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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
o Razteria - Maz Raz
In the mood for a winning combination of reggae, rock and Latin rhythms? Got what you need right here. Razteria is the stage name of Renee Asteria, a fiery gal who sings with equal might in English and Spanish, composes, plays guitar, produces and arranges, all with a passion that's infectious. Reggae is a big part of that passion, evident in many of her own compositions and her sharp cover of the Abyssinians' "There is no End." It's also clear from songs like "In You" and "Addicted" that matters of the heart matter to her. What will matter to you is Razteria's versatility and flair for the unexpected, here including a version of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" that taps into a tenderness previously unexplored in the history of that tune. She also doesn't mind 'fessing up to her own vulnerability, as on the ballad-turned-rocker "Where is my Mind" and probing "In my Dreams." Her backing band, also called Razteria, is up to the task of her many moods, moving deftly from reggae to snappy acoustic shakeups, Latin flavors and rockish attitude adjusters. So while Raz Maz is not strictly a reggae record by any means, there is a definite reggae angle, often in the beat but just as frequently in the conscious frankness of the lyrics and the way the songs grip the mind and soul even as the feet feel the urge to dance. A refreshing, engaging album, loaded with music. Tom Orr
Asteria Records buy
o Dub Colossus - Dub Me Tender Vol. 1 + 2
If Dub Colossus hadn't put out a release like this by now, I'm sure their fans would be demanding it. After all, the U.K.-based band's combination of dub reggae, Ethiopian style melodies and Ethio-jazz easily lends itself to a deeper dub approach than what's hinted at on their albums A Town Called Addis and Addis Through The Looking Glass. Under the leadership and production of Nick "Dubulah" Page, they put their own dubwise stamp on the Ethiopian and Jamaican sides of the equation, enriching the drum and bass flow with restless percussion, giving prominence to traditional Abyssinian instruments as needed and punching in effects that split the difference between 1970s Kingston and present day England. A combination of remixed previous tunes and four new tracks, the source material comprising Dub Me Tender ranges from the familiarity of "Satta Massagana" and "Uptown Top Ranking" to the healthily twisted strains of "Stop! in the Name of Dub" and "Bizarre Dub Triangle." Some moments veer more toward jazz than reggae, and the dub treatment loses no ground when such is the case Vocals enter the scene infrequently, but when they do, as on "This is Not a Dub Song" and "Crazy in Dub," they add even more dimension to the crazy cool soundscapes Dubulah constructs. Anyone with the ears to pick up on Ethiopian motifs that are crystal clear in some spots and subtle in others will enjoy how shrewdly they're integrated, and those who count themselves dub fans casual or fanatical will love this mind-bending dandy of a disc. -Tom Orr
Real World buy
o Various Artists - We Roots
Chuck Foster is a familiar name to many a reggae lover, particularly those who live in Southern California. He's the longtime host of KPFK's Sunday afternoon "Reggae Central" radio program, author of two lovingly researched books on Jamaican music and for years wrote the highly informative "Reggae Update" column that graced the pages of The Beat magazine (which sadly ceased publication a few years ago). But he's in the producer's chair for We Roots, a terrific compilation of female artists who've helped make the So Cal reggae scene what it is. Foster had a hand in writing all the songs as well, and a nice lot they are. First up is Zema, who was fixture in L.A. reggae before relocating to Jamaica. Her song "Rock Steady" is an instant grabber, with a riddim suggestive of the post-ska era the title bespeaks and a bounce that practically dares you not to dance. The title track comes courtesy of Universal Speakers, a duo whose reggae/dancehall offering is as conscious as it is infectious. Queen P, who formerly fronted revivalist ska band Ocean 11, is both sweet and authoritative on "Love Sees All" while Jessica Burks mixes twangy Heartland inflection with California cool on "Hollywood Sign" and "Ride All Night." Shayna Dread (a radio cohort of Foster's) contributes cautionary pieces "Don't Fight the Youth" and "Fire is Burning," and Jordan Mercedes' "The Sun is Gonna Shine" wraps it all up over a mixture of reggae pulse and tuba-punctuated good wishes. Every song except that last one is followed by a dub version, so we also get to hear the nuances of what lies beneath these fine tunes and taste the skills of the players who created them, a mainly Californian crew who know their stuff in spades. Very high marks to all the ladies (and gentlemen) involved in the making of We Roots. Y'all rock, and so does the music. -Tom Orr
