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o Next Level Sound Station - Sunken City Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
I haven't seen the movie, which reportedly has elements of stoner comedy, crime thriller and noir spoof in its Southern California-set plotline. But the soundtrack is excellent, a 70-minute odyssey of roots, dub, instrumental and vocal reggae selections. The opening melodica instrumental "Chilatron" hints at the many riches within, including lively singjay stylings from plentifully represented Nuby Dan, serious reasoning by Black Shakespeare, hauntingly funky arrangements and playing courtesy of trumpeter/musical mastermind Todd Simon (who, along with Shakespeare, has helped make L.A. reggae band The Lions one very fine outfit) and the deft guitar chops of Jared Meeker. There are no concessions to the demons of dancehall, and the music certainly doesn't suffer from the lacking-without-visuals syndrome of many soundtracks. I may get around to seeing the movie at some point in my fleeting life, but in the interim this very fine cycle of authentic reggae sounds is providing pure listening satisfaction. -Tom Orr
Sunken City LLC buy
o Arise Roots - Love and War
No second time slump here. Los Angeles' Arise Roots follow up their debut CD Moving Forward with another solid outing of simmering reggae that's got both roots and lover's rock covered. And even when things are mellow lyrically (as with "Cool Me Down," featuring sensual chime-ins by Hawaiian reggae artist Hirie), the playing, singing and overall feel are sharp and authoritative. Credit due to Karim Israel's wary vocals, under which the drums and bass team of Ron Montoya and Rodolfo Covarrubias lays a concrete foundation while the guitar jabs of Robert Sotelo Jr. and Todd Johnson's keyboards see to it that the fire stays hot. There's a higher quotient of guest artists this time (including Rootz Underground, E.N. Young, Matthew Liufau of Seedless and Fortunate Youth's Dan Kelly) plus more horn section sweetening and an increased dub sensibility. Intact from the first album are the band's penchant for timely messages ("What a Shame," "Fear Factory") and knowing when to lighten the mood with more popish fare. These gents are still on the rise and sounding great on this independent release. -Tom Orr
Arise Roots buy
o Various Artists - Monterey Or Bust
Pretty good selection of primarily American reggae here, though New Zealand's always-worthwhile Katchafire is also in the lineup. What they all have in common is having played at Monterey's California Roots Music and Arts Festival that takes place every Memorial Day weekend. Most of the artists I was already familiar with, and among those with whom I wasn't, Marko's "Principles" and the loopy "Chicks Can Dub" by Papafish are particularly ear-opening. Not really any bum tracks, though some may lean a little too poppy for roots enthusiasts. Still a solid collection you can enjoy from start to finish, with ample standouts including The Simpkin Project's anthemic "If You Really Want It," Maoli's "Get Right," Stick Figure's opener "Vibes Alive" and the well-chosen closing track "Vibes Love & Revolution," a nyabinghi-enriched parting blessing by Fear Nuttin Band and Sara Lugo. If the title of this disc is some kind of multiple choice, choose Monterey, 'cause this ain't no bust. -Tom Orr
Rebel Sound Records buy
o Marty Dread - Upcountry Boy
I'm no great fan of reggae cover versions and this album didn't make a convert of me even though it has some good moments. Okay, A lot of good moments. Hawaii's Marty Dread has long been interested in the connections between country music and reggae music, so much of what he re-does inna reggae style are songs originally by country artists. But not all. Some that were pop tunes from my younger days, including "Still the One," "Love the One You're With" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" all work just fine in the reggae context, though "Cats in the Cradle" (the disc's only true dud) sounds perfunctory and falls flat. As for the ones that were first recorded by country stars like Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill and Eddie Rabbit, well, it's probably best that I'm not familiar with the originals and thus have no existing notions of how they should be Jamaican-ized. Marty's got a warm, friendly voice that enables him to put just enough twang into the country remakes and emphasize the pop hooks of the others. Also to his advantage is a first rate crew of musicians, including bassist Fully Fullwood and guitarist Tony Chin from the legendary Soul Syndicate, plus pedal steel wizard Marty Rifkin, who injects the proper down home vibe and splits the difference between Kingston and Nashville. Upcountry Boy grabbed me from the start with its particularly strong take on "Walking in Memphis" and grew on me as it went along. Even if you're a longtime reggae fan with doubts about projects of this sort, give this one a go. There's a good chance you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. -Tom Orr
Five Corners Music buy
o New Kingston - Kingston City
Interesting dynamic here: a reggae band comprised of a father and his three sons, with the dad playing bass and the progeny singing and playing guitar, drums and keyboards. New Kingston is based in New York City, which may not be a center of reggae on the same level as the original Kingston, but it's still a hotbed. The moderately funky contemporary roots sound on this, their third album, reminds me of San Diego's Devastators, and that's good thing. The riddims are primarily solid reggae, while the soul and spirit (including vocals that are rapid-fire as often as meditative) are progressive and forward-thinking. New Kingston has many of the right bases covered, including a pro-herb tune ("Who Tell Them"), great guest artists (Sister Carol, the Wailing Souls, the late Sugar Minott) and feel for the conscious ("Mystery Babylon," "Conquer Dem"). They go a bit awry when they get too hip-hoppy, as on "Can't Stop a Man," and the canned voice that murmurs the band's name during the intros to about half the tracks is annoying. But for the most part New Kingston does an impressive job of helping to carry the torch for modern reggae. Enjoy, and expect this band to have many good works yet to come -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad - Steady
They've weathered personnel changes, taken a risky sideline into a different genre (on 2012's Americana-style Country) and hail from Rochester, N.Y., hardly the first place you'd affiliate with reggae music. Regardless, Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad remains a very popular outfit that melds roots reggae with the sort of jam band aesthetics that can greatly expand a band's fan base. I've liked these gents since their 2001 debut for numerous reasons: they're top notch musicians, their vocal skills match their instrumental ones (including great harmonies), they know how to make catchy songs, they understand that substance doesn't have to be sacrificed in order to make the songs catchy and they have a knack for crisp production values. That last point ensures that there's an equitable spark to each and every one of the guitar riffs, clavinet jabs, dubby echoes, quirky percussion accents and ganja-mellowed verses that make this album another gem in GPGDS's body of work. Steady is a handy balance of seriousness and whimsy, putting forth the mindful messages of tracks like "Solution" and "Whatever Cost" while also taking on such subjects as marijuana and gun control with disarming humor. The presence of Ranking Joe is a bonus on "Take Your Place," where he inserts one of his most tongue-tripping toasts ever, and the combination of a rocksteady beat and banjo riffs makes "Home" flat-out wicked. The band reportedly has another Americana album standing by for release, but for now enjoy them in reggae mode on this, quite possibly their best to date. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Backbeat Soundsystem - Together Not Apart
