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o Jah Ova Evil - Forever Judah
The Jah Ova Evil collective, under the direction of siblings The Gideon and Selah, have here crafted a fitting tribute to their brother Alty George Nunes III, who died in 2011 at a mere 24 years old. Alty's stage name was the acronym-lending J.O.E., and the music on Forever Judah straddles roots and dancehall in a manner that would no doubt have pleased him very much. It's J.O.E.'s own vocal that powers the opening "Belly of the Beast," potently paving the road for a mashup of singers and chatters that include his brothers, Hempress Sativa, D'excell, Nicole Miller and Jawawah. Miller sings wholeheartedly of love both earthly ("Sweet Thing") and divine, the latter also espoused by Jawawah's "Your King is on the Way" and a very royal-sounding Hempress on "Jah Live." Full-blooded as The Gideon and Selah sound on their solo tracks, it's their teaming via "Badadeng" that serves as the disc's rollicking centerpiece. Meanwhile, D'excell handles the herbal side of things with "Roll it Up," though his "Strive" is undermined by a stiff-sounding riddim that's the album's only misstep. The majority of the backing is quite good, contrasting in laid-back manner when the vocals go rapid and giving those at the mic all the space they need throughout. Interestingly, Forever Judah was released by a label based in Slovakia, but that doesn't stop the sound from being imbued with the unmistakable quality of pure Jamaican goodness. -Tom Orr
Batelier Records buy
o Chuck Foster - Last Call
Noted Southern California reggae DJ, author and producer Chuck Foster has now made five albums (not including companion dubs) as a singer/songwriter of the music he has always championed, proving that his first foray in 2012 was not just a lark. Since then, I've seen some derisive online commentary regarding his works as a full-on recording artist. And that's sad, because the guy's actually quite good at it. There's no point in comparing him to your most revered reggae icon; he's not trying to be one. He's just a dude who's had a longstanding relationship with reggae and has extended that relationship to being an active participant on his own terms. His patois-free singing emphasizes an admittedly clever, heartfelt way with lyrics and a knack for covering subjects both topical ("War in the Middle East," "The Refugees") and personal ("Pick it Up [Mr. D.J.]," "I'll Take Jamaica"). Plus he's got some topflight musicians in his corner, including veteran guitarist Tony Chin, multi-instrumentalist and mixer Mike Irwin and organist Tony Bird. Like his previous releases, this one's generous at 15 tracks, sharing also its predecessor's feel for unpretentious reggae music that's got equal measures of good times and serious concerns to share. Keep at it, Chuck. -Tom Orr
Catch Me Time Records buy
o The Holdup - Leaves in the Pool
This one's a bit mysterious at a glance. Someone of my limited intelligence might wonder if The Holdup is a band or just one guy, given the cover depiction of a solitary figure with his face covered and the fact that the sparse liner notes don't even come close to providing complete information as to who does what. Internet to the rescue: reportedly they are indeed a band; they're from San Jose and you can glean from listening rather than reading that they have hip hop and indie rock overtones in their music. In fact, the music on Leaves in the Pool (The Holdup's sixth release) is reggae largely in beat only, and the drums providing the backbone of that beat sound suspiciously canned. Still, it ain't bad stuff. Vocalist and main songwriter Michael Garmany crafts some solid popish hooks and sings with a cool, collected air even when themes of loss, alienation and frustration abound. Songs like "Neighborhood," "Imperfections" and "Nothin's on Fire" speak from the heart, and the sparse contemporary production allows the confessional lyrics to trade prominence with Grant Averill's sparky lead guitar. It's clearly geared toward the younger set, so old rootsters might not choose to tune in. But those who appreciate the versatility of the reggae beat and how it can be about more than burning down Babylon will enjoy chilling and dancing to this. -Tom Orr
The Holdup buy
o Nesta - Nesta
There seems to be more than one band called Nesta out deh, so allow me to clarify: the subject of this review is the Richmond, VA-based group of that name. They were kind enough to send me their first full-length CD, and Bob Marley implications aside, they play a most agreeable sort of Americanized reggae, with real bass and drums at the core, real guitar and keyboards sprinkling niceness 'pon the foundation, crisp production courtesy of guitarist/keyboardist Ron Lowder Jr. and a lead singer (guitarist/vocalist Nick Wade) who puts forth both conscious sentiments ("Soldier," "His Story") and more offhand observations ("Bottle That I Bought") loud and clear. Nesta has a pop/rock side that they demonstrate to good effect on songs like "Box to Surprise" and throw in some dancehall breaks as well. Pay little heed to the couple of brief, pure-filler tracks that seem to have something to do with Quaaludes and instead bask in the ways in which Nesta make the reggae sound their own, best among them being the trembling psychedelic guitar tones and surround-sound percussion of "Just a Little Bit," the electric piano hook and anthemic bounce of "Music in My Soul" and "Wicked Man," which sharply tackles the kind of subject matter that unfortunately never gets old. An impressive debut. -Tom Orr
Self-released buy
o Fluid Foundation - Fluid Foundation
This debut disc from yet another Southern California reggae band starts out wonderfully with "Liquid Spacey," an instrumental featuring swirling steel pan riffs and an ambience that straddles roots and electronica. I perused the promotional particulars on Oceanside's Fluid Foundation as I was listening, and the word "progressive" caught my eye. That word can be a loaded one in everything from music to politics, but doesn't seem to be any cause for alarm regarding this band. Their sound, despite being unmistakably contemporary, stops well short of too much gloss or overproduction. So their songs, which focus largely on love, good times and an overall chill aesthetic, are warm and inviting. Multi-instrumentalist/composer Rob Eldon and guitarist/ukulele player/producer/engineer Lewis Richards are the main architects of the music, which has some of the same modern vibe as Stick Figure (whose Kevin Offitzer drums on a few FF tracks), adds a sunny sheen via the steel pan and uke, and tops off with relaxed vocals that don't get much more heated than on the anti-conformity song "Take the Lead." Guest artists Pato Banton, Marlon Asher and Micah Brown add their tones in a few spots, nicely rounding out reggae music that provides an apt background for, as another song title states, "Livin' Carefree." It's not militant but it's thoroughly enjoyable, good for cooling down when the fire burns a little too hot. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o J Boog - Wash House Ting