Catch Me Time Records buy
o Lee "Scratch" Perry and Friends - Disco Devil: The Jamaican Discomixes
Lee Perry was and is a trailblazer in many ways, but he didn't invent the 12-inch discomix single. It didn't take him long to realize the commercial, artistic and sonic possibilities of the format, though. By 1976 his Black Ark studio was putting out discomixes at a steady pace, extended head trips on which a song by one of his stable of artists would stretch out into a dub portion that would be topped by deejay patter, sound effects, riddim enhancements, rants by Perry himself or whatever else his mad-genius mind decided to include. Disco Devil is two CDs, each well over 70 minutes long. The title track is a bit cluttered (the riddim it rides has certainly been put to better use), though apart from that there's more than enough wicked and wild to make this compilation a must. Essentials like the Congos' "Neckodeemus" (sic) and Junior Delgado's "Sons Of Slaves" are simply drawn out to mesmerizing proportions, while others such as Devon Irons' "Ketch Vampire" (a tune for our times if ever there was one) are layered with additional instrumentation and voices as well as deejay sections. Absolute classics the caliber of The Heptones' "Party Time" are included along with more obscure delights- Carlton Jackson's "History (Of Civilization)" was new to me and a real discovery. Perry's own 12-minute "Free Up The Prisoners," one of his best outings as vocalist and studio experimenter, is a mind-bending standout, and prime works by singers (Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, Leroy Sibbles) and deejays alike (Dillinger, Doctor Alimantado) benefit from Scratch's one-of-a-kind primitive/cutting edge production style. Make room in your reggae collection for this release, because not getting it is not an option. -Tom Orr
Sanctuary/Universal buy
o Groundation - Building An Ark
This album's been out for quite a few months and has probably already been reviewed by all those reggae scribes who, unlike me, know what they're talking about and are punctual to boot. So I apologize for my lateness and am going to opt for a simple approach even though Groundation's music does not lend itself to simple analysis. This Californian reggae band, which was formed at Sonoma State University in the late 1990s and enjoys considerable international success, has been singled out for its jazz underpinnings, its guest spots from such reggae greats as Don Carlos and Cedric Myton, its crafting of reggae that is at once Jamaican and American and any number of other reasons. They're favorites of mine, but the reasons why are difficult to articulate. Certainly, the way they combine the easygoing feel of reggae with the intensity of their own approach to it is a factor. Building An Ark (the first Groundation release since their debut to feature no guest vocalists) carries on what has become a signature sound for the band: lengthy meditative tracks, expertly crafted riddims and arrangements, cryptic lyrics, jazzy solos, Latin-flavored percussion in with the nyabinghi, wordless passages that blur the line between instrumental and dub and the gruff voice of lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Harrison Stafford. Actually, he's toned down some of that gruffness but still retains at least enough vocal eccentricities to make for interesting contrasts when Kim Pommell and Kerry-Ann Morgan, both essentially backup singers, take the lead for a line or two. As far as the songs go, they retain that good old Groundation mystique. The opening title track could well be a love song, "Merry-Go-Round" seems to trace a generation of haters back to Columbus, "Daniel" riffs philosophic on what to do once the lion's den has been survived, and so on. As with Groundation's previous discs (this is their seventh), it's best to just let the whole album ease it's way into you, whether you find neat-and-pretty straightforward meaning in the songs or are content to enjoy rooted yet progressive reggae music that raises more questions than it answers. Building An Ark is another exceptional album from a band that has yet to produce an unexceptional one. Give it some time to grow on you. It will. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Crucial Reggae From Outside Jamaica Vol. 4
