Bob Marley and the Wailers
The Complete Bob Marley & the Wailers: 1967 to 1972, Part II

This treasure-filled three-CD box set, which showcases Bob Marley and the Wailers' work with legendary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry in 1970 and 1971, is the second installment of JAD Records' projected ten-CD series. The Complete Bob Marley & the Wailers project attempts to capture the six years the late great reggae king Bob Marley and Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer recorded for JAD Records, the independent label founded by singer Johnny Nash ("J") and producers Arthur Jenkins ("A") and Danny Sims ("D"). It also marks the seminal period between the group's internship with producer Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd at Studio One (which resulted in hits such as "Simmer Down" and "It Hurts to Be Alone") and their signing to Island Records, the label that brought them international recognition.

The outstanding and Part I of the series contains 47 tracks recorded from 1967 to 1970, 23 of which were previously unreleased outside Jamaica (including the extremely rare single "Selassie Is the Chapel"; only 26 copies were pressed). Part II is just as vital. The combination of the group's songwriting and vocal skills, Perry's innovative production ideas, and the exceptional musicianship of his studio band the Upsetters resulted in some of the best Wailers tracks ever committed to tape. Together they created passionate songs that denounced oppression ("Soul Rebel," "400 Years," "Reaction," "Small Axe"), glorified God -- or Jah, in Rastafarian speak -- ("Jah Is Mighty"), and praised the "healing properties" of marijuana, or kaya, as they called it ("African Herbsman," "Kaya"). With Perry the Wailers evolved from a group with potential to one with a solid musical identity and a strong sense of direction. In fact, the Upsetters' hard-driving rhythm section -- Aston "Family Man" Barrett (bass) and his brother Carlton (drums) -- would remain with Marley until he lost his battle with cancer in 1981, at age 36.

While many of the key recordings of the Perry era have already been released, either on the up and up or as unauthorized bootlegs, none has the same standard and sound quality as those found on this set; many appear in stereo for the first time. Furthermore, the original recordings were digitally remastered at London's Abbey Road Studios and were organized chronologically for this collection. The compilation benefits from the inclusion of numerous dub (instrumental) mixes, alternate takes, and five extremely rare recordings (among them a previously unreleased version of "Kaya"). The package is completed by a 24-page booklet filled with rare photographs and in-depth liner notes written by reggae experts Bruno Blum, Leroy Jodie Pierson, and Roger Steffens. The only drawback to Part II is that several of the group's classic recordings, including "Duppy Conqueror," "Sun Is Shining," and "Small Axe," could not be offered because of legal wranglings. But these 64 tracks (totaling more than three hours of music) contain more than enough of the Marley mystique to satisfy.

-- Sara Gurgen

Hootie and the Blowfish
Musical Chairs

Seventeen million albums sold, two Grammys, and still no critical respect. But what can you do? Their singles are fodder for adult-contemporary radio -- where anything that sticks to the middle, doesn't rock the boat, and expresses simple sentiments of love and frustration is a shoe-in, as opposed to, say, music specific to its genre, like Brit pop or alt-country. Hootie and the Blowfish's essential style is a bland amalgam of American roots music and Eighties alternative pop. They don't do anything particularly well but are adequate to appeal to the average sensibilities of the casual music fan who is probably content with a hummable melody.

For anyone wanting more, the Blowfish are a bust. No matter what style they attempt, it all turns to Hootie-mush. There's a twelve-string guitar at the beginning of "Las Vegas Nights" to signal the folk-pop of the Byrds, but the music immediately melts into a cheese casserole, with nothing sticking out. If anything, the song is a brilliant reflection of how lacking in menace Vegas has become in this age of Disney-fication. Like Vegas, H&B are fun the whole family can enjoy.