Cornwall-based Backbeat Soundsystem has a hard-hitting modern roots sound laced with horns, synths and cutting edge production that puts them across as the British equivalent of John Brown's Body and makes them attention-grabbing contenders on the international reggae scene. The title Together Not Apart couldn't be more timely, and this is indeed reggae for our times. There are roots at the core, but these guys don't hold back when it comes to funk, dancehall breaks, electronic ambiance or goosed tempos. Vocalist/synth player Dean Forrest is the producer and main composer of the band and he keeps things varied, from the concerned stances of "Against it All" and "Words are the Weapon" (the latter coming across more than a little UB40-ish) to more introspective fare like "Losing Faith" and the lovers tune "Share With You." A trifle strident at times (particularly in the vocals) but infused with ample soul and goodness that more than offsets a few harsher moments, what we have is a strong showing from a group that reggae fans all over the world should keep their eyes and ears on. Seems like it's been a while since a good reggae band emerged from the U.K., so cheers to this lot. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Lek Sen - Jaam Dong (Only Peace)
Coming at me out of the clear blue with accompanying promotional information that was only in French, I needed some additional online research to set me straight on both Senegal's Lek Sen and his latest album. While hailed as an upcoming force in reggae, probably because of his Capleton-like vocal style and the fact that he has been endorsed by Clinton Fearon and Harrison Stafford of Groundation, Lek Sen also works in elements of Afro-pop, hip hop and griot tradition for a sound that reaches far and wide but likely won't be entirely satisfying for fans of undiluted reggae. He nonetheless certainly has good intentions backed up by some strong statements he offers on Jaam Dong, including the nyabinghi "Brave Man," "Don't Give Up" (on which he tonally resembles Joseph Hill), a combination of fire and somberness on the title track and the assertive swagger of "No Man Can Stop Us." Not a bad album by any means, but a little too much of a mixed bag for my taste. -Tom Orr
Jahsen Creation buy
o Rebel Tumbao - Rebel Tumbao
"Dis a rebel music" sang Bob Marley 40 years ago, and how very true the words remain. Sometimes that rebel spirit lies in reggae music's power to impact social, cultural and spiritual norms, sometimes it lies in the way the music itself is presented, and sometimes, as in the case of Rebel Tumbao and their self-titled debut album, it's both. Rebel Tumbao was co-founded by Matt Jenson, who teaches both keyboards and a course on Bob Marley at Berklee College of Music, and master percussionist Jose Claussell, longtime member of Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri's combo. Rebel Tumbao isn't the first band to mix reggae and Latin music, but they are trailblazers as far as taking a specific Latin genre- Cuban son -and intersecting it with reggae. They call it AfroLatinRootsReggae, and I do believe Marley would have approved. Granted, opening track "The Story" (a stinging indictment of mankind's consumer-driven cluelessness) is pretty much all Latin and no reggae, but the version of "Natural Mystic" (one of six Marley tunes expanded upon) that follows is what really sets the tone, sliding easily from skanking riddim to polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban groove and wielding equal conviction in its English and Spanish lyrics. Likewise, the melding of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" with Marley's "Exodus" syncopates and meditates its way to a higher plane. Original songs like "Masters of Greed," "Spare a Nickel" and "Your First Million" explore the disparity between the haves and the have-nots with a combination of reggae consciousness and Latin fire while the remaining Marley re-takes (including risky-to-mess-with "Sun is Shining" and "Rebel Music") have a sizzle that is at once familiar and unexpected. Let's be clear here: this isn't simply a Latin reggae album and may be a turn-off to reggae purists. But for anyone with the sort of open mind and dancing feet it takes to appreciate the message of reggae and Bob Marley in a manner that takes more than a few musical chances, the rewards are many. -Tom Orr
Sacred Rhythm Music buy
o Clinton Fearon - Goodness
Clinton Fearon left the Gladiators back in 1987, and if Albert Griffiths is regarded as the Gladiators' equivalent of Bob Marley, then Fearon was their Peter Tosh: a gifted singer, songwriter and musician who had much to offer in a group setting but needed to break away to make an even bigger mark. He's been based in Seattle for quite some time, laying down sharp roots reggae with his Boogie Brown Band and venturing out to tour on a regular basis (he's reportedly quite big in France). His last album, Heart and Soul, was comprised of totally-solo acoustic versions of songs he wrote and sang lead on with his former group. Pleasant aside though that was, it's great to hear him back with original material and a full band backing him up. Handling all of the bass playing and much of the guitar playing himself, Fearon sees to it that the pointed directness of his songs is punctuated with a similarly locked-up melodic sense. Goodness is the album's title as well as its prevailing theme, and often the pursuit of goodness requires the sort of critical self-examination put forth on songs like "Blame Game," "Wi No Know It," "Long Run Short Catch" and "Talk With A Friend," all of which encourage unity and putting an end to fussing and fighting. Even tunes such as "Another Party" and "Jamdown Boogie" are more substantial than their titles would suggest, jabbing at the elitism of Babylon and finding celebration in consciousness respectively. Fearon's slightly gruff, wise-elder vocals are as finely honed as ever, and the way he seasons his reggae with the occasional flute solo or viola sweetness gives both the one drop foundation and lyrical testimony that much more sincerity. Looking for a sizable helping of genuine reggae goodness? You'll find it here. -Tom Orr
Boogie Brown Productions / Kool Yu Foot buy
o Melbourne Ska Orchestra - Melbourne Ska Orchestra
How many players do you need to be considered an orchestra? There are a few ska outfits out there that have the word "orchestra" in their names (and I'm not naming names) but are really just sizable ska bands (if that). To further complicate the issue, there's Southern California's Skatalites tribute Western Standard Time, which, despite membership somewhere in the upper 20s, is billed as a big band rather than an orchestra. I bring this up partly because I like digressions but mainly because Australia's 33-strong Melbourne Ska Orchestra strikes me as fulfilling the necessary numerical requirements. That wouldn't mean a thing if their music was no good, but it just so happens that it's smashingly good. A diverse-looking and sounding lot, they sport some of the spirited fun of the 2 Tone era (you'd expect as much from a group that opens their CD with a take on TV's "Get Smart" theme music and includes a lively version of "The Best Things in Life Are Free") while staying rooted in authenticity as far as overall sound goes. Despite a massive quotient of horns and a bigger riddim section than is the norm, the tunes bubble along clean and tight, harnessing rocksteady and reggae as often as ska and taking a few non-detracting asides into swing and Latin grooves. MSO is also blessed with a charismatic male/female vocal front line and numerous gifted soloists including, delightfully, a steel pan player. And though I've mentioned the fun angle of their music (witness "He's a Tripper," which pays lyrical tribute to both Lee Perry and James Brown), know that this crew also handles heartfelt sweetness like "Learn to Love Again" and an instrumental as seriously layered as "Katoomba." A band of this size and scope has to be able to level many an angle, and Melbourne Ska Orchestra gets it right at every turn. Sometimes bigger is better, and that's the case here. -Tom Orr
Four Four Music buy
o Christos DC - Long Road
