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o The Expanders - Old Time Something Come Back Again Vol. 2
Have I pegged The Expanders as Los Angeles' best reggae band? I may well have. How about the best reggae band in all of California? In all the USA? The world? Okay, there's no denying I overstepped with that last one, but make no mistake- these guys are bloody damn good. They play like peak-era Roots Radics or Soul Syndicate and sing like an Americanized version of the sweetest Jamaican harmony group you'd care to name. Their two albums of original material, which should be on every respectable reggae lover's shelf, are thought-provoking, hip-swaying stuff that never gets stale, and their now-twofold output of reggae and rocksteady cover versions shows just how well they've learned from, and yes, expanded upon, the sound of the masters that influenced them. Even before I spun the disc I was impressed by how much the chosen tunes (inspired by access to the unbelievably extensive record collection of L.A. archivist and renowned reggae scholar Roger Steffens) avoided the obvious and shopworn. Instead, The Expanders cut deep into songs that bespeak the very essence of what defines reggae from cultural, spiritual, historical and celebratory angles. Whether blasting Babylonian religious hypocrisy (Yabby You's "Anti-Christ"), facing adversity head-on and winning (The Itals' "Brutal") or invoking a prophet of old in the here and now (The Ethiopians' "Another Moses"), the band doesn't waste a word or a chop. Lead singer/riddim guitarist Devin Morrison's finely tuned wail, supported by the backing vocals of lead axeman John Butcher and bassist Chiquis Lozoya, form a perfect triad of harmony above a roots foundation sewn up instrumentally by the aforementioned three plus spotless work by drummer John Asher and keyboardist Roy Fishell. It's no good trying to name standouts among the 14 tracks here, which include a couple of songs from Burning Spear's Studio One days, as many more Ethiopians classics, Jesse Wagner of The Aggrolites stepping in to do lead vocals on "Love is All" (originally by Carlton and the Shoes) and a pair of relative obscurities in the form of Ghetto Connection's "Strugglers' Time" and Kenty Spence's "I Have a Party." Like the first volume in what we all hope will be a continuing series, this trip down reggae memory lane is simply outstanding. Great cover art too. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Simpkin Project - Beam of Light
Don't let the preceding gush lead you to believe that I consider The Expanders to be the only game in town when it comes to reggae offerings in the southern reaches of The Golden State. Orange County's Simpkin Project is a pulsating presence on the scene as well, and rightly so. Their latest, Beam of Light, is equal parts familiar, fiery and just plain fine, bringing the laid-back but urgent feel of their previous works while adding evolving layers of lyrical insight and musical expertise. Opening track "Hustling" laments just how profoundly the fast pace of surviving nowadays cuts into the quality time that ought to be our focus, while the healing feel of "Some Things Don't Change" (nice horns on that one) and "Perfect Harmony" suggests that solutions are indeed there for the taking. Similarly, the title songs asserts the inner luminescence we all possess is precisely what we need to light the way toward a better world, then takes off into a dubby/jammy instrumental excursion to provide motivation. The frankness of "The World's On Your Shoulders" is probably the best indicator of the band's current mindset, and their crackling, wall-of-sound "Many Rivers To Cross" cover proves them to be worthy torchbearers of reggae's forward-ever spirit. The production on the disc (by the band and Rellee Hayden) is first rate, a combination of analog gear and digital technology that balances the guitars, keys, bass, drums, percussion and vocals in a manner that's crisp and clean without being glossy. Their name notwithstanding, this crew is more than a project. They're a first-rate reggae band with a fully realized sound and vision. -Tom Orr
Dub Rockers/VP buy
o New Kingston - A Kingston Story: Come From Far