As intrepid readers of this site and avid followers of reggae, I'm sure you're all aware of the distinction between J Boog the singer and J-Boog (note the hyphen) the rapper. Both were raised in Compton, but the similarities end with the upbringing locale and nearly identical names. Would that I was so well-informed. My own familiarity with the now Hawaii-based J Boog has been limited at best, despite some of my reggae-loving peers speaking highly of him. Of course, lip service is one thing and good music is another, and the latter is foremost in my mind as I listen to the first J Boog album in my collection, Wash House Ting (I love both the title and the cover image, which shows the singer perusing a newspaper as he appears to be waiting at a laundromat). Born Jerry Afemata and of Samoan heritage, J Boog wields a vocal style that's got a strong soul/r n' b quotient and makes his reggae pleasingly poppy without being lightweight, even given the high number of love songs among the tracks. "Sweet Love" draws parallels between deep affection and actual confectionary treats and "I Got You," a sultry number featuring New Zealand's Aarahdna, are two of the numerous ways J Boog looks at matters of the heart. But the opposite sex is not his sole focus. "Blaze It For Days" demonstrates his passion for herb (with Lion Fyah and Gappy Ranks commenting affirmatively) and "See Dem Deh" imparts the need to pass along love and respect with the kind of tenacity emphasized on "Brighter Days." The riddims are played mainly on real instruments and some cut-and-paste hip hop ingredients are mixed in, giving the disc a variety accentuated by further guest appearances that include Chaka Demus, Buju Banton and a couple members of the Morgan brood. It all results in a disc of zesty, punchy reggae that's got range and style to spare. -Tom Orr
Wash House Music buy
o Gary Nesta Pine - Revelations
Sure, many a reggae artist has been proclaimed the next Bob Marley, but even eight years as lead singer of the post-Marley Wailers band didn't give Gary Nesta Pine that kind of labelling, let alone the kind of baggage that would, for better or worse, go along with it. But make no mistake- he knows the craft of reggae singing very well. I first got to know his name and vocals via some works on the Easy Star label and he was certainly a key player in the development of what the New York City reggae scene has become. Prior to that, Pine was the front man of Jamaican band City Heat and since has built a noteworthy solo career, of which Revelations is the latest example. His voice is husky and has the necessary yard-accented authority, but crucially, it's got soul to boot. Thus he goes full on into the skewering indictment mode of a song like "Mr. Wallstreet" as well as giving his take on love songs the tenderness it needs. Roots are a concern of his, as shown on the Africa-referencing "Great Kings" and elevation of Rastafari "Thanks and Praise." Recorded in Jamaica and New York with a sharp crew that includes former Burning Spear bassist Devon Bradshaw, Ziggy Marley guitarist Ian "Beezy" Coleman (both of whom had a hand in composing, producing and arranging) and veteran keyboardist Robbie Lyn, the disc ranges from the nyabinghi-powered plea "Justice" to a return to the ethos of "Raggamuffin" that wears the term like a badge of honor and rocksteady-style romp "Dancing in the Rain." The sentiments expressed aren't so much revelations as Pine weighing in on tried-and-true consciousness, but that's more than enough to make this CD a finely rendered and musically mighty slice of contemporary reggae. -Tom Orr
Jahdax buy
o Tiken Jah Fakoly - Racines
Alpha Blondy has long been my main man in African reggae, but another Ivory Coaster, Tiken Jah Fakoly, also has his niche and always puts out strong Motherland-flavored Jamaican goodies of his own. Fakoly's new disc Racines isn't his own as such: it's a collection of reggae covers. Such a move can be risky, especially when dealing with songs as iconic as the ones he goes at. What makes the album work- and in a big way at that -is how decisively Fakoly tailors the songs to fit his style without sacrificing any of the original intent. The basic tracks were recorded in Jamaica and anchored by Sly and Robbie, then embellished in Bamako, Mali with such traditional West African instruments as the kora (21-stringed harp/lute), balafon (gourd resonator xylophone) and tama (talking drum). Vocally, Fakoly's dry, lower-register range fits into the sonic picture with griot-like perfection. So Burning Spear's "Slavery Days" and "Christopher Columbus" become new, somewhat darker creations, Jr. Byles' "Fade Away" gets reinvented as more of an Afrocentric anthem, "Is it Because I'm Black" and "One Step Forward" burn with the solidarity of Fakoly duetting with original singers Ken Boothe and Max Romero, Peter Tosh's "African" retains and builds upon its militant grace and "Get Up, Stand Up" crackles anew on the strengths of Fakoly's wailing and U-Roy's accompanying chat. The whole album is smashingly good, but I'd give top honors o "Police and Thieves," which Fakoly renders in a weary yet tightly-coiled manner that brings new appreciation to a very familiar song. Essential as Fakoly's original material can be, he really pulls off a reggae master stroke here. "Nuff respect, and how about a second volume? -Tom Orr
Barclay/Universal buy
o Clinton Fearon - This Morning
What a joy to know, see and hear that this veteran reggae musician is still at it and isn't missing a mark. Clinton Fearon was as crucial to the Gladiators as Peter Tosh was to the original Wailers, but going solo had to happen because being part of a band that was mainly fronted by someone else didn't give him the means to make all the music he had in store. Now Seattle-based and as much a force on the international reggae scene as ever, Fearon gives us This Morning, a typically fine release which awakens to new possibilities in reggae music, including the marimba that figures prominently on "Talk" and "Doctor Say" (a song about more than one manner of going green). Like his previous works, though, this one isn't ditching any genuine reggae vibes. Recorded in his adopted home town and mixed in Paris (fitting, considering how many of Fearon's tour engagements take place in France), This Morning resounds with real instruments, bubbling riddims, lead and harmony vocals aged to supple perfection and not one false move. Fearon handles nearly all the guitars and bass, and the latter is acoustic on most of the tracks, making for a naturally solid flow throughout. Veteran drummer and Soul Syndicate original Santa Davis is behind the kit the majority of the time, one-dropping flawlessly foundational beats on which Fearon builds songs of inspiration, redemption, reflection and joy. The title track lets us know just how vital it is to start the day with a song in your heart, while others like the frank "No Justice" and confessional "Fooling Myself" speak to ongoing concerns like highly questionable police tactics and the realities of living in a world where such things are inescapable. Feel free to take all 13 of the killer tracks to heart, but be certain to particularly do as instructed on "Turn up the Music": put your cares aside and dance. It's reggae after all, and in keeping with the best of the lot, it's as intent on keeping your mind engaged as your body swaying. -Tom Orr
Boogie Brown Productions buy
o Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad - Make it Better
