Last year about this time I wrote a fairly scathing diatribe for New Times about the sorry state of reggae, which ran to coincide with the third annual Bob Marley Festival. It generated some heated letters, as well as a few nasty phone calls, but after re-reading the piece the other day, I stand by my assessment of the music. Too much of the new stuff sounds like claptrap to these ears, from the reliance on drum machines and synthesizers to the frightening dearth of truly inspired songwriters. And try as I might, I've yet to find much heart or soul in the dancehall discs I've forced myself to endure.
So you can call the statement below a bit of crow chomping if you want (and I would disagree), but I gotta admit that not long after that piece came out, I found some albums that helped reaffirm my faith in the music's future. In fact, throughout 1996 modern reggae produced some of my favorite albums. I don't know how they'll hold up in years to come, and I know there isn't a Funky Kingston or a Natty Dread in the bunch, but for now they sound mighty fine.
Examples? Easy. Michael Rose's Be Yourself was warm and moving emotionally and musically -- both an updating and an extension of his excellent work with Black Uhuru. Mystic Revealers' Space and Dub worked its bizarre magic somewhere in the middle ground that separates the Seventies-dub experiments of Augustus Pablo with the electro-weirdness of Lee Perry's recent work. Jazz Jamaica's Skavaran updated the sound of early Sixties ska without parodying the music (no surprise, since some of the music's innovators were present on the set, including former Skatalite Rico Rodriguez). And I can't forget Mikey Spice's Born Again, Sizzla's Burning Up, Frankie Paul's Duets, Junior Reid's Listen to the Voices, or Macka B's Discrimination.
Similarly, I'm happy to note -- again, without a taste of crow or a hint of shame -- that this year's Bob Marley blowout, going on Saturday, February 8, at the Bayfront Amphitheater, includes some excellent acts. Cedella Marley Booker will be there, of course, as will Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers (who are still looking for the right way to carry their dad's legacy into the Nineties). And there's also the baffling inclusion of film hotshot Woody Harrelson (proving, I guess, that advocating the legalization of hemp has its sideline perks). Beyond that mix of the expected and the unexpected, there are some must-sees lined up, some of whom have excellent new albums out that are worthy of your time and attention.
Heading the list is Culture, the outstanding vocal trio led by Joseph Hill. The group debuted in 1977 with Two Sevens Clash, a searing set of doomsday paranoia and Rastafarian prophecy that ranks among reggae's finest albums. They've yet to better that classic, but 1989's Cumbolo comes close, and practically everything they've recorded has wonderfully spotlighted Hill's piercing tenor and the harmony vocals of Albert Walker and Kenneth Dayes. The group's latest release, One Stone, fits well into the Culture canon and features some of Hill's finest writing ("Slice of Mount Zion," "Tribal War"). And he sings on it like a haunted, tormented angel.
It would take a damn good album to make me forget about Maxi Priest's horrid late-Eighties remake of Cat Stevens's "Wild World" (is there another kind of Cat Stevens remake?) and that album is Man with the Fun. At home with reggae crossovers and dancehall-tinged romps, Maxi Priest uses the disc to absolve himself of past sins, going head to head with ace vocalists Beres Hammond and Buju Banton on "Heartbreak Lover" and the also-ace duo Chaka Demus & Pliers on "Happy Days." The album's masterpiece, however, is "That Girl," a brilliant pastiche of dancehall, soul, and hip-hop recorded with vocalist Shaggy and built on a riff sampled from Booker T. and the MG's Sixties instrumental "Green Onions." (Avoid the "Urban Mix" version stuck to the end of the album, which removes the Booker T. sample to no good effect.)
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Not all of Bob Marley's children are involved with eldest son Ziggy's Melody Makers. Both Julian and Damian Marley have new albums out, and if neither of them rises far above the pop-reggae mix of Ziggy's group, there's nonetheless some good stuff on both. Julian's Lion in the Morning, recorded with the fine Uprising band, boasts warm production, some amazing keyboard work (by several players, including Tyrone Downie), and Julian's taut, gripping vocals. He stumbles when he ventures into pop and modern R&B ("Now You Know," "Babylon Cookie Jar"), but "Same Old Story" and the title track suggest Julian will someday be a songwriter worthy of his surname. Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley uses Mr. Marley to pay tribute to his dad with covers of "Trenchtown Rock," "One More Cup of Coffee," and "So Much Trouble." Worth hearing, but only if you're familiar with the originals.
For the last eleven years Lenval "Shayar" Jarrett has brought his distinctive and choppy rhythm-guitar style to Burning Spear's excellent backing band. Show Me the Real Thing, issued on the Hollywood-based SMG label, is Jarrett's second solo album, and if you can get past the overbearing drum-machine work, you'll find some terrific, politically charged songs, nearly all of which were written by Jarrett. Give him a live drummer and Jarrett should be a monster on stage.
-- By John Floyd