His heritage is Greek, his stage name is a compression of his given first name (Christopher) and his home base (Washington, D.C.) and his music is described as downtempo reggae with overtones of jazz. Fair enough. I'd use the word "dubby" in place of "downtempo," since the former is a word that reggae fans are more likely to embrace. Quibble if you like. And while I'm already abusing descriptive words and quotation marks, I'd also go so far as to describe Christos' sound as "trippy," "rootsy" and, thankfully, "real." Long Road is, after all, a release from a label called Honest Music, and that's not a term to be taken lightly or for granted. As for DC's own road, he started out producing hip hop and r&b but found himself increasingly drawn toward reggae. A stint as guitarist and backup vocalist in Don Carlos' and the Itals' touring bands took it higher and deeper, as did collaborations with Sugar Minott and the Meditations. Long Road starts off low-key and pretty much stays that way, but it sure does grow on you. Vocally, DC's high-pitched and slightly ominous tones put him across as sort of an American Taj Weekes, while the airy yet solid textures of his backing tracks might remind you of early Ijahman Levi. Even so, don't get the idea that he's any kind of blatant imitator. While he's certainly learned from the masters (including Augustus Pablo, as the instrumental title track shows), his sound is the right mix of selective gleaning and his own sonic identity. He pulls it off with the help of a solid bunch of live musicians, such esteemed guests as Kenyatta Hill, Style Scott and Flabba Holt, and a feel for genuine reggae. Long Road is an unassumingly impressive piece of work, definitely one to check out. -Tom Orr
Honest Music buy
o Roy & Yvonne - Moving On
It no doubt does many a Jamaican music lover's heart good to see this duo, who made some very sweet sounds in the ska and rocksteady years, together again after more than four decades away from the limelight. Roy Panton and Yvonne Harrison, smiling in their snappy suits and fedoras on the front and back covers of Moving On, look mighty happy about it too. Such joy is evident in the 10 tracks here, two of which are brand new and the remainder remakes. Recorded in Falls Church, Virginia with able backing by a band called the Shifters, the disc captures some of the charming murkiness of '60s Jamaican recordings with just enough modern polish to mark it as contemporary. As for the singing, well, I only use shopworn phrases when it's perfectly applicable, so I'm not being glib when I say that the voices of these two have only improved with age. The tunes are pretty much all love songs, and the emoting that Roy and Yvonne do straight from the heart seems to be as much a love letter to a not-so-bygone musical era as to the object of one's fancy. They trade off taking the lead in equal measure, with Roy ranging from playfully coy on the opening "Surely I Love You" to the unabashed yearning of "I'm in Love With a Girl" and Yvonne's enveloping warble strong throughout, most particularly on the Latin-flavored "My Jealous Eyes." The title track and "You Say No" are the two new songs, which, not surprisingly fit right in with the classic feel of the whole thing. Moving On is a real gem. Big up to the singers, naturally, as well as to the Shifters' expert chops and the just-right production and mixing by Teddy Garcia and Mike Mariconda under the guidance of Spain's Liquidator Music label. -Tom Orr
Liquidator Music buy
o Alpheus - Good Prevails
Like many other reggae vocalists, Neil "Alpheus" Martin started his recording career by way of Clement Dodd's Studio One. Okay, not the Studio One heydays of the '60s and '70s, but rather when the Melodians' Tony Brevett spotted Alpheus' talent and brought him from Florida to Dodd's relocated New York City operation in the late 1990s. Prior to that, Alpheus had performed with sound systems in London, the city of his birth. He's Jamaican by heritage, though, and his 1999 debut album Quality Time featured him singing over some of those dependable old Studio One riddims we all know and love. He's branched out considerably since then, and his latest, Good Prevails, handily delivers what the back cover promises: "14 Pearls of Jamaican Soul." Vocally, you'll hear the influence of such singers as John Holt and Dennis Brown in Alpheus' deep but lilting style. Which means he's got the stuff for songs of romance ("The Right One," "Secret Rendezvous," "Pass The Test") as well as serious concerns ("Our Strength," "Rudie No More," "Liberty"). There's a refreshing sort of clarity to his singing also, making this one of those albums where you don't have to be constantly looking at the enclosed lyrics to know what is being sung. Most of the arrangements are in the rocksteady/early reggae mode and the musicians, a Spain-based crew known as Lone Ark Riddim Force and led by multi-instrumentalist/producer/arranger Roberto Sanchez, are first rate. In fact, the singer and players are such a good match that I wish some of the tracks were longer. But no matter; every one of them (including a couple of melodica-drenched instrumental versions) provides ample satisfaction for those who consider "Jamaican Soul" and crackling good reggae to be pretty much synonymous. -Tom Orr
Liquidator Music buy
o Meta and the Cornerstones - Ancient Power
His homeland Senegal is better known musically for m'balax, Baye Fall mysticism, Afro-Cuban dance bands and homegrown griots. Even among the fraternity of African reggae stars like Alpha Blondy, Tiken Jah Fakoly and the late Lucky Dube, Meta Dia stands out by sounding less like the roots trailblazers of the '70s and more like the younger set re-discovering those same roots nowadays, referencing as much on the opening "Roaring Lions." Sporting a high-pitched, keening vocal style that splits the difference between West Africa and Jamaica, Meta offers up a goodly amount of straight roots reggae on Ancient Power, plus some acoustic love sentiments, a hint of hip hop and, not surprisingly, a distinctly Afrocentric point of view most prominent on "Beloved Africa" featuring Damian Marley. Meta is presently based in New York City, giving his sound and perspective a far-reaching vibe. Borderline surreal tunes like "Mayan River" and "Silence of the Moon" go to lyrical places not exactly typical of reggae music, and Meta's subtle variations in tone bring forth the proper mysticism, militancy or mellowness that each track needs. Ancient Power is a satisfying, wide-ranging slab of conscious reggae, and the depth of Meta's artistry is probably what prompted the New York Times to rather lazily proclaim him the "African Bob Marley." Feel free to make whatever you want of such a comparison, but believe me when I say that while Meta Dia does echo his predecessors to some degree, he's got his own thing going on. Although his NYC backing band the Cornerstones get the cover credit and do play on the tracks, this disc was recorded at Tuff Gong with assistance from Capleton, U Roy, Squidly Cole, Winston Bowen, Dean Fraser, Larry McDonald, Sidney Mills, Julian Marley (on drums, which was a surprise to me) and many others. You can't go wrong with a crew like that, so Ancient Power brims with modern goodness. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Keyser Soze - The Remedy
Having long since accepted and even embraced the fact that I am hopelessly unhip, I can admit to never having seen "The Usual Suspects." Notwithstanding, I know something of how the name of that flick's unsettlingly dark villain has entered the lexicon, at least as far as the margins of ska, rocksteady, reggae and Jamaican jazz expand. Keyser Soze- the band -came about in Reno in the late '90s and has been building a following on these shores and over in Europe ever since. The foundationally solid riddims, salty horns, soul-informed vocals and damn catchy tunes of their latest, The Remedy, are indeed very much akin to a sampling of elixirs from many phases of Jamaican music's last half century (dub included). "That Big Big Sound" is what some subtly placed wordage on the back cover promises, and if that's not enough of a clue, song titles such as "Soul Ska" should fill in any remaining blanks. The band's horn players also do the bulk of the vocals, handily delivering both atop the drums, bass, guitar and percussion to give the tunes a funky, danceable energy that starts with the opening "The Season" and never lags. It looks like these guys were without a permanent keyboard player when this disc was recorded, so guest ticklers including the Aggrolites' Roger Rivas are on hand to put the bubble to the skank. Another notable invitee is Lauren Nagel, whose blood-thickening vocals on "Catch Your Breath" make for a sexy/sinister tune with a sweetly aching blues edge. Purely instrumental tracks like the not-as-meshugge-as-you-might-think "Dreidel Dub" are first rate as well and help make The Remedy a very good album by a band named after a very bad guy. -Tom Orr