I still say they've got one of the most laugh-inducing band names in any genre of music, but my other contention regarding this crew from Rochester, NY continues to hold just as true: they make great reggae. Though GPGDS has dabbled in bluegrass-tinged Americana sounds as well, that's another (albeit noteworthy) story. Let's talk reggae here. Okay, let's talk about the album cover first. It shows a globe, Eastern Hemisphere front and center, superimposed over a grinning human face. I'm guessing the title Make It Better refers to improving the whole world, and however tall an order that might be, music, reggae in particular, has long been a factor in my believing it to be possible. And the Squad's sound is honed with some sharp edges that up the possibility factor, from the funky reggae/soul feel of several tracks to the clavinet-stung mashup "Walk Right Talk Right" and jammed-out conclusion of "What Kind of World." The production, unmistakably contemporary, is clean here and a bit murky there, a good fit for modern roots with appreciable touches of variety (including horns and some vocal backing by Elliot Martin of John Brown's Body). Skilled players and singers all, GPGDS are a strong indicator of how vital the reggae scene is in the sometimes-chilly climes of the northeastern U.S. as well as the world beyond that is the focus of their concerns. They hold up their end by making their music with passion and danceable expertise, and tuning in to it is recommended most heartily. -Tom Orr
Rootfire Collective buy
o Morgan Heritage - Strictly Roots Deluxe Edition
I've seen Morgan Heritage live numerous times and had the pleasure of interviewing them on one occasion. In addition to being very engaging in both settings, reggae's top family band are among the music's most dependable when it comes to consistent quality. Notwithstanding, both the title and intent behind the Grammy-winning Strictly Roots are welcome reminders of what reggae's main intent ought to be. First released in 2015 and now re-presented with additional tracks and remixes in a double CD pack, the album delivers on the words that set the tone during the intro of the opening title song: "welcome to the roots zone." That doesn't mean every song is (or has to be) about burning down Babylon or African repatriation. But there is some roots aspect to all the songs, whether in terms of subject matter, instrumentation, riddim, connections between reggae and other roots music (including rock and even Celtic) or the overriding feel of musical unity bolstered by such guests as Jo Mersa Marley, J Boog, Flogging Molly, Bobby Lee of SOJA, Chronixx, Shaggy, Eric Rachmany of Rebelution and Gil Sharone. The band's trademarks- most prominently the vocal tag-teaming between Peter and Gramps Morgan -are at peak strength, so songs like "Child of Jah," "We Are Warriors" and "Celebrate Life" present different sides of consciousness while lighter fare like a few lovers tunes and the whimsical "Sunday Morning" shows that even the most committed reggae rebels have a softer side. Disc 2's added tracks continue the upstanding intent, most prominently the majestic "Lion Order." Rounding out the set are a trio of remixed takes on the herbal-inspired "Light it Up," each blowing its own brand of potent smoke. Even if you have the original Strictly Roots, do invest in the Deluxe Edition, which handily ups the reggae quality factor and opens new possibilities as to what it means to be roots. -Tom Orr CTBC Music buy
o Hirie - Wandering Soul
Wandering Soul, indeed. The young lady known as Hirie, whose pensive profile countenance is pictured on the cover of this CD, has lived in the Philippines, the U.K., Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. It appears she now calls Southern California home, if the recording sites and participants (including members of the Expanders, the Soulutionaries and the Divine Crime) are any indication. I suppose it's both her background and her current location that contribute to this, her second album, being a work that's marked by a range of reggae styles and an overall warmth that's quite inviting. "Melody of a Broken Heart," for example, sounds very much like it's coming from the perspective of someone who's been there, while "Don't Take My Ganja" is clearly a song that's not going to suffer fools easily. Yes, Hirie's got her tender side, but her tough side is also channeled through her melding of reggae and heartfelt accessibility. She even calls out those who question reggae as her chosen means on the acoustic, Hawaiian-tinged "Almost Home." I have no such objections. This gal has got a voice sweet enough to opt for a safer pop style that would bring greater commercial success than reggae, and while there are some pop leanings in her sound, she succeeds hands down at being a reggae real deal. Vocal assists from Trevor Hall, Nahko Bear and Nattali Rize help in the endeavor along with creative instrumentation, rich arrangements and crisp production. A very fine mixture of contemporary and traditional, Wandering Soul is a reggae refresher with soul to spare. -Tom Orr
Rootfire Cooperative buy
o John Brown's Body - Fireflies
Two decades after the release of their debut LP, John Brown's Body is still going strong. Rightly hailed as one of America's very best reggae bands, they've weathered personnel changes (original front man Kevin Kinsella is graciously thanked in the liner notes for being "the architect of JBB"), at least one spotty album and the challenges of, to put it cryptically, not being Jamaican. Their previous CD Kings & Queens was a return to form and its dub followup broke new sonic ground for the band. They're continuing that forward momentum with Fireflies, which is full to the brim of genuine, organically-rendered drum and bass lockdowns, soaring horns, dangerously sharp guitar and keyboard chops and vocals that are patois-accented but respectfully filtered through an American sensibility, all produced and mixed mainly by the masterful hands of Dubfader with additional kudos to saxophonist Drew Sayers and the band. Elliot Martin has become an increasingly assured lead singer, and this time around he's joined by the grainy vocal tones of guitarist Jay Spaker, who compliments Martin throughout many a passage and takes the lead entirely on three songs, including the tongue-tripping herbal celebration "High Grade." Martin and Spaker are the primary songwriters as well, penning a wide scope of reggae reasoning that ranges from the conscious ("Who Paid Them Off?," "Badman") to the celebratory ("Pure Fire") to the surreal ("Fireflies") to the tragic ("Hard Man fe Dead," featuring a sharp assist from Arise Roots' Karim Israel). It was the potency of the grooves that grabbed me first, and once the refreshingly cliché-free lyrics began to make their mark, there was no doubt that John Brown's body has made yet another absolute keeper. One of the top reggae releases of the year for sure, and I do hope a dub version is upcoming. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Easy Star All-Stars - Radiodread
As of 2006, the reggae and world music magazine The Beat had not yet ceased publication and I was one of their contributing writers. I offered to review Easy Star All-Stars' initial release of Radiodread at the time, but was told that another of the mag's scribes had already taken it on. The angle I was going to use back then is the same one I'm going to use now, and it's a disclosure I've been sitting on these ten years: I know nothing about the music of Radiohead or their album OK Computer, which Radiodread remade inna reggae style and has now been rereleased with extra tracks in honor of its tenth anniversary. So I'm exempt from the baggage of making comparisons to the (reportedly dark and moody) original and can only review it as reggae music. As such, I like it. Quite a lot. Many of my favorite reggae artists are in on this, and I was straight away taken by the familiar trembly voice of Horace Andy making his way through "Airbag," adding a perfect glow to the reggae-with-rock-guitar arrangement. Likewise, the late Sugar Minott graces "Exit Music (For a Film) with an eerie yet comforting edge, the Meditations lay their usual harmonic goodness all over "No Surprises," Morgan Heritage brings a reasoned urgency to the timely "Electioneering," Toots Hibbert testifies as fervently as ever to the rocksteady bounce of "Let Down" and Israel Vibration injects a wise, world-weary air into the nyabinghi framework of "The Tourist." I could continue a simple blow-by-blow here, but let me interject the perhaps preposterous assertion that listening to this album makes me feel as though I understand the intent of the Radiohead original. Modern life, particularly due to the ever-encroaching blessing/curse of technology, is a tricky balancing act that involves us not losing our souls in a world where cyberspace is often valued over personal space. (The title track of Linton Kwesi Johnson's More Time album comes to mind, expressing a similar POV.) Yes, any number of Radiohead fans and non-Luddites could be reading this review and responding to what I just said by facepalming and/or saying "well, DUH!," but come on, I jumped into this half blind and made it clear I was doing so. Now back to the music. It's impeccably produced, holds to a foundation of myriad reggae styles with little compromise (roots, dub, ragga, etc.) and could certainly serve as a lesson to reggae artists who might be looking to take on some darker shades of subject matter in their own works. So thank you for bearing with my half-the-story-has-never-been-told approach, and believe me when I say that even from a strictly reggae standpoint, this disc is most satisfying and then some. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Raging Fyah - Everlasting
The resurgence of roots in reggae music continues, with Jamaican artists naturally leading the charge. On their third release and with a lot of acclaim and international touring already under their belt, Raging Fyah shows that the roots revival is to be Everlasting indeed. A self-contained quintet, Raging Fyah invites favorable comparisons to Inner Circle, Steel Pulse, Mystic Revealers and early Third World. They're not simply imitators, however. Lead singer Kumar Bent has a flexible vocal style all his own, intoning imploringly on the sweet-but-substantial "Ready for Love," reaching for the indomitability of the human spirit on "Try Again" and laying into "Getting Dread" with an intensity that compliments the tightly measured, guitar-kissed riddim to perfection. His mates- guitarist Courtland White, keyboardist Demar Gayle and the drum and bass team of Anthony Watson and Delroy Hamilton -have a sharp sense of modern roots (the kind that gives songs like "Would You Love Me" an irresistible forward motion) while retaining the more foundational approach of outfits such as Soul Syndicate when necessary. Guest vocals by Busy Signal, J. Boog and Jesse Royal further seal the deal, as do some supplementary players filling out the sound with keyboard, guitar, horn and percussion embellishments here and there. It all results in music that adds just enough soul and r n' b flavors to bring a further dimension to unyieldingly authentic reggae. Raging Fyah deserves to be all the rage, and this disc is one for reggae lovers the world over. -Tom Orr
VP/Dub Rockers buy
o The Process - Who is That Mad Band?
The title of this CD prompted me to ask the same sort of question, having not previously heard of The Process, who've been making their brand of reggae-tinged rock (or rock-tinged reggae, if you prefer) since 1989 from their home base in Detroit. When I saw the names Adrian Sherwood, Skip "Little Axe" McDonald and Lee Perry included parenthetically on the back cover, I knew I had to have a listen as soon as possible. At first I was disappointed. While the music of The Process is obviously well-intentioned and meant to edify, the first three tracks come across as overwrought and campy. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist David Asher is more talented than a hack journalist like me could ever hope to be, so it's a shame that my initial impression of him was more like Jack Black in pretending-to-be-a-rock-star mode than any of the reggae greats feted in a song as unintentionally ironic as "Tribute (to the Heroes)." It's not all bad news, though. The album gets better as it progresses, thanks to guest vocals by Ghetto Priest, a gradual tempering of arrangements and production that are overly grandiose at the outset and roots-oriented sentiments on such tunes as "Psalm of David," "Fire is Burning" and the admittedly excellent "Return the Treasures," which has a Dub Syndicate-style vibe in both its vocal and dub versions. The cold, dull and overlong dub reworking of "Fire is Burning" does not fare nearly as well, ending the disc on an unfortunately sour note. I'm ultimately unsure how to weigh in on this release. It's got some very off-putting moments, but some great ones as well. I'll have to leave it there. -Tom Orr
Temple Gong Recordings buy
o Roots of Creation - Livin Free
A reggae band at their core, New Hampshire's Roots of Creation also gives the listener a healthy taste of their rock, electronica and jam band leanings on Livin Free. Indeed, if you were to have no prior knowledge of this band while hearing the largely unaccompanied vocals that start off the opening track "Get Ready," it'd be a crap shoot to guess what kind of beat would soon be kicking in. But reggae fans need not fear. It's Jamaican-inspired riddims that propel this CD along, even when a heavy rock guitar drops in to comment on the action or a programmed jolt keeps the real bass and drums hopping. These guys can turn on a dime, seamlessly jumping from reggae to rock to ska, sometimes in the course of a single song. The drawback is that some of their lyrical content (which is largely conscious but throws in a little cheekiness that doesn't overly intrude) gets lost at first, but keep your ears open and the serious business of such songs as "I'll Be There" and "A Time Will Come" (the latter featuring a typically charismatic Pato Banton) hits the mark. There are plenty of party moments as well -most notably the dizzying instrumental slam of "Punk RoC"- and that kind of variety is to be expected from a disc that's over 70 minutes in length (including one alternate mix and a pair of "clean" versions of preceding tracks that honestly aren't that offensive in their original incarnations). The album further benefits from guest vocals by Mighty Mystic, the mixing skills of Craig "Dubfader" Welsch and front man/guitarist/main composer Brett Wilson's knack for crafting catchy songs that manage to breathe through all the twists and turns. True to the title, this band is doing things their way. And there's a lot to like about it. -Tom Orr
Bombshelter Records buy
o Sowflo - Such is Life
"I'm just gonna smoke." So says a voice at the beginning of this debut CD by Sowflo, a rock/reggae band from, understandably, Southwest Florida. Lest you should need further indications of at least one of their concerns, refer to the inner photo of the band enjoying cloudy offerings from a bong that's roughly the size of a bazooka. And the fact that the opening declaration leads into a tune entitled "Burning in the L.O.P." Then, having affirmed that this is a pro-ganja band, move on and enjoy their swaying, easygoing manner, which is sometimes given additional fire via bursts of rock guitar, dancehall and tempos that are occasionally stepped up in between passages of a purer reggae sound. Lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Jacob Dorris sings like a cross between an indie rocker and an expat dread, and his mates lay it down right and tight on real instruments that chug along without much in the way of unnecessary sonic gimmickry. It's been a while since I've heard the word "mellow" used to describe the overall sound of a band (reggae or otherwise), and please don't think I'm being at all derisive in describing this crew as such. Even on a tune like the domestic abuse outcry "Shot Him Down," Sowflo sounds like they don't have any particular axe to grind. Or do they? Check out in particular the final track, "I Reclaim Myself," a lyrically and musically affirming declaration that states quite potently just how much power we all have to call our own shots. The song's quite a corker, and while everything that comes before is satisfyingly pleasant enough to make this disc recommendable, it's the last word that ties it all together and makes you realize there's substance to be found beyond the smoke. (And perhaps to some degree because of it.) -Tom Orr