For their third major-label release, they continue to offer up their harmless, feckless hearts. "Only Lonely" is orchestrated by slacker rocker Beck's father David Campbell and highlights homogeneous harmonies for artificial sweetener. "Michele Post" is positively rustic in comparison, featuring as it does guitarist Mark Bryan on banjo. Oddly, no matter what stylistic turn they attempt, their inability to write a piece of music that incorporates more than the same, standard chords and first-thought melodies is what makes them so infuriating. For a better songwriter, these tunes wouldn't make it out of the bedroom. Upping the distortion for a few of the tracks doesn't create rock either. Without any rhythmic elasticity, Hootie and the Blowfish are just John Denver with amplifiers.

-- Rob O'Connor

Junior Kimbrough
God Knows I Tried
(Fat Possum/Epitaph)

Record companies, major and indie alike, have been known to scrape the bottom of the barrel when one of their artists dies. This would seem to be just the case on the part of Fat Possum, the label that helped recently deceased north Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough and which has just released a posthumous collection of Kimbrough outtakes. God Knows I Tried contains only eight tracks (barely 36 minutes in total) culled mostly from live recordings done at various Mississippi juke joints in the 1990s. But this time the bottom of the barrel sounds great; everything is eminently worthy of release.

Kimbrough was one of those regional oddities that the South, particularly the north Mississippi hill country, still seems to spit out now and then. He didn't make his first full-length album until he was 62, and he spent most of his career playing in the honky-tonks of his native state. Spotlighted in the 1992 documentary Deep Blues, written and narrated by the late music critic and blues fanatic Robert Palmer, Kimbrough picked up a younger, mostly college-age, mostly white audience during his final years. Lots of hip-looking, bewildered tourists started showing up at his Holly Springs club, known simply as Junior's Place, on Sunday nights to drink and dance the night away. He even toured with Iggy Pop. In fact, there are a few bass lines and grooves here that would not sound out of place on the Stooges' Funhouse. Kimbrough sounded primitive and modern all at the same time -- some have called his style one-chord trance music. Whatever the label, it was unique, and Kimbrough was an undisputed master.

-- Ross Johnson

Mercury Rev
Deserter's Songs

Sooner or later, Mercury Rev will learn that eccentricity doesn't guarantee quality. The Buffalo, New York, troupe of noisemakers has been attempting to craft weird pop gems since their 1992 debut album, Yerself Is Steam. Somewhere in an HR Puffinstuff and Willy Wonka-filled land, Mercury Rev is completely normal, but here in the real world their only kindred spirits are acid-casualties and fellow psychedelic freaks the Flaming Lips. While the Rev once crammed their records with scuzzy guitars and extended noise passages, they have slowly been moving toward the more refined, orchestral, but no less bizarre style that characterizes their fourth record, Deserter's Songs. They still use freaky sounds and write pop-structured songs with an acoustic-based baroque weirdness of pianos, horns, and strings. Unfortunately the less noisy the Rev is the more boring they get.

For a band prone to onstage outbursts of audio anarchy, Deserter's Songs lacks any trace of excitement or energy; the music seems too well planned and too controlled for any emotion to escape. Lush orchestration is nice for sonic wallpaper, but what used to set Mercury Rev apart was the way they twisted idiosyncratic noise around loosely structured compositions. Now the band seems to be practicing for future soundtrack work rather than re-examining their once-intriguing oddball trips. Deserter's musical highlights are actually infringed upon by the band's occasional oddities. When Mercury Rev strives for normality, as with "Goddess on a Hiway," the album's most straightforward song, they mess with the closest thing they have to a pop hook, with an undesirable outcome. Showcasing Jonathan Donahue's wobbly voice, the big rock guitars of the chorus are undercut by a harpsichord and, in place of a guitar solo, a noisy theremin outburst. This desire to make their albums sound off-kilter extends to their recording techniques. Captured on an archaic machine that gives the music a warbling, underwater, or old-movie sound, the minute-and-a-half piano ditty "I Collect Coins" sounds like a faraway broken cassette that speeds up and slows down. It's interesting in a technical sense, but in the past Mercury Rev has shown itself capable of being engaging in more ways than that. Deserter's Songs does not live up to expectations.

-- David Simutis

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Sara Gurgen
Ross Johnson
Rob O'Connor
David Simutis