Rocking Records buy
o Mystic Roots Band - Camp Fire Vol. 1- CAMP (Roots)
Despite being passingly familiar with California's Mystic Roots Band (they started out in the northern part of the state, hit their stride after relocating to the southern regions and are now back up north), I didn't give them a good listen until receiving this, their rather cumbersomely-titled third album. It's loaded with good-time reggae sounds, perhaps not as "roots" as the disc's or the group's name would suggest, but nonetheless a plentifully pleasing chunk of the kind of reggae that has earned Mystic Roots Band a fan following in touring locations as far-flung as Japan, Guam and South Korea. Allow me to get negativity out of the way by saying that the only bum track here is a pro-ganja rap (yes, rap) called "On It," which despite thematic good intentions comes off, like most rap, as boorish and self-indulgent. Skip that and enjoy the rest, including the heartfelt sweetness and bright harmonies of "Things To Say," a re-casting of Bob Marley's "Heathen" riddim on the knowingly cocky "We No Care," the environmentally and socially conscious "Earth Song," a Latin rock-flavored "Musica Reggae" and a title track that does a fitting slow burn deep into your soul. Most of the lead vocals are handled by Katherine Ramirez, whose sensual but assured style is frequently complimented by the rougher voice of keyboardist cootdog for a combination that makes MRB sound at times like a harder version of another California reggae band, Soul Majestic. The flames are further fanned by guest spots from Mykal Rose and Tippa Irie, and although this release is reportedly available as a set with a second CD of remixes, it stands very well on its own. -Tom Orr
Stay Positive Productions buy
o Jr. Thomas Meets the Venditions
My trusty hardbound 1997 dictionary doesn't include the word "vendition," but a bit of online searching revealed that it means something like "the act of vending." I'm already sold on the idea of mixing rocksteady and early reggae with a jolt of soul, so I quite enjoyed every moment of this album's rather lean 31 minutes. Jr. Thomas is a singer, guitarist and songwriter also known as Tom McDowall, and as the latter he's the front man for Minneapolis-based band the Dropsteppers. For this project, however, he's branched out to include players from the New York and Boston reggae scenes, among them saxophone master David Hillyard and Pressure Cooker keyboardist Zack Brines. The result is 10 tracks of rollicking, good-time reggae/soul guaranteed to please. While Thomas has a voice that's more Motown testifying than Trench Town sufferation, the Jamaican accents present in the accompanying grooves are unmistakable. The disc kicks off strong via "Face in the Crowd," a song about the importance of being more than just that, and a similarly passionate viewpoint powers matters of the heart ("Somebody Like You," "One Desire"), holding on in spite of adversity ("Trouble in the Music") and both instrumental and vocal takes on running afoul of the law ("Handcuff Strut," "Looters on Broadway"). Organ-heavy backing tracks grind along tough and sweet, and short though the songs may be, savoring them on both reggae and soul levels will result in satisfaction that's more than ample. -Tom Orr
Rocking Records / Megalith Records buy
o Mighty Joshua - Mighty Joshua
Like his biblical namesake, this Joshua lets us know, by way of the opening track on his first solo album (a song called "Mighty Joshua," just like the artist himself and the album itself), that he's intent on bringing down a wall or two. However, he's going for the whole of Babylon and not just Jericho, invoking plenty 'nuff scriptural locales and characters atop a nyabinghi-tinged arrangement that's a perfectly suitable kickoff for a rootsy CD like this. Mighty Joshua is a major figure on the reggae scene in Richmond, Virginia, having been a vocalist and percussionist for several of that city's reggae bands and a tireless promoter of the music. Singing-wise, he goes for a more understated approach than many, emphasizing the conscious clarity of the lyrics rather than trying to inject as much fire and brimstone as possible into the proceedings. And so it is that we get the no-nonsense point of songs like "Locks Of Oppression," "Catching Hell" (featuring a strong assist from reggae/blues man Corey Harris), "Them A Watching" and the straight-outta-yard "We Don't Trouble You," a song that combines seriousness and jauntiness in a way that might put you in mind of the Twinkle Brothers. A very impressive outing all around, and kudos to producer/keyboardist Chris "Peanut" Whitley, who helps craft a modern roots backdrop that accommodates Joshua's compelling style with sufficient niceness. -Tom Orr
StableRoots Productions buy
o Pacific Vibrations - Irie Feeling
Once a six-piece band and now whittled down to a duo (plus guest players), Pacific Vibrations returns with a disc that's every bit as laid back as the title suggests. We're not talking firebrand reggae that touts truth and rights or advocates revolution here. Even so, it's pretty good stuff if and when you're in the mood for a bit of reggae-flavored music that doesn't have to be rebel music. Kerry Wing (vocals, guitar, bass, drum programming) and Randy Nakamura (vocals, ukulele, Native American flute) possess the necessary singing and instrumental skills to create a good time, and I'd bet that even the most immovable reggae purist could find something to love among the 10 unassuming tracks on Irie Feeling. Overall lightness aside, such songs as "Everyday Angel" and "Sinful Lullaby" are pretty innovative lyrically, and the riddims manage to be respectably pulsating even if canned drums aren't your idea of what the foundation for those riddims ought to be. Pacific Vibrations' ongoing use of the ukulele might lead you to believe that they operate out of Hawaii, but their home base is San Francisco. If that fact alone is enough to make you want to brand them as "mellow," so be it. They certainly are, but given the fact that reggae has always been a mixture of relaxedness and intensity, these guys make it work in their own no-pressure way. -Tom Orr
Warrior Monk Records buy
o Mark Miller - On the Road with Bob Marley
Mark Miller was stage manager for Bob Marley and the Wailers from July 1978 until Marley's final concert on September 23rd 1980. Being a stage manager is a huge responsibility, and Miller kept the job by being damn good at it. His position as someone who was close to Bob and the band meant that adventures aplenty were a given, and many of those adventures are recounted in detail in this long-time-coming memoir. It's a very absorbing read despite its flaws, brimming with tales of groupies and ganja, music and mayhem, facts and fancy. Some digressions aside, Miller tells his tales mainly chronologically, and his insider's views of such landmark events as the Wailers' performances in Zimbabwe are simply gripping. The book also includes an impressive selection of photos (some familiar, some not), a timeline of Marley's life and career, a transcript of Marley's last known interview, copies of documents that give an idea of the tremendous logistics involved in touring, a discography, and Miller's personal reflections on each member of the Wailers. At times less than flattering, the book's frankness is bold and revealing. As to the flaws I mentioned earlier, they mainly have to do with the way the book doesn't quite come across as a finished product. Spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors are numerous, a few stories are recounted more than once, and some dodgy wording doesn't help (yeah, I've been guilty of using the term "Rastafarianism" in the past, but I thought everyone knew better by now). In spite of all that, On the Road with Bob Marley (cleverly subtitled A White Knight in Babylon) is a uniquely satisfying addition to the many tomes that have been written about reggae's most commanding figure. -Tom Orr