Self-released buy
o The Gramophone Allstars Big Band - Jazzmaica
Covering other artists' songs in ska and reggae style is a longstanding thing, while big band ska and reggae is considerably newer. And the focus of the Jamaican-flavored big bands varies, from the Skatalites-specific repertoire of the U.S.'s Western Standard Time to the covers-and-originals strategy of Australia's Melbourne Ska Orchestra. Catalonian Spain's take on the scene resulted in the formation of the Gramophone Allstars Big Band, a 15-piece ensemble that on their fourth release, Jazzmaica, hones in mainly on versions of American and Jamaican soul-stirrers from the 1960s and 70s, with a couple of smoking originals for good measure. The horn-heavy results are superb, kicking off with a fevered rendering of the Roland Alphonso composition "Scambalena," ending with an all-stops-out "Funky Kingston" and packing lots of goods in between. Ska, reggae, jazz, Latin, soul and funk components are all evident in the band's versatile instrumental chops ("Sophisticated Babylon" epitomizes badass), and when the lead vocals of Judit Nedderman are part of the picture, the covered tunes become all the more the band's own. So Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe" makes a smooth move from the heavy-breathing original to a more subtle sensuousness capped by a Herbie Mann-ish flute solo, the nostalgic cheek of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" is rendered both wistful and punchy, and "(When) Twistin' I Love Him So" joins Sam Cooke with Ray Charles in a swinging mashup that I defy you to resist. If you happen to be fond of dancing yourself into pure ecstasy while grinning from ear to ear, this marvelously infectious music is just the ticket. -Tom Orr
Bankrobber buy
o The Movement - Golden
The geographical and demographic aspects of where reggae music has caught on are fascinating to me, so I like that The Movement is the first reggae band I can think of that calls the state capital of Columbia, South Carolina their home. Musically, they mix roots, dancehall, rock, techno, acoustic textures and hip hop in ways that seem geared toward non-purists. At its best, Golden successfully taps into the "future roots" approach of John Brown's Body, minus the live horns (John Brown frontman Elliot Martin is in fact a guest vocalist on the title track). There's no questioning the sincerity of songs like "Rescue" and "Through the Heart" or the lovers rock and pro-ganja sentiments expressed. But in my humble opinion (no, I don't abbreviate) there's filler in with the killer. Much of the album feels over-produced and heavy on electronic effects, leaving the listener to wonder what this crew would sound like if they took an earthier approach. I'd guess better. And forgive me, but the track that's pure rap ("Retriever") comes across as petulant and unnecessary. I wouldn't call this entire disc golden, but the band sure does shine when reggae is their focus. Recommended if you're looking for a mixed bag and don't consider it a buzz kill if the reggae vibe is sometimes rudely interrupted. -Tom Orr
Rootfire Cooperative buy
o Mighty Mystic - The Art of Balance
Born in Jamaica as Kevin Mark Holness (it's about time someone apart from Niney the Observer became musically noteworthy under such a dandy homonym of a surname), Mighty Mystic has a sturdy, satisfying reggae sound on his third release The Art of Balance. The balance the title bespeaks is evident in the music, which succeeds on equal measures of fun and seriousness, of swagger and humility, of roots and rock. Mystic's vocals hover and strike in the mid-to-lower register with a few upward jumps for variety's sake, and while his authoritative tones aren't exactly pretty, he makes every word and phrase count in a way that recalls understated greats like Willi Williams. Plus, he's got a knack for nailing a key lyric or line so that the words bolster the music to just the right degree and vice versa. The backing tracks are thankfully rendered on real instruments wielded by adept players, and the production (much of it split between Mystic and his brother Stephen) avoids falling into any traps of unnecessary artificiality or tweaking. Check, for example, how effectively "Solid as a Rock" gets by with little more accompaniment than an acoustic guitar and a steady percussion thump, thanks to Mystic's clear and concise imparting. And even in those moments when a discernible reggae beat moves to the back burner, the groove still sways in dance-friendly style. Every one of the album's 72 minutes worth of originals is a good listen, but I particularly like the rumble and bubble of "Fast Car" (not the Tracey Chapman song), cautionary lament "Red Light Girl" and materialism-basher "Is Not Gold." -Tom Orr
Roots Musician Records buy
o Natty Nation - Divine Spark
Don't dare get me started on the myriad of ills that plague the country in which I live. Obviously there are many. As to what I'd do about them, well, my ideas for cures are not as numerous as the ills themselves. With everything positive that such a name implies, what a joy it would be to live in a Natty Nation. While that kind of a Utopia-on-Earth place might be impossible for humankind to achieve, we at least have a reggae band of the same name with a new album, Divine Spark, to provide comforting music instead. Natty Nation the band started in their home base of Madison, Wisconsin more than 20 years ago and have been one of the leading torchbearers of American reggae ever since. Not that I was fully aware of it the whole time; I readily admit that my tuning into their music happened far more recently. Lest you be the same sort of slow learner as me, let me tell you a few things I've come to love about Natty Nation. First, the flag they fly is one of positivity, evident in the uplifting lyrical flow on such songs as "Purpose," "I'm Willing" and the title track. Second, they keep their riddims rooted, even when they prick up your ears with attention-grabbers like the rock guitar that surfaces throughout "Suffice." Third, their use of classic reggae touches clearly shows where their loyalty lies. The melodica that sweetens "Meditation" is one example, the frequent use of organ and clavinet is another, and some of those percussion sounds will have you believing that Sticky Thompson came back from Zion long enough to do a few sessions with these guys. There are plenty more divine sparks to this flame, including unflinchingly solid drums and bass, the eloquent urgency of JAH Boogie's lead vocals and the concluding dubs, but don't be content to let me be the national spokesman for Natty Nation. Get the album and let the great music do the necessary talking. -Tom Orr
iNatty Records buy
o Ever-G (Son of the Most High)- Unleashed!!!