They were rather hit-and-miss on their previous release, but New Kingston has found a more dependably satisfying reggae sound on A Kingston Story: Come From Far. With a core comprised of veteran bassist Courtney Panton and his three sons on guitar, keyboards and drums plus vocals all around, the combination of roots and modern inflections works to the advantage of both group and listener. The title track celebrates progress made even as it hunkers down to endure trials yet to come, and the band is looking to accomplish upcoming works by broadening the parameters of reggae, be it the addition of the lilting violin that punctuates "Agape" or the contemporary charge and spoken poetry that gives the pro-herb "Meditation" a twist to its nyabinghi foundation. While the disc is fairly brief, clocking in not too far above the 30-minute mark, it makes for an ear-and-mind-opening interlude of fresh sounds and ideas assisted by guests like bassist Glen Browne, guitarist Andy Bassford, singer Pam Hall and chanter Pressure Busspipe. The musical story told here is well worth a listen, and the newness with which it is imparted helps to tell the tale most effectively. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Roots Noir - Human Nature
Apart from a trombone solo and nyabinghi drumming on the opening "The Rhythm is Calling Me" and haunting female harmony vocals throughout, Human Nature is an entirely solo effort by one Brian Battaile, who calls various regions on the North American west coast home. He also calls all the shots with regard to his sound, which, true to his alternative name, blends roots reggae with a space age ambiance that owes as much to psychedelia as it does to Jamaican and American musical dualities. Battaile sings with a salty, unencumbered directness that isn't exactly pretty. Still, when you're taking on subjects like child soldiers, racism and the pending destruction of mankind, pretty isn't an option. He laces his DIY riddims with snaky melodica and ominous stabs of clavinet and synthesizer that punctuate the messages but takes an occasional break from serious proceedings on songs like "Simplicity" and "Funkggae," the latter an instrumental that sounds exactly the way you'd expect from the title. Fans of Rebelution, Stick Figure and other homegrown reggae artists who combine classic and contemporary will enjoy this satisfying labor of reggae love. -Tom Orr
Roots Noir buy
o Ammoye - The Light
Jamaican-born, Toronto-based and with a style that combines jaunty reggae grooves with R&B, dancehall and gospel overtones, Ammoye's generous 19-track album The Light doesn't aim for a strictly roots target. Rather, its brand of reggae has a more international feel, dialing back on consistently heavy drums and bass and favoring a more poppy mix. Nothing wrong with that, particularly when there's enough lyrical substance to fend off any assumptions that the disc is overly lightweight. Sure, there's a sassy girl power air to "Good Vibez," "Honeymoon" and "Reggae Rockit Boy," but check the conscious intent of "Bloody Fiya," "Oneness," "Salvation/Redemption" "Guns Off The Street," "Don't Count Me Out" and "Soul Rebel" (not the Wailers song, though it does borrow from its chorus), and clearly you're dealing with an artist who has messages to deliver. And she does so with a voice that ranges from whispery to dagger-sharp and is surrounded by lush though rhythmically lively production from a team that includes Dubmatix, Donovan Germain, Natural High and Sly Dunbar. Impressive in range, heartfelt in conviction and universal in direction, The Light shows Ammoye to be a reggae artist capable of shining in both expected and unexpected ways. -Tom Orr
F.A.C.T.O.R. buy
o Christos DC - Tessera
An album with a roster of guest artists that includes Sly and Robbie, Kenyatta Hill, Harrison Stafford, Akae Beka, Robbie Lyn and Tippy I must have something going for it. Such esteemed company would have to know that the artist they're supporting is well worth their time and talent, and Christos DC is a singer, player and producer of that caliber. Based in Washington, D.C. and of Greek heritage (evidenced by one song here with a title that I can't reproduce on a conventional computer keyboard), Christos has a low-key yet piercing vocal style that shadows jazz-tinged roots riddims throughout Tessera, his latest. The trio of tracks that open the disc- "Speak the Fire," "Human Dignity" and "Life" -address with dead-on articulateness the indomitability of spirit that's so needed these days, and by then you've fully grasped that words like "conscious" don't begin to describe the intent that fuels this gorgeously glowing collection. A cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" retains the harmonica underpinning of the original but otherwise goes very much its own way, "Desperate Ones" (inspired by Nina Simone while possibly invoking Jacques Brel in a few other listeners besides myself) cries out quiet and clear, and "What is Happening" gets similar clarity from Vaughn Benjamin's ever-reflective chanting style. "Communion," featuring Messrs. Hill and Stafford, stands out as a unifying anthem lyrically and vocally, also making a perfect lead-in for "Boots & Tie," an instrumental closer that revisits the glory days of the Taxi Gang. It's probably one of the last recordings to feature late trombone master Nambo Robinson as well. Count Christos DC among the growing number of American musicians keeping real reggae music alive, and outstandingly so. -Tom Orr