The Iconic Images buy
o Morgan Heritage - Here Come the Kings
Nice to see and hear that, after a few years' worth of side projects and collaborations, the offspring of Denroy Morgan are back together and making music. Note the recurrence of the salient word "roots" throughout the title track of Here Come the Kings, and you'll get an idea of where Morgan Heritage is at nowadays. For that matter, back-to-back songs "The Return" and "Looking for the Roots" also point to the band wanting to retain the credibility they've had from the start. Don't get the idea that the album is strictly roots, though. Some popish intentions including a helping of lover's rock and r & b flavoring are heard. Plus the modern production values mark this release as decidedly contemporary. What hasn't changed is the commitment, passion and positive vibes of Morgan Heritage's best work, most evident in their live shows (which are always a treat) but present in the energy of their studio recordings as well. Here Come the Kings is bright, danceable reggae that weighs in on the state of the world today ("Holla," "Dem ah Run Come") and offers respite from it in the form of good time tunes like a cover of Michael Jackson's "Girl is Mine" and "Love Stoned," which features a nicely restrained guest turn by Shaggy at his least clownish. While the bulk of the vocals continue to be handled by Peter Morgan, who appears to go by the name Peetah nowadays, there are plenty of low register chime-ins by keyboardist/vocalist Gramps to keep the heat turned high, and the combination of live instruments and programming similarly maintains the right feel. Of the 12 tracks, the only one that fizzles is the opening "Man has Forgotten," which veers too close to rap rhythmically despite being solid lyrically. Reasserting their position as reggae royalty, Morgan Heritage makes a strong return here. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Alpha Blondy - Mystic Power
With all due respect to Africa's many notable reggae stars, Ivory Coast's Alpha Blondy is the best of the best. His multilingual approach, inclusive spiritual perspective and charismatic voice are a few of the reasons why, in addition to the fact that all of his albums have their own unique personality (for lack of a better word). The cover of Mystic Power shows a grinning Blondy looking dapper but loose in a suit and fedora, and the music is likewise a mixture of sophistication and toughness. The reggae riddims are enhanced with rock and funk touches at times and left to their own rootsy devices elsewhere, adding up to a big, wallop-packing sound that clearly means business (check the biting lyrics of "My American Dream") and has fun doing it (yes, that is a Tarzan yell at the beginning of "France A Fric"). Still, however he chooses to dress up his brand of reggae, Blondy's concerns of peace, love and unity remain unchanged. He also gives the fairer sex heartfelt kudos on "Woman," tears into a French version of "I Shot the Sheriff," blasts Babylon's treatment of the poor on "Rasta Bourgeois" and takes religious hypocrisy to task with "Crime Spirituel." Tellingly, he winds up the disc with a double dose of medicinal calming. "Reconciliation" features numerous guest voices including fellow African reggae greats Tiken Jah Fakoly and Ismael Isaac in a plea against vengeance, while "Pardon" asks forgiveness on a personal level. Vocally, Blondy is as commanding as ever, and his Arabic-tinged tones amply serve the cause of consciousness on this varied, soulful and hard-hitting release. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Various Artists - Dub Rockers Vol. 1
I put off listening to this disc for quite a while. After looking at the cover and seeing that some of the artists involved are ones of whom I'm not particularly fond because they don't fit my definition of what makes for good reggae (no, I'm not going to name names), I decided I wasn't going to like it. But then again, I thought, I am rather fond of most of the participants, and anything with the words "Dub" and "Rockers" in the title is at least worth a listen. So I listened. And guess what? I need to get over myself and my stubborn-ass preconceived notions, because I liked it. The idea behind Dub Rockers Vol. 1 was to present collaborations between Jamaican, American and European artists, and how wrong I was in thinking that it would be too digital-sounding, not rootsy enough or, well, just not reggae enough. Best of the lot is a new remix of "Java" courtesy of the RBC and Prince Polo with the original Augustus Pablo and Tommy McCook parts intact (so why aren't their names on the cover?), but I also got deep into the effective combination of Capleton's harsh tones and Slightly Stoopid's much mellower pro-herb proclamation on "No Cocaine," John Brown's Body and Peetah Morgan going for "The Gold," Etana adding sweetness to the Aggrolites' "Complicated Girl" and the triple threat of SOJA, Gentleman and Tamika on "I Tried." There's some inspired fusion here (like the Bollywood overtones of Bad Brains' "Ragga Dub" featuring Fishbone saxophonist Angelo Moore) plus plenty 'nuff genuine reggae vibes. I'll keep my eyes and ears out for the second volume and in the meantime enjoy the ample niceness of this first one. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Arise Roots - Moving Forward
It's getting hard to keep track of all the noteworthy reggae artists in the vast urban sprawl that is Los Angeles, but I'll handle the inconvenience for the sake of having new music to sort through, listen to and rate accordingly. Arise Roots is certainly one southern CA reggae band that command your attention and deserve to. Their lyrical declaration "we are reggae" in the midst of "Loving You," a track from their first full length album Moving Forward would come across pretty damn cocky were it not for the fact that it's meant as a declaration of unity among the massive. But even if such a claim were entirely self-referential, it'd be tough to argue with, since these guys are the real article through and through. Opening song "Arise" does just that, fading in slowly and sinking in fully at the point where lead singer Karim Israel's gruff yet melodic vocals take hold. And lest there be doubt that the disc's title refers to ditching the wicked ways of Babylon with an eye toward Zion, the music soon dashes away any uncertainty. Sure, there's asides like the lovers rock of "Never Gonna Give You Up," smoky one-drop "Mellow Mood" (not the Wailers tune) and sprightly "Party Tonight," but the proceedings are mostly propelled by such concerns as the environmentally conscious "Chop Dem Down," the urgency of "Hit The Ground Running" and topple-the-oppressors warning laid out in "We Are Watching You." The band's players contribute keenly to the forward motion, with guitarist Robert Sotelo particularly adept at combining Jamaican zest with the right amount of American rockishness alongside the rumbling drums and bass of Ron Montoya and Rudy Covarrubias, Todd Johnson's bubbling keyboards and decorative touches by guest percussionist Alfredo Ortiz. While merely arising is fine, this crew both rises and shines. -Tom Orr
Arise Roots Music buy
o The Green - Hawai'i 13