Everyone knows there's plenty of worthwhile (or better) reggae that's not straight outta yard, but the occasional reminder doesn't hurt. The latest volume in an ongoing series courtesy of Skank Records is an hour's worth of goodness from Ivory Coast, Dominica, Ghana, the U.S., Trinidad, the Virgin Islands and the Philippines. Every track is good and a few are truly great, my particular favorites being Brother Ayouba's "Treading," Josh Heinrichs and BW quietly mashing it up on "Stand," Bambu Station's brooding "How T'ings Ah Go," "Madness" from Groundation's Harrison Stafford in side-project mode as Professor with toasting assistance by U Roy and "Mabuhay Revolution" a horn-charged offering from Jeck Pilpil & Peacepipe. You'll likely have your own faves and if you've heard the previous releases in this series, you can rest assured that quality is a given. If you haven't, feel free to start here and work your way backward. Reggae is music for the whole world, and the tunes here are strong enough to get us all dancing as one. -Tom Orr
Skank Records buy
o Tchiya Amet - Celestial Folk Music
Celestial Folk Music? There's a new category for you. Does it have any appeal for reggae fans? Yes. Tchiya Amet, who's from Chicago and of Native American and Moorish heritage, harnesses reggae beats on many of this album's tracks, and while the end result is not as reggae-heavy as the one other album of hers that I have (2003's Black Turtle Island), you could file Celestial Folk Music under reggae and not be too far off the mark. The album is indeed folksy in its laid-back feel, but Amet's got serious concerns like the environment and keeping things in balance on her mind, and in addition to reggae she knows how to use jazz, African, Brazilian, new age and indigenous musics to their best advantage. Celestial Folk Music is thus an enjoyably wide-ranging disc that varies from the playful sensuality of "Love & Joy" to the creation mythos of "Where The Dog Ran" and infectious Afro-Latin jazz that percolates through vocal and instrumental versions of "Egyptian Bluez." Amet's delivery is unfailingly sweet and gentle, even on a tune as plainspoken as the comparatively shocking "Fucked Up System," and it's easy to find crossover potential in some of these songs, a few of which wouldn't sound out of place on an album specifically for children. Drawing upon her experiences as (among other things) herbalist, home-schooler, yoga instructor and holistic healer as well as a musician, Amet has created a melodically and culturally engaging album that's warm and inviting for music lovers of all kinds. -Tom Orr
Milky Way Records buy
o Mr. Vegas - Sweet Jamaica
I find it hard to take a performer with such a name seriously. Mr. Vegas? Sounds like a smarmy lounge lizard in a tuxedo who sings overwrought songs for tacky tourists in Sin City. Does that gripe have anything to do with this review? Only the fact that preconceived notions play a part in it. Okay, this album- when I saw that it was one disc of dancehall and one of reggae, I quickly made up my mind that I was gonna like the reggae and not like the dancehall because, well, I just don't like contemporary dancehall. And much as I'd like to say I was pleasantly surprised and wound up liking both, such is not the case. The dancehall disc is as banal as anything that's been released since dancehall became more like American rap and less like Jamaican reggae and thus gets an unequivocal thumbs down from me. The reggae disc is loads better, sporting heartfelt love songs, conscious sentiments, surprisingly good cover versions (even "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da," for crying out loud), updatings of classic melodies ("Gimme A Light" cops "Israelites;" "Things Ruff" barely conceals "You Can Get It If You Really Want," etc.) and a celebratory air that leaves slackness in the toilet where it belongs. One disc bad, one disc good. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it. -Tom Orr
MV Music buy
o Jahmark and the Soulshakers - 2012: Book of Redemption I - The Beginning / 2012 Book of Redemption II - The Rebirth
