The Honest Jon's label -- launched by the U.K. record shop of the same name and co-owned by none other than Blur's Damon Albarn -- has built an eclectic roster over the course of its initial three releases. First came Albarn's Mali Music project, a set of rootsy collaborations with West African artists; release number two was London Is the Place for Me, a collection of English calypso songs from the Fifties. The imprint's latest CD, Watch How the People Dancing: Unity Sounds From the London Dancehall, 1986-1989, continues the label's excavation of Anglo-Caribbean hybrids, chronicling the recordings of Unity Sound System, which helped bring lo-fi minimalism to London's dancehall reggae scene.
Unity Sounds' entire repertoire owes its existence to just one single. King Jammy and Wayne Smith's 1986 tune "Sleng Teng" revolutionized reggae by rendering the familiar island music in the tinny vernacular of cheap keyboards and electronic drums. Every song here, produced in the crew's home studio, follows that classic track's lead: The Casio sits front and center, banging out simple two-chord rhythms over which obscure vocalists sing anthemic numbers like "Control the Dancehall" and "Ride the Rhythm."
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To the uninitiated, the prospect of synthesized drums and preset riddims might sound antithetical to the bluesy fervor of Jamaican reggae, but what's remarkable about Unity Sounds' music is how soulful it is. The vocalists here deserve much of the credit for rendering passion so palpably. In sweet, swooping falsettos and sandpaper-throated low tones, they forge the simplest phrases into double-edged swords, evoking a strange combination of melancholy and joy. Errol Bellot's "What a Wonderful Feeling," for instance, wraps a man's delight in the sad, crackling harmonies of his lover's inexpressible agony. Even the instrumental versions of the vocal songs wring a spooky sorrow out of hollow analog chords and bare-bones drum patterns, suggesting -- as Selah Collins sings on "Pick a Sound" -- that soul is where you find it, whether it be in a chorus or a Casio.