Susheela Raman, Haiti's Beethova Obas, and Hawaii's Teresa Bright came as a pleasant surprise. If your ears bruise easily, or if you simply enjoy that candy-coated laidback lush folkie-based world beat style, you'll find lots of rewards with Chocolate.