Honest Music buy
o Lee Tafari - Up & Up (Unplugged)
Kingston-born Lee Tafari fares nicely with only voice and acoustic guitar on the 8 tracks of Up & Up , his bright strumming and picking matched by singing that whispers, proclaims, imparts, trills and inspires. He spins some clever lyrical twists as well. You might think a title like "No Littering" is simply about keeping the landscape clean, while in reality it has more to do with keeping one's soul pure. Likewise, "My Song," "Wait on H.I.M.," "Troddin' With The Lion" and the rest concern man's connection to his Creator. The sparseness of the music brings the personal side of that connection to life, and a spin of this disc is like stepping away from the ills of Babylon for an interlude that's reflective and refreshing. Additionally, Lee shows his electric side on a 4-track sampler in collaboration with Tuff Lion entitled Peace Makers. He's talking about the blessed-are-they type, and he brings the message home and beyond with a solidly skanking arrangement on the title track, a dub version immediately following, a potent vocal partnership with Prezident Brown on a full-band version of "No Littering" and a concluding dub of the same entitled "Earth Anthem." For two sides of a reggae artist who's probably got many more sides to come, both of these nuggets are recommended. -Tom Orr
Haile Conscious Works buy
o Morgan Heritage - Avrakedabra
Looks as though reggae's most successful family band has been whittled down from a core quintet to a threesome, and now lead singer Peter Morgan (truly one of the most engaging front men in all of Jamaican music), keyboardist/vocalist Gramps Morgan and percussionist/vocalist Mr. Mojo are going forward under the MH name. What hasn't changed is their growing determination (so it would seem) to modernize roots reggae music to the max. Opening track "Want Some More" (referring to reggae, naturally) exemplifies the approach, with guest artist Mr. Talkbox announcing his presence enmeshed in all the electronic ambiance you'd expect from such a name. While Avrakedabra doesn't hit the heights of the Morgan family's best works, it's still chock full of good times, consciousness and crossover-aimed moments including computerized riddims, very contemporary lyrical references and vocal cadences that owe as much to rap as to reggae. From my standpoint, the group still scores highest marks when they go for an earthier vibe, which they do here on the unity-promoting "One Family" (with Ziggy and Stephen Marley lending a vocal hand) and a fair number of the disc's other 13 tracks. But I gotta say, when the intended audience is more mainstream, as with the poppy but undeniably catchy "Reggae Night" and seductive "Ready for Love," the Morgans still pull it off with a feel for melodic hooks, vocal interplay, danceable grooves and reasons to rejoice (check "Pineapple Wine" for a hip-swaying example of the last) that they've always possessed. So even if your tastes are more tuned to serious concerns ("Selah," "We Are," "Tribute to Ruggs") you're likely to find Avrakedabra another in a series of Morgan Heritage albums well worth having and listening to from start to finish. -Tom Orr
CTBC Music Group buy
o The Techniques and Friends - Winston Riley's Rock Steady and Early Reggae 1968-1969
When the beat of Jamaican popular music slowed from ska to rocksteady, singers had more space to practice their craft and the emergence of vocal groups brought an increased harmonic component that sweetened the deal. A key player in the changeover was singer Winston Riley, whose group the Techniques enjoyed success recording for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label before Riley turned to production and formed his own label, also called Techniques. Despite initial resistance and indifference from many of his peers, Riley's new focus paid off and he became a renowned producer of rocksteady and early reggae material by the Techniques and other vocal group lineups under different names that utilized the Techniques' vocal talent in conjunction with such singers as Pat Kelly, Winston Francis and Johnny Osbourne. Collected on Winston Riley's Rock Steady and Early Reggae 1968-1969 are 15 gems from those years, mostly the work of the Techniques but also a few scorchers by the Mad Lads