A coworker recently asked me why so many reggae artists are, in his words, "so hung up on that peace and love (stuff)." The fact that such, uh, stuff, has never been needed more than now seemed lost on him. Luckily it's not lost on Virginia-based Ever-G, whose new album Unleased!!! is loaded with the kind of take-heed music that speaks to the very essence of how human beings should be behaving (and it's not how I'd guess the disposition of the irate-looking leopard on the album front cover to be). One look at the song titles- "World Peace," "Let's Unite," "Role Model," etc., will tell you where Ever-G's head is at, and he sings it like he feels it. His vocals have hints of Leroy Sibbles, Dennis Brown and John Holt, and when he's joined by the harmonies of Cheryl Sule, the blend is unbeatable. Familiar riddims abound, forming a sturdy framework that allows Ever to open up his heart and our minds to messages that a jaded few might dismiss as tiresome but will eternally resonate with those who care where the human race is headed and how music can heal us before we're too far beyond the pale. Chris "Peanut" Whitley is the keyboardist and co-producer here, and while it's hard to tell how much of the instrumentation is live and direct, the sound is crisply contemporary and leaves the right measure of space for Ever's vocals to take center stage, be it on serious material or a relative breather like the love ballad "Keeping it Real" (which is something this release does consistently). - Tom Orr
Independent Release
o Keith Poppin- Vintage Keith Poppin: The Good Old Days
Even an alleged reggae addict like me can initially miss out on an artist here and there. So it's good there are anthologies that offer a chance for some much-needed catching up. Keith Poppin is one reggae singer to whom I came late; I now see and hear why he's worked with so many notable producers, musicians and studios. The 24 tracks on The Good Old Days are an abundant feast of reggae goodness, from spiritual offerings ("Prophecy Revealing," "Behold Them") to love declarations ("Find Her," "What Have I Done") to patois-laden viewpoints of a strictly Jamaican variety ("Labrish"). Poppin's got a bit of a theatrical flair in his singing- he knows when to add a whimsical air or a serious edge, so he distinguishes each song with its own subtlety as the disc tracks his progression from young up-and-comer to wizened veteran. Despite the title, some of the songs are more contemporary in tone, and Poppin warms even the most modern of the lot with pure soul. I don't now count myself versed in all things Keith Poppin, but this rich, hit-laden collection served as my formal introduction to a reggae voice of the highest order. At the same time The Good Old Days arrived on my doorstep, it was in the company of Speak Out, a recent Keith Poppin album recorded with a musical crew that includes such players as Dwight Pinkney, Ansel Collins and Rad Bryan and the Itals' Ronnie Davis on backing vocals. It's a gem of modern roots with solid, hard-hitting riddims and Poppin assuming equal roles of crooner and chanter. The title song is aimed squarely at Africans whose voices need to be heard, setting the tone for a disc of uplifting reggae by a singer still in the game and as good as ever at it. - Tom Orr Tom Orr
KP Productions buy
o Stick Figure - Set In Stone
California's Stick Figure is both one guy and a group, and before anyone gets hung up on dichotomies, let's clarify: as with previous Stick Figure albums, Scott Woodruff is credited as the one who all the music on Set In Stone was written, recorded, produced and performed by. When it comes to live shows, he has a band to re-create on stage what he largely does on his own in the studio. Either way, Stick Figure specializes in reggae that's relaxed and intense, rootsy and modern, electronic and organic. Okay, now it's me getting hung up on dichotomies. But if you've heard Stick Figure, you know what I mean. Woodruff's downtempo reggae grooves are stacked with layers of sonic seasoning that beautify the simplicity of the riddims, give the vocals and instruments a celestial feel and make reviewers feel not at all guilty about using such words as "trippy" to describe the music. Yet that music doesn't feel cold or contrived. Vocally, Woodruff comes across straightforward and sincere on laid back songs of love, life, herb, inspiration and struggle. And no matter how thick the contemporary coat, the songs always seem driven by the beat. The entirety of Set In Stone comes across as one continuous shimmer of blissfully entrancing reggae, with suitably restrained guest vocals by the likes of Collie Buddz and Rebelution's Eric Rachmany keeping things cool and easy. -Tom Orr
Ruffwood Records/Rootfire buy
o Fred Locks Meets David O - Time to Shine
Veteran reggae vocalist Fred Locks will be forever associated with "Black Star Liners" in much the same way Kiddus I will be forever associated with "Graduation in Zion," but of course there's considerably more to the man than any signature song. A recent resurgence in his popularity has led to him being deemed The Oldest New Artist in Reggae. Assisting him in earning that title is David Ondrick, a Brooklyn-based musician, producer, composer and promoter who's been a devotee of reggae music for many years. He and Fred prove to be a crucial team and Time to Shine illuminates them both: Fred as a still-supple-voiced singer and lyricist; David O as one key reason the album sports a classic reggae sound in both its vocal tracks and the instrumental/dub versions that follow each. The title song rolls forth easily yet mightily, a testament to the indomitable spirit Fred shares with many a reggae artist and here makes his own. "Live to Love," "Reggae Addict," "Love Don't Take No Holiday," "Spiritual Revolution" and "No Bad Feelings" brim with the positive ethos that make reggae great, and the instrumental takes prominently feature Ondricks's saxophone (his main instrument) reiterating the melodies and giving the riddims added sweetness. There are plenty of other reasons to love this dandy of a disc, including the fact that such players as trumpeter Kevin Batchelor and guitarist Andy Bassford are in on the all-real instrumentation and Fabian Cooke's input as one of the mixing engineers. It all results in terrific, no nonsense reggae that will (and should) nice up anyone's collection. And make note of the "Vol. 1" addendum that shows up in a few places on the sleeve. If more of this is to come, bring it. -Tom Orr
Duplex Music buy
o Alaine - Ten of Hearts