Jahmark was Jamaican born but has done most of his music making in the U.S., in such locales as Miami (where he befriended the Marley family), New York City and, since the early '90s, Los Angeles. His latest work, the two-volume 2012: Book of Redemption, is a kind of historical/cultural lesson set to the riddims of reggae music and imparted from a Rasta-centric perspective. And to clarify that perspective from the outset, the first disc kicks off with "Rootsman Time," a joyous skanker that sets the tone for what's to come. In between songs pinpointing particular key times in history when human foibles changed things for better or worse ("Khemet 4500 B.C.E.," "Conversion 350 C.E.," "Columbus 1492," "Space Shuttle 1999") come tunes addressing concerns that have never been far from the minds of anyone who considers themselves civilized ("Stop the War," "International Revolution," "Unity"). It's an ambitious couple CD's worth of reggae and it would come across as overly pedantic if Jahmark hadn't done his homework. Thankfully he did, and the result is true roots and culture music to be savored sonically, absorbed lyrically and enjoyed fully. The backing accompanying Jahmark's reasonings of past and present is crisp modern roots lovingly laid down by players from the CA and JA scenes, with bassist and co-producer Mike Irwin anchoring the proceedings in terms of both groove and finished product. (Mixing and mastering by the ever-dependable Fabian Cooke doesn't hurt either.) I suppose you could call these concept albums, but better they should be labeled as simply great reggae, assuming you like reggae that gives your mind plenty to wrap around while your feet and waistline are in perpetual motion. Recommended. -Tom Orr
Banana Boat Records buy
o Island Head - Punky Reggae Party
What's wrong with a band that releases an album comprised of six instrumental versions of Bob Marley songs and one original? Nothing, as far as I can see and hear. The septet that is Island Head includes a pair of veteran reggae guitarists- Andy Bassford and Mikey Chung -plus players who've made their names primarily in other sorts of music. But as drummer/producer/organizer Billy Messinetti asserts, it was a passion for reggae that brought these guys together. The passion shows, and the group lovingly jams their way through "I Shot The Sheriff," "So Much Trouble In The World," "Wake Up And Live," "Get Up Stand Up," "Punky Reggae Party" and "Burnin' And Lootin'" with chops to spare. There are no lyrics, but the familiar power of the melodies comes through and the players (who also include bassist Neil Jason, keyboardist David Frank, saxophonist Tim Capello and trumpeter Don Harris) stretch out the tunes to include riffs and solos that turn this disc into pretty much a jazz/reggae affair not unlike Monty Alexander's Caribbean-flavored material. And the one original tune, "Reggae Island," fits in with no problem, mon. Sure, this stuff takes anthems of Trenchtown sufferation and turns them into music that would sound just fine at an upscale Kingston hotel, but that goes to show how universally adaptable the Marley catalogue is and how the deeper roots can be enhanced without being negated. Well done. -Tom Orr
Island Head buy
o Synrgy - Synrgy
These guys get around. They formed in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2007, soon relocated to Humboldt County to immerse themselves in the Northern California reggae scene and presently are based in Ashland, Oregon. I don't think they're running away from anything or looking to stay one step ahead of the authorities, just that they're going wherever their creative impulses lead them. Thankfully, they've settled down long enough to record this self-titled record, a hot slice of rockish reggae that's both a party and a serious aside. A five-piece (drummer, bassie, keyboardist, lead guitarist and rhythm guitarist/singer), they've got a good feel for Jamaican roots (check the stripped-down ska jam "Rupie" and rocksteady romp "Cast Those Stones") and plenty 'nuff creativity to forge a sound that might put you in mind of American reggae bands like Rebelution yet doesn't come across as copycatting. Their reggae is often a notch faster than most, and front man Brian Zach has a refreshingly tongue-tripping vocal style that rides the tightness of his bandmates' grooves expertly. The result is infectious, highly danceable reggae that tackles familiar topics like herb, the love of a good woman, keeping pace in an ever-changing world and the ongoing abuses of those in power. This is, I think, Synrgy's second full-length release, and it's an impressive one. -Tom Orr