According to their bio, this band from Oahu has only been around for four years. Despite that fairly brief span they've come a long way, with a next-big-thing-in-reggae air about them. You can chalk that up to the support of acclaimed label Easy Star, the fact that their last album (Ways & Means) got to number one on the iTunes and Billboard reggae charts and their live appearances at sizable festivals and in support of artists like SOJA and Rebelution. Oh, and the fact that their music is exceptionally good. Their fresh, inviting reggae sound has been known to please both purists and pop-leaning folks, and this latest one of theirs is likely to carry them even further forward. Hawai'i 13 starts with a traditional chant to bless the proceedings, and then proceed it does, into a set of reggae that's often sweet enough to merit the sort of mainstream success The Green has had, without forgetting to throw in a good measure of militant muscle. Five of the band's six members contribute compositions and four of them trade off lead singing duties, so there's plenty of variety here, from lovers sentiments like "Chocolates and Roses" and "Striking Up a Love" to the wry commentary of "Good Vibe Killah" and one drop dance defiance of "Stand & Rise." The production (by Danny Kalb of Ben Harper and Jack Johnson fame) is clean and uncluttered, allowing the all-real instruments to flow as naturally as the finely honed vocals. If you're looking for genuine, from-the-heart reggae that can both fire you up and cool you down, tune in to The Green. Seen? -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o 10 Ft. Ganja Plant - Skycatcher
Some of the mystery surrounding 10 Ft. Ganja Plant has dissipated, as even the thickest smoke will eventually do. Primarily an offshoot of John Brown's Body who average an album a year and came out of the shadows to play some live shows in 2012, they're one of the absolute best roots outfits in existence, heavy on instrumentals, dub and, at times, notable Jamaican guest artists. Those guest artists are usually the only participants named in the minimal liner notes of their albums (hence the mystery), but Skycatcher goes so far as to credit some of the vocals to former JBB members Kevin Kinsella and Nate Richardson. The music is in the heavy Jamaican style we've come to expect, with a higher quotient of vocals than usual, taking into account the fact that the two volumes of their 10 Deadly Shots were entirely instrumental. As is customary, the disc is a fairly short 10 tunes that are far more killer than filler. The whole disc is terrific, and personal favorites include the title track, which features a harmonica wafting amidst a dubby soundscape, Kinsella's unexpectedly strong falsetto on "State of Man" and the slightly eerie "Hypocrites in Town." But who knows? On the next listening, those faves could change. 10 Ft. Ganja Plant is that kind of band. Their sound sneaks up on you and reveals new hooks every time you tune in. Count me among their dedicated fan base as I proclaim this to be yet another must-have in their body of work. On a somewhat related note, I must also belatedly recommend JBB in Dub, an excellent 7-selection EP that 10 Ft. Ganja Plant's source band released about a year ago. It's a completely winning combination of classic and "future roots" that showcases John Brown's Body at their trippy best. Get it. -Tom Orr
ROIR / Easy Star Records buy
o Tony Roy - Waiting List
I never heard of this gent until Waiting List, his first solo CD, made its way to my doorstep. According to the handy dandy promotional information accompanying said CD, Tony Roy (born Fitzroy Gordon in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas) was the drummer and lead vocalist in a band called the Chosen People that toured for a few years in Jamaica, the U.S. and Canada. After the breakup of that outfit, Roy moved to the States and settled in Washington D.C. where he put aside the skins to focus entirely on singing. He's got a nice voice, which to me sounds like equal parts Dennis Brown, Larry Marshall, Max Romeo and John Holt. But unlike some lesser-known reggae singers who rely on their vocal ability alone to get by, Roy's got a full band and a trio of harmony vocalists backing him up. His crew handily provides the right support on lovers rock tunes like "Love Has Change" and "Come Back Baby," the restless roots of the title track and the unexpectedly Afrobeat-like "Killing You Slowly." Yes, the singer, the songs and the playing are all quite good. If there's a problem to report with this disc, it's the production, which is credited to Roy and guitarist Rickey Swan. The high and low ends are not balanced as evenly as (I would think) most listeners would like their reggae to be. As a result, the bass sounds too distant on some of the tracks, making for an overall sound that is inconsistent and kind of thin in spots. But I'll give Roy the benefit of the doubt and recommend this album just the same. Maybe your sound system is superior to mine and can iron out whatever difficulties I'm hearing. -Tom Orr
Whylas Record Productions buy
o The Scientist Meets Ted Sirota's Heavyweight Dub
Sure, if you're a reggae fan you're probably familiar with producing, engineering and mixing wizard Overton "Scientist" Brown. So who the heck is Ted Sirota? I'll tell you. He's a Chicago-based drummer who's played all sorts of music and has had a longstanding love for reggae that began when he first got wind of Bob Marley and the Wailers as a youngster, investigated further and then sought to emulate the nuances of such reggae drumming greats as Sly Dunbar, Style Scott and Steel Pulse's Steve Nesbitt. It took three decades for him to put his first reggae band together, but to say it's been worth the wait is an understatement. Thanks to an assemblage of skilled players and singers, plus a successful Kickstarter campaign that paved the way for The Scientist's participation, the debut album of Ted Sirota's Heavyweight Dub is here. And it's a beauty. In keeping to the tradition of legendary Jamaican bands like Soul Syndicate, Roots Radics, the Upsetters and the Revolutionaries, the tracks here are anchored by heavy drum and bass foundations and layered with the intricacies of lead and riddim guitar, keyboards, horns and percussion. True to the title, most of it is very dubwise in execution but all of it flows impeccably. With Scientist able as ever at the controls, Sirota pays tribute to his influences via originals like "Tubby" and "Jackie-Me-Too!," runs a few covers through the echo chamber, includes a smattering of vocal selections among the mainly instrumental track listing and charts a course that includes roots, rockers, ska, early dancehall, jazz and funk overtones and, of course, dub. Be glad that Sirota finally decided to follow his reggae muse, because the result makes for excellent listening. -Tom Orr
Liberated Zone Records buy
o Blue Riddim Band Meets Rougher All Stars - Enter the Riddim
How great is it that America's premier ska/rocksteady/reggae band has persevered for so long, overcome adversity and changing musical tastes and is presently enjoying a fairly sizable resurgence? Treat that as a rhetorical question if you like, but I'll answer by saying that it's all very great indeed. Ever since Blue Riddim Band made a big impression on the notoriously hard-to-please massive at Jamaica's Reggae Sunsplash back in 1982, they've been a band to watch, even when their presence on the scene wasn't all that visible. Their new release, Enter the Riddim, featuring guest vocalists collectively credited as the Rougher All Stars, is just a hair under a mere 30 minutes long but doesn't waste a second. The Blue Riddim crew were skilled jazz and r & b players before the reggae bug bit, and their intent with this release was to find the middle ground between the jazz roots of their Kansas City home base and the Jamaican grooves that have proved so infectious to them (and us). Opener "To Jamaica With Love" is an instant grabber, a wobbly ska shuffle with impeccable horn soloing. Next comes "Leave Me Alone," on which singer Edward Turner politely tells us all to get out of his face in a manner as pleasant as the musical arrangement. "Cool Off" follows with Amanuel I's bassy tones easing up the pressure as a jazz/rockers beat underscored by squeaky Brazilian percussion and bits of solo guitar backs him up. "Motens Mood" is an instrumental that's got a late night feel, but don't pack up and go home just yet. "Do Me Like That" is lovers rock with a bit of swing and vocals by Roy Sahyantis keeping it smooth, "Really Love You" gives us a crooning Marty Dread testifying from the heart with support from swirling organ, and concluding track "Skasolution" rides along sax riffs that Tommy McCook would have been proud to call his own. Yeah, it's a short disc, but these 7 tracks are all scorchers that you'll want to hear repeatedly. -Tom Orr