Not an artist with whom I was previously familiar, Alaine Laughton, who was born in New Jersey and has lived in Jamaica since the age of three, possesses a silky voice that's perfectly suited to the love songs that dominate Ten of Hearts. She even brings new life to "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," a song I thought I was permanently sick of. But I'll tell you- this album nearly lost me at the start. After a brief spoken intro, opener "Like a Drum" comes on overproduced to the point where poor Alaine and guest Dre Island sound so sickeningly robotic that I wanted to pull the disc from the CD player and fling it out the nearest window. Thankfully, the rest is far better, even when the reggae is downplayed with R&B or hip hop overtones. Alaine scores a second time in the cover department with "Ain't No Sunshine," brings in guests Tarrus Riley and J-Boog to corroborate her romantic sentiments and addresses a social issue or two, as on "Sidewalk Hotel." I'm guessing the technology that makes singers sound like androids (and it does creep in, albeit less so, a couple more times on this release) isn't going away any time soon, but whatever rationale there might be for it is totally lost on me. Don't blame Alaine, though. She shows a lot of integrity and talent on Ten of Hearts, and it's well worth checking out. -Tom Orr
Zojak World Wide buy
o Frank Weeks - H.I.M. Dub EP A.K.A. Searching for the Riddim
I marvel at the number of releases that seem to reach me out of nowhere, or at least from places I'd consider unlikely. This one came my way from Henderson, NV, with well-rendered cover illustrations of Haile Selassie and dubby proclamations concerning his divinity. It's more meditation than music: there are minimal computerized riddims with a lot of spoken words courtesy of Selassie himself (including the "War" speech) and others espousing Rastafari. Reasoning is the focus of the disc's 23 minutes, be it uttered, chanted, whispered or grafted from existing recordings. It's obviously a labor of divine love for the mysterious Frank Weeks, about whom there's little information to be found. As such, it's fairly intriguing, but not much more than a curio. -Tom Orr
No Label
o Gentlemen's Dub Club - The Big Smoke
One needs not to have smoked anything big or small in order to enjoy these London-based gents, so go your way on that. What's certain is their staked claim as a major force on the British reggae scene, bolstered by fan base-building performances at festivals in Europe and beyond. Gentlemen's Dub Club is nine pieces strong including horns, and their sound is based on both classic Jamaican roots and the U.K. reggae that came later. They come across like a bunch of mates you'd like to knock a few back with in between sets at the local pub, which is not to say they sound the least bit amateurish. Their riddims, arrangements (horns in particular), understated vocals and dubby production touches are first rate, from the cheeky "Music is the Girl I Love" and fragile "Afraid of the Dark" to the atmospheric "Enter the Chamber" and cautious optimism of "See Them." The Big Smoke is a well-rounded, impressive listen with much to offer the mind, the heart and the dancing feet that follow them. Carry on, gentlemen. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Tarrus Riley - Love Situation
Tarrus Riley, the son of longtime reggae singer Jimmy Riley, has got his own good thing going on. Love Situation is his take on Jamaican rocksteady and the way it put singers, especially singers of love songs, front and center. Even so, the production, mainly by sax master Dean Fraser, doesn't try to cop the rocksteady era's rawness. The feel is modern, though the tempos and riddims recall an earlier time. Riley's vocals are those of a rootsman and dapper soul singer melded into one; his authoritative croon can be playful ("1 2 3 I Love You"), pleading ("Cry No More") and party-starting ("One Drop") as needed, and he's supported by a roster that includes foundational chatters Big Youth and U-Roy, drummer Sly Dunbar and of course Fraser sweetening the pot on saxophone. It's a tricky mix of ageless sentiments and contemporary sounds at times, but it all works quite nicely. -Tom Orr
Zojak World Wide buy
o Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra - Big Band Tribute to the Skatalites Volume II
I don't know if ska orchestras are a trend just yet, but they're an idea I'm most certainly in favor of. The southern left coast of the U.S. has Western Standard Time contributing to the cause of giving ska as large a wall of sound as possible, and on the followup to the first installment of their Skatalites tribute, they're succeeding similarly large. Comprised of more than two dozen renowned veteran players (plus guests who contribute mainly in the vocal department) and looking to tackle some of the more unsung tunes in the Skatalites' body of work, WST consistently finds the sweet spot between jumping Jamaican rhythm and big band sophistication. True to ska's original penchant for melodic name dropping, the sinister tones of "Lon Chaney," siren wail of "Dick Tracy" and suave swagger of "James Bond" are rendered razor sharp, as are the venerable "Peanut Vendor," the foundational "Jamaica Ska" (rousingly voiced by Angelo Moore and the Expanders), a badass cool Don Drummond medley and a closing burru-fed frenzy appropriately titled "Smiling." The multiple horns are enough to stretch your speakers almost to the breaking point, but do keep one ear on that unstoppable rhythm section as you're working your waistline, singing along with dudes you'll recognize from Hepcat and the Slackers and basking in the classy fever of a grand ska ball to which all are invited. If anyone's need for celebratory music of the highest order is currently unfulfilled, WST's joyous second go-around will close that gap. -Tom Orr
Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra buy
o Dubbest - Light Flashes
Notable young band out of Boston here, with a genuine feel for roots, lover's rock and other colors in the reggae spectrum. They've got the basics: drums, bass, couple of guitars, keys and a singer (Ryan Thaxter) who can carry a tune through the serpentine riddims and makes the words count without getting the least bit indulgent. I'd put Dubbest in the same category as northeastern U.S. greats such as 10 Ft. Ganja Plant (with more vocals) or John Brown's Body. In fact, JBB's Elliot Martin sings harmonies throughout Light Flashes, and Dubbest has that band's same knack for poetic lyricism on songs like "Leaving" and "By Design." They also include a couple of taut (though too short) instrumentals, a concluding dub track that affirms the appropriateness of their name and the flavoring of a horn section here and there. The venerable Dubfader provides a nice clean mix that brings out subtleties like the little keyboard zaps on "Shower You" while balancing the inner core with the outer nuances. In terms of American reggae, I wouldn't call Dubbest the best, but they're darn good and they've created a definite keeper of a CD. -Tom Orr
Dubbest buy
o Kimie Miner - Kimie Miner
For the record, her first name is pronounced "Kimi-ay." And while she's not specifically a reggae artist, Kimie Miner's music has a strong enough component of Jamaican riddim to please the skanking crowd. R&B, soul and pop are some of the other means to her end, and she's got a vocal style that combines the tropical warmth of her Hawaiian roots with an assured singer/songwriter conviction. This eponymous disc isn't her debut but rather a musical connecting of the dots that add up to a picture of an artist drawing fresh inspiration from both her island origins and the experiences she's had beyond them. Rich with clear-eyed imagery and heartfelt sincerity, the tunes are a fairly even mix of acoustic and electric that range from the addiction recovery tale "New Day" to the sunny reggae of "Bottom of a Rainbow" (recorded with L.A. notables Detour Posse) and the quite lovely "Lullabies," a song Kimie composed when she was 14. Refreshingly unpretentious and sporting good vibes from start to finish, there's nothing but pure enjoyment here. -Tom Orr