and the Shades, plus an opener from Dave Barker, perhaps best known as the voice doing the shout-outs on "Double Barrel" (also a Riley production and sufficiently anthologized elsewhere). The tracks, heavy on love songs, are timeless examples of how well the percolating rhythms of rocksteady accommodated soul-drenched vocals so crucial to the fairly brief transitional phase that led to the roots reggae era. Simply but perfectly packaged in a black and white motif with compendious liner notes, the disc not only contains terrific music but has a classic look as well. Consider it a must. (It's put out by a very noteworthy Japanese label called Dub Store Records that has other such goodies to offer, so be sure to explore them further.) Still very much in the reggae game when he was shot dead in 2012, Winston Riley will forever be remembered as a singer, composer, producer and arranger who brought the Jamaican sound to new heights. -Tom Orr
Dub Store Records buy
o Gentleman's Dub Club - Dubtopia
Having been quite taken with this band's last album The Big Smoke, I was pleased to find that their followup Dubtopia is every bit as good. Hailing from Leeds, Gentleman's Dub Club continues to emerge as leaders in the longstanding British reggae scene, doing so with a combination of homegrown roots sensibility, just enough of a pop element to invite favorable comparisons to UB40 and a knack for uplifting songs. A sizable outfit with horns and a front man (Jonathan Scratchley) whose vocal delivery rides the line between cheeky Brit and singsong Jamaican, the group goes as heavy on the dub effects as their name implies and stays true to the reggae beat through and through. "Dancing in the Breeze" and the ska-injected "Sun Kissing" will give you an idea of their celebratory side, while such empathetic tunes as "Young Girl" (featuring Lady Chann) and "In Your Heart" show they've got insight that goes well beyond simply providing music for a hot-ticket reggae party. Their vision of a Dubtopia is literalized on the CD's front cover depiction of a musical escape from the ills of the world, and the music they make will have you believing that such an escape is within reach. I sleep easier at night knowing that a band like this will have a hand in the future of reggae music simply by carrying on with everything that has made reggae so great in the past. So welcome to the club, and be sure not to miss out on what these Gentlemen have in store. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Nattali Rize - Rebel Frequency
Sporting an image somewhere between an African queen and a freedom fighter ready to take on all comers, Australian-born, Kingston-residing Nattali Rize struts across the cover of her full-length debut CD Rebel Frequency like someone who's got a thing or two to say and isn't going to take no for an answer. A founding member of reggae/funk/fusion band Blue King Brown, she's equal parts chanter and singer, and the riddims backing her up have a suitably hard-hitting forward motion that decisively holds the reggae vibe. As shots like "Natty Rides Again," "Warriors" and "Generations Will Rize" show, militant concerns are first and foremost on Nattali's mind. Her voice intensifies when the lyrical content similarly reaches peaks of pointedness, making it clear that Babylon's agenda of manipulation and deceit isn't going to be fulfilled without a fight, if at all. Given that, there's still a measure of tenderness in her delivery when it's suited to a lovers sentiment like "Fly Away." She shares many a reggae artist's viewpoint that unity is a key ingredient in making things better, a conviction obviously shared by guest artists Julian Marley, Dre Island, Jah 9, Raging Fyah, Kabaka Pyramid and Notis Heavyweight Rockaz, each of whom bolster Nattali's declarations with a few of their own. Minimal doses of dancehall aside, modern roots reggae is the disc's mainstay and one of its notable strengths, the others being sharp, uncluttered production values, deft accompaniment on mostly real instruments and songs rich with spirited, clear-headed advice as to how to make a better world by freeing up the mind and all other possible barriers. Plus, how can you go wrong with an album that includes a perfectly legitimate credit for "badass background vocals" in the fine print? Seriously though, Rebel Frequency has got spunk, attitude, solid reggae grooves and songs that sound like anthems for a revolution we may well be already in the throes of. -Tom Orr
Rootfire Cooperative buy
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

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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