Rougher Records buy
o Taj Weekes & Adowa - Pariah in Transit
Pariah in Transit may well be the best album title since Taj Weekes' last release, A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen. But cryptically eye-catching titles aren't nearly as important as ear-catching music. Fortunately, the St. Lucia-born Weekes has the latter handily covered. He's unassumingly become one of the most acclaimed reggae artists around, thanks to his blend of singer/songwriter insight, compellingly high pitched vocals and ability to merge reggae riddims with a warm, folksy sense. He's a humanitarian of the first order as well, with his They Often Cry Outreach foundation bringing tangible blessings to needy kids throughout the Caribbean. Pariah in Transit is his fourth CD and first live outing. And if he truly counts himself a pariah, he's just the sort of outcast we need. "Let your vibes be high and your message mighty" advises the CD cover in lettering notably bigger than the name of the artist or title. The recommendation is taken to heart as Weekes and his crackling backup band (anchored by veteran drummer Cornel Marshall) launch into a killer set ranging from the reflective "Angry Language" to the contained rage of "Scream Out Mellow." The sound is remarkably clean for a live album- drums and bass solidly holding the center, lead guitar, keyboards, percussion and backing vocals all getting their richly deserved fair share of the space and Weekes' own chop guitar and delicately-yet-forcefully imparted lead voice penetrating like a hurled spear wrapped in silk. The unique lyrical perspective of such songs as "Life" and "Since Cain" are revisited with the same intensity (and then some) as their studio predecessors and most of the ten tracks are stretched out into dubby jams (or in the case of "Jordan," a bit of pro-marijuana reasoning) that put you right there in the thick of things. If you're already familiar with Weekes' exceptional previous work, the high quality pulsing forth here will come as no surprise. If not, let Pariah in Transit be your introduction to a true roots reggae master. -Tom Orr
Jatta Records buy
o Freddie McGregor - Di Captain
A lot of singers start out young, but Freddie McGregor hadn't even broken his double digits when he first found success in 1963 as a member the Clarendonians. Fortunately, he had the talent to move from child star to adult hit maker, not only as a prolific singer but a producer of other artists through his Big Ship studio and label. Along the way, he's made notable albums for Studio One, Niney the Observer, RAS, Heartbeat and many others including VP Records, where we find his latest, Di Captain. Don't be fooled by the cover photo of the gray bearded guy with the receding hairline. McGregor's voice remains strong, sweet and supple, ready to melt hearts with a lovers rock tune, engage the mind through Rasta reasoning or make someone else's song entirely his own. He does a good measure of each on this album, adding up to a wonderfully varied collection of roots reggae, pop reggae, romantic reggae and, well, just plain great reggae. The songs he covers from outside the reggae realm, including the Beatles "You Won't See Me," the Skip Scarborough-penned "Love Ballad" and the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition "A House Is Not A Home," sound fresh rather than forced. Likewise, his remakes of the Mighty Diamonds' "Africa" and the Heptones' "Equal Rights" are delivered with respect for the originals and originality of McGregor's own in terms of tone and phrasing. He even re-does his Coxsone era "We Need More Love" as "More Love In The Ghetto," giving it added verve in the process. But Di Captain is not all about covers. The album bursts to life from the start with "Move Up Jamaica," a new tune in celebration of the country's 50 years of independence, and other unveiled goodies like "Bag A Hype" and "Love I Believe In" show the serious and lighthearted sides of Freddie McGregor both still going full sail. The album also sports guest vocals by Gappy Ranks and Etana, who prove to be worthy first mates. A half century in, and McGregor is as musically mighty and assured at the helm as ever. Get on board. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Sly and Robbie Present Stepper Takes The Taxi
Guillaume "Stepper" Bougard, a Frenchman who's become something of an honorary Jamaican through his Tabou 1 label and a hand in producing albums by the likes of Chezidek, Bitty McLean, Horace Andy and U Roy, now steps forward with his first release under his own name. He's been affiliated with the legendary drums and bass team of Sly and Robbie for quite some time, a good match very evident throughout Stepper Takes The Taxi, an instrumental/dub selection that hits hard from the start and never lets up. Some of the riddims are pre-existing shots that have been decorated anew; others were laid more recently. Sly and Robbie hold down the foundation with their customary solidity and such noted players as Ansel Collins (organ), Sticky and Scully (percussion), Nambo Robinson (trombone) and Robbie Lynn (piano) are on hand to provide zest along with a rotating battery of guitarists that includes Dalton Brownie, Dougie Bryan, Willie Lindo and Ranchie McLean. Stepper himself shows his expertise on sax (listen to how he tempers the crackly feel of "Taxi to Paris"), keys, melodica and percussion. The whole affair moves seamlessly between rootsy skankers, dubby head trips (check "Taxi Tune Up") revisited classic melodies and smoother offerings that cool down the pace long enough for a draw and a drink of rum. This is one of those head-bobbing, toe-tapping, waist-winding discs that make you glad real musicians still make the best reggae. Any time Stepper is ready for his next taxi excursion, I'll pick up the fare. -Tom Orr
Taxi buy
o Chuck Foster - Perseverance
He's been active on the L.A. reggae scene for many years as an author, columnist, radio host, promoter, producer and more, but who knew Chuck Foster could sing? Okay, he doesn't have the sort of pipes that'll make you forget about Marley, Spear, Isaacs, et. al., but the man can carry a tune and has every right to pleasantly chime in with his own take on the reggae music he's supported so long. Some familiar thematic paths are trod on Perseverance, including self-awareness ("Any Road," a lovely tune punctuated by melodica riffs), ganja ("Likkle Draw"), the power of music ("I'm Happy So I Sing," "Reggae Up The Dance"), sticking to one's guns ("Perseverance") and what awaits the righteous ("Promised Land," "In Zion"). Foster's laid-back vocals lend a good time air to his original tunes and musical backing by the likes of guitarist Tony Chin, keyboardist Zacky Bernard, bassist Mike Irwin (who also served as recording engineer) show that Foster has connections and knows how to coax prime performances out of them. Nice works, Chuck. The inner essences of Perseverance are sonically explored on the corresponding dub release entitled Conscious Dub. Foster and Irwin dub up the tracks in classic style, bringing drums and bass to the front and sweetening the forward motion with echoey effects and measured doses of the other instruments. The result is as solid as those seminal King Tubby or Scientist dub discs we all know and love so well. And there's more. Most of the same players on the above two albums also comprise a band called Rough Sounds whose own release, Calm It Down, has more of a hard-hitting modern roots vibe. Apart from well-crafted covers of Symarip's "Must Catch A Train" (which has a great Latin feel in its horn lines) and Johnny Osbourne's "Can't Buy My Love," the material is all original (Foster and Irwin being the primary composers) and an effective balance of sweetness ("Dreadlock Girl," "Reggae Music") and seriousness ("Respect," "Rasta Business"). Rough sounds these may be, but one listen and you'll know you've got it good. -Tom Orr
