Spirit of Music
Move over Ames Brothers, Kim Sisters, and Staple Singers. Another musical family has hit its stride. In past years Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers have been as long on talent as the Carter family, but as short on memorable songs as the Cowsills. That's changed with Spirit of Music, a solid sibling effort full of eminently catchy pop, even if its impact is blunted by an underlying slick professionalism. After all, coming of age in the footlights, when the strongest impediment to success is living up to the family name, often makes for weak art, as Sean and Julian Lennon know all too well.
A strong sense of direction that leans an elbow into R&B rescues Spirit of Music from the watery mainstream that previously dogged the Melody Makers' music. Although powerful in concert, on disc the Marley family has suffered from cluttered arrangements that put lots of energy behind well, simply maintaining that level of energy. On this new release, producer Don Was unexpectedly steps forward to guide Ziggy and his kin into a pared-down sound that grabs hold of a sense of direction right at the start of Spirit's strongest cuts. The blues-harp wail that opens the record with "Keep the Faith" defines the territory ahead, throwing focus on the singer and the song rather than the usual busy beat. Ziggy carries off this minor anthem with great appeal, but rises to his finest moment on "We Are One," another tastefully subdued "big unity" composition. When the Zig exhorts us twice in a row to "Wake up!" in "We Are One," he evokes a pure Bob Marley moment.
The songs that follow hang in there, though the thinness of the rhetoric starts taking its toll on "Beautiful Day," in which a simplistic message points to a deeper meaning in the same way that a truism reveals truth: You can't disagree with the sentiments, but that doesn't make them interesting. Fortunately the engaging ease with which the songs deliver their messages helps get the music by, and the vocalists can hardly go wrong with rhythms supplied by legendary reggae musicians such as Earl "Chinna" Smith, Tyrone Downie, and Lenny Castro.
Still, while Spirit is musically strong, its own spirit is suspect. When Ziggy proclaims, "I will no longer live this life in the flesh" on "Gone Away," the inevitable response is disbelief. Whatever other attributes Spirit reveals, physical abasement isn't one of them, as Stephen Marley's rendition of his father Bob's "All Day All Night" demonstrates on the next cut. Dad could get away with singing, "I'm gone away to the place where there is no night or day," because the statement wasn't just felt, it was true. But in Stephen's case he's got to be referring to something like the Red Roof Inn after a particularly grinding stint on the road. Here's hoping that next time around the Marley clan consolidates its strengths and delivers a text that's as free of pretensions as the Brothers Gibb at their peak. -- Bob Tarte
Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow
Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow, two of the most innovative and influential turntablists around, performed a hotly anticipated live set at a San Francisco club this past February. Shadow is best known for his widely hailed album Endtroducing ..., which combines samples, beats, and wax abuse into a spacy panorama of hip-hop, soul, ambient, and altrock. Cut Chemist is a lyrical beat mixer and remixer, working as a turntablist for both the Latin party-machine band Ozomatli, and the more straight-ahead rap group Jurassic 5. These two big names working together is the DJ equivalent of Al Green and Marvin Gaye doing a full concert of duets.
Shadow and Cut Chemist's set was especially noteworthy because they used mostly seven-inch records instead of the DJ's usual tool, twelve-inch vinyl. Brainfreeze consists of two untitled 25-minute tracks recorded during a rehearsal for that show, with Chemist spinning the beats and Shadow scratching and dropping in melody snippets. Because it is composed almost entirely of uncleared samples, Brainfreeze sits in the gray area of legality. The duo has been selling the CD at their performances, with wider distribution done the old-school way: A "salesman" has reportedly been pulling up to record stores on the West Coast and selling Brainfreeze out of the trunk of his car. Copies have since been fetching in excess of $60 on eBay, the auction Website.
Is it worth that much? Mmm, no. But as far as mix tapes (CDs in this case) go, Brainfreeze is a pretty stellar document of two of turntablism's greats operating at the peak of their talents. In the early '80s, DJs steamed off the labels of the records they used so no one could bite their style; with DJs literally being the sum of what they played, obscure (yet crowd-pleasing) vinyl offerings could remain just that. True to that form (and no doubt on their lawyer's advice), no records are credited on Brainfreeze, though any fan of late '60s funk will find some familiar hooks at work as the record ebbs and flows in intensity, just like a DJ's set.
Opening with a vocal snippet from the kung fu cult flick Thunderkick, the record makes martial arts an overt metaphor for DJing, a point driven home when the music immediately segues into a pair of songs celebrating turntablists. As Shadow and Chemist build interlocking grooves, the two demonstrate their depth of knowledge by translating sounds from a different era into something brand-new.
The record isn't as far-reaching in depth and scope as Shadow's studio work, though the pair does re-create "The Number Song" from Endtroducing ... as well as Chemist's remix of it. But Brainfreeze is a masterful demonstration of the talents and ears of two DJs helping to push the form forward. -- David Simutis