Independent Release buy
o Mike Love - Love Will Find a Way
Lest there be any question regarding it, no, we're not talking about Mike Love of the Beach Boys. True, the same-named, dreadlocked Mike Love behind Love Will Find a Way does hail from a place where surfing is a popular pastime (Oahu), but that's where the similarities end. And don't assume the title to be any sort of self-referential flippancy. Mike Love is the real deal, and the fact that he kicks off the album with an eight-minute warning about the dangers of Babylon brainwashing ("Time to Wake Up") proves it as much as his ability to crank out finely honed roots reggae, pop reggae, soul-tinged reggae and reggae balladry. Also resoundingly in his favor are his vocals, which combine scatty deftness with catchy tonal jumps, and the fact that his backing musicians (a mostly Hawaiian crew, I'm guessing) are as tight as can be. Balancing conscious concerns with good time brightness- check the use of steel pan on a couple of the tracks -Love brings the disc's themes of unity, spirituality, respect and compassion home with a bang. Superb stuff, easily one of the best reggae releases currently out there. -Tom Orr
Love Not War Records buy
o Yabby You - Dread Prophecy
My first encounter with the music of Yabby You was back in the vinyl days of the mid-80s when I spotted his compilation One Love, One Heart at a small record store in Albany, NY. I'd never heard of him, but I chalked that up to having been only recently bitten by the reggae bug. Besides, no release on Shanachie Records (which this was) had yet steered me wrong. I bought the album, took it home to my basement apartment and had a listen. I was spellbound. The chant-like vocals, ominously biblical lyrics and unadorned pure roots reggae production values made me feel like I was hearing a prophet of old who'd somehow been transported into the modern world. In those pre-internet times, it was hard to find further information on the man who was born Vivian Jackson in Jamaica in 1946 and took his stage name from what he heard as thunder and the voices of angels calling down from on high. But I looked where I could and pieced together some facts about him. He didn't exactly have the happiest of beginnings: Yabby You's younger days were marked by poverty and malnutrition that resulted in a lifetime of crippled legs and fragile health. Notwithstanding, he developed an unyielding spirituality and faith in Jesus Christ. His perspective alienated many of his Rastafarian acquaintances, who mockingly called him "Jesus Dread," a nickname he chose to embrace. As to the rest of his tale- his life as singer, songwriter, producer and figure of absolute uniqueness in reggae music -read all about it in the richly detailed booklet included with Shanachie's excellent new triple CD set Dread Prophecy, subtitled The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You. Indeed, there's equal measure of strangeness and wonder in the way he was able to overcome obstacle after obstacle to create a body of work that never brought him massive fame or fortune but endures to testify to the power of reggae built from ingredients of heart, soul, spirit and commitment. Yabby wasn't a man of great vocal range, but his grainy, take-heed style and inflection gave his songs an authority all their own. Particularly when singing lead over the harmonies of Alrick Forbes and Dada Smith (the other two-thirds of a vocal trio known as The Prophets), Yabby's voice dug deep and bore spiritual fruit in '70s roots gems like "Conquering Lion," "Anti-Christ," "Run Come Rally" and "Chant Down Babylon" all of which are included in this collection. The riches don't stop there, though. Yabby served as producer for a good many artists, putting his foundational stamp on reggae/jazz instrumentals by Skatalites saxophonist Tommy McCook ("Death Trap"), the chatting of deejay Jah Stitch ("Rock Man Soul"), suave crooner Pat Kelly ("How Long"), roots man Michael Prophet ("Love and Unity") and others, and those featured tracks go a long way toward showing just how far the Yabby You vibe extended in reggae circles. Plus, the three songs from Yabby's 1985 comeback album Fleeing From the City demonstrate that he wasn't opposed to modernizing his sound just a bit while sacrificing his integrity not one iota. And of course, no compilation like this would be complete without rarities. Disc 3 is jam-packed with them, including dub plates, previously unreleased new/old discoveries by U Brown, Half Pint and Patrick Andy and similar stuff that will delight hardcore collectors and ordinary fans alike. I lack the journalistic gumption to go into any further details, so just believe me when I say that Dread Prophecy is an absolute treasure chest for the reggae-minded. Yabby You passed away in 2010, but this assembly of his works will forever stand as a sonic testament to his greatness. -Tom Orr
Shanachie Entertainment buy
o Willi Williams - Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby's
Another recent Shanachie release with a Yabby You connection is a disc's worth of long-lost-but-now-found songs by Willi Williams, the vocalist best known for the classic "Armagideon Time." Recorded in the turbulent political days of 1979 Jamaica, Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby's has a dozen tracks laid down at the legendary studios name-checked in the title, with Willi Williams and Yabby You sharing production duties. I recognized many of the riddims (like the arrangement of "Take Five" on the title tune) from corresponding dub and alternate vocal versions that have emerged over the years, but the vocals here give them the blaze of a newly stoked fire. Williams' semi-spoken way of singing brings clarity to the lyrics, never burying the messages in patois or pedantic posturing. These are songs of spiritual awareness, political and religious trickery, African repatriation and hope for a better tomorrow, and it's no accident that the themes ring as true now as they did 36 years ago. Among the musicians involved are The Revolutionaries (under the guidance of Sly and Robbie), The Gladiators and Soul Syndicate, so the backing has just the right sort of roots sharpness. By the time Willi sings "I'm gonna need everyone to rock with me" during the opening "Rock On," you'll already be aboard for this invigorating reggae ride. -Tom Orr
Shanachie Entertainment buy

Born in upstate New York and a present denizen of Southern California, Tom Orr has been (and still is) a contributor to such print and online publications as The Beat, Global Rhythm, World Music Central, Roots World and several sites devoted to reggae music. He's a fan of many sounds from the world over but reggae is the primary rhythm of his life, which includes work as a voiceover actor, percussionist, husband of one, father of three and state employee with a shrinking salary.
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