Catch Me Time Records buy
o John Brown's Body - Kings and Queens
I was a little put off by the last full length John Brown's Body album, 2008's Amplify. Some fine moments notwithstanding, the disc had a few too many hip hop, electronica and rock touches to really score as a reggae release, as if a reggae band labeled by some as America's finest was beginning to lose its way. But given that the group was in a state of transition following the loss of key members Kevin Kinsella and Nate Richardson, their delicate balance of reggae riddims and indie band spirit was likely to take a hit or two. And don't think for a minute that I'm knocking the talents of Elliot Martin, who moved into the frontman role after the departures. Hell, no. I love the man's soulful voice and up-to-date production touches, and they both sound great on JBB's latest, Kings and Queens. The title is apt, 'cause these guys are back to being reggae royalty again. From the opener "Step Inside" -a celebratory but slightly ominous invitation to dance to the thinking man's reggae JBB has always been best at- to the concluding funky romp of "Searchlight," Kings and Queens is a return to form with no weak tracks or false moves. Discernible influences of Burning Spear and some of the better U.K. reggae artists are evident in the marvelous horn lines and overall groove, although it's the "future roots" sound pioneered by JBB on Spirits All Around Us that really grabs. The wall-of-sound drone serving as backdrop to "Dust Bowl" permeates deeply; echoey background sounds guide the hypnotic flow of "The Battle" and the anthemic "Old John Brown," at once classic and modern, ranks among the band's very finest songs. But I'm just picking faves. All of the dozen lengthy tunes are crucial, with Martin spot-on vocally and lyrically and the players of instruments laying it down impeccably. An absolute winner in all respects. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Cornell Campbell Meets Soothsayers - Nothing Can Stop Us
After featuring cool and deadly guest vocals by reggae greats Johnny Clarke, Michael Prophet and Linval Thompson on their acclaimed One More Reason album, London's Soothsayers further honed their reggae/dub/Afrobeat sound on last year's Human Nature as a self-contained band with no one from the outside dropping in. Both albums were superb, which goes to show how very smashing Soothsayers are on their own or in collaboration. I guess they've demoted themselves to backup group status on Nothing Can Stop Us, since the first name above the title is that of Cornell Campbell, a reggae singer who's been sowing deep roots for decades. Campbell's history (solo and as a member of several noted vocal trios) includes works created at the studios of Coxsone Dodd, Niney the Observer, Joe Gibbs and Bunny Lee, and his move into the U.K. reggae arena finds his vocal power undiminished and his melding with Soothsayers to be a mutually strong match. True to the title, this is reggae that moves. The peppy title track is sweet enough to be a pop hit, yet hard enough to satisfy the roots massive, thanks to the instantly solid combination of Campbell's elastic falsetto and Soothsayers' crisply tight support. Campbell shows he's still got a way with love songs ("With You My Heart Belongs," "There's A Fire") and shots of consciousness ("Conqueror," "Jah Jah Me No Born Yah"), thanks to his continued wielding of a voice that's got not only the heartfelt conviction of a Rasta, but gobs of pure soul. As for Soothsayers, they're perhaps a notch more laid back than on their previous outings, which is not to say they don't deliver. The jazzy, dubby elements that have always been their trademark are very much in evidence, and when they set down an intricate mashup of horns, keys and guitar over a chugging riddim section (as in the climactic moments of "It's Not For Me") they're at once an ideal bolster for Campbell's charisma and a showcase for their own accomplished chops. A rich symbiosis of singer and players, Nothing Can Stop Us is a keeper. -Tom Orr
Strut Records buy
o The Skatalites - Walk With Me
Walking is fine, though it's really dancing that the Skatalites have been inducing us all to do in their company for the nearly half-century they've been in existence. However, not even an institution as mighty and influential as the original Skatalites can last forever. Since the release of their last studio album (2007's On The Right Track), founding members Lloyd Knibb (drums), Lloyd Brevett (bass), Jah Jerry (guitar) and Johnny "Dizzy" Moore (trumpet) have all passed on. That leaves tenor saxophonist Lester Sterling as the only remaining band member who was present at the very start in 1964, while a few long timers like vocalist Doreen Shaffer, bassist Val Douglas and trumpeter Kevin Batchelor move further into position as Skatalites veterans. But the actual lineup is almost of secondary importance. Utter the word "Skatalites," and everyone knows you're referring to the once-and-forever ultimate ska band. Okay, now brace yourself for a bit of disappointment. While Walk With Me contains a lot of the characteristically fine ska you would expect, there's a point of confusion in the liner notes, which credit vocals on the opening track, "Desert Ska," to Ansel Cridland (of the Meditations) and deejay Ranking Joe. The problem is that, apart from a few shouts of "hey!," the tune has no vocals. Quite a letdown, compounded by the fact that another purely instrumental piece, "Lalibela," is credited as having vocals by someone named Sunny Moon. HUH? If you can get past that nonsense (which almost certainly isn't the band's fault) and the fact that actual vocalist Shaffer only gets one song, there's much here to enjoy. Knibb's final drum tracks anchor the action, which includes a cover of "Song For My Father" (good flute solo by Sterling on that one), the jazzy "Piece For Peace" and other new tunes, like the aptly-named "Hot Flash," that are as smokin' as anything in the Skatalites' long and celebrated body of work. Definitely recommended for ska fans, and let's hope the liner note gaffes can be fixed somewhere down the line. -Tom Orr
Moondust Records buy
o Solomon Jabby - Rocksteady
Multi-instrumentalist, producer and vocalist Solomon Jabby is the most roots-heavy of today's Christian reggae artists, and in my admittedly biased opinion, that makes him the best of the lot. He's a full-time member of Christafari but maintains a solo career as well, a career than began with a couple of impressive dub releases played and produced entirely by himself. Then came Firmly Planted, a vocal album which captured the feel and spirit of such '70s peak era Jamaicans as Yabby You and the Congos. With Rocksteady, Jabby moves even further back, into the rocksteady and early reggae sound of the late '60s. It's a sound he clearly loves, and he passes the love along via authentically constructed riddims, tartly strummed and picked guitars, sparse horns, joyous Hammond organ and songs that Kingston sound system crowds from 45 years ago would have danced to all night. Jabby pulls no punches as far as his spiritual perspective goes. Except for a bouncy love song to his wife, every track bigs up the one he prefers to call Yeshua, which shouldn't put off anyone who doesn't necessarily share the same viewpoint. It's obvious that Jabby is as intent on making music for fans of vintage reggae as he is edifying his Savior (check the faithful-but-not-slavish cover of the Ethiopians' "Train to Glory," a good indicator of his expanding vocal skills and more), and if you're ever at the ready to rock steady, you're in for a treat. It would be altogether too cheeky of me to describe this disc as "wicked" even in the laudatory Jamaican sense of the word, so I'll just be content to say it's really, really good. -Tom Orr
Lion of Zion 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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