Synrgy buy
o Western Standard Time - Big Band Tribute To The Skatalites Vol. 1
Consider Western Standard Time a West Coast ska super group. And when I say super, I mean not only the fact that all its members are highly skilled players with loads of experience under their belts, I'm talking about sheer size as well. Note the title of the CD and believe it. This is indeed a big band, with multiple saxophones, trumpets and trombones swelling, swirling and jamming around a core of drums, standup bass, piano and guitar. The tunes they cover here include Skatalites classics like "Freedom Sounds," "Guns of Navarone," "Latin Goes Ska" and "Eastern Standard Time," and if you're thinking it's no big deal 'cause lots of bands have covered those songs, well, you haven't heard 'em quite like this. The massive horn sections create walls of sound that inject new thrills into the old and familiar, and nearly every track is extended and expanded upon to make more room for greater ensemble dynamics, a higher volume of solos and an increased quotient of pure ska pleasure. This being ska, the horns are showcased predominantly, but listen to how snugly that rhythm section is locked in as well and you'll be ready for the sort of endurance-testing "drop some legs" dancing that this music was made for. No matter how many rocked-up, punked-up, whatever-up permutations ska has gone through, there's nothing like the real thing, and this superb release is the real thing made even better, a blazing testament to ska's jazz roots. Can't wait for Vol. 2, though listening repeatedly to the first installment will be a great way to pass the time. -Tom Orr Tom Orr
Simmerdown Productions buy
o Soothsayers - Human Nature
Soothsayers, those U.K. masters of Afrobeat and jazz-laced reggae, are back. And while in the past part of their notoriety stemmed from their collaborations with such reggae stars as Johnny Clarke, Michael Prophet and Linval Thompson, they're on their own on Human Nature. No problem. This is a fantastic outfit in peak form. Despite sizable hints of dubwise experimentation on Soothsayers' first two albums, the band really started going in a largely reggae direction a few years back with One More Reason, a disc that still sounds great (as does its dub version) and paved the way for what they've got going on here. Band leaders Robin Hopcraft and Idris Rahman, both horn players (Hopcraft plays trumpet, Rahman sax), really come into their own as first rate vocalists also, often forming a harmony triumvirate with Julia Biel over arrangements that invoke the spirit of Fela Kuti as often as the Wailers, the Roots Radics or Lloyd Parks and We the People. But don't think for a moment that Soothsayers are lacking in the originality department. Indeed, now that they've found their inner voice(s), they've also tapped into a spirited energy that injects songs like "We're Not Leaving" (a meditation on being able to call a certain place home), the take-heed title track and the wistful "Streets of London" with the kind of conviction that personalizes the music and sends it deep into the heart of the listener. These, then, are sounds to be truly felt as well as heard, and you'll be missing out if you don't get yourself a copy of this disc and immerse yourself in it repeatedly (after first getting a gander at the clever cover illustration of a money-grubbing fat cat juggling the earth like it's a soccer ball). Yes, Human Nature is that good, and let's hope there's a dub followup forthcoming. -Tom Orr
Red Earth Records buy
o Destroy Babylon - Long Live The Vortex
They're based in Boston, they've been around since 2001 and they take their name from a song by Bad Brains, but I'd never heard of Destroy Babylon until a copy of Long Live the Vortex came my way. The band is influenced as much by punk rock as reggae (two genres that have been allied in their outsider status for decades), but despite the anger behind such songs as "Mr. Money Bags" and "Something Very Wrong," it's the reggae side of the equation that gets the upper hand on most of the tracks. Still, fans of traditional reggae may be put off by the rockish overtones that invade here and there. I was, though I found enough real reggae to make the first half of this disc at least satisfying. The second half is dub versions, and they're better. The basslines are beefed up, the roots essence is forwarded and the anger is generated via subtlety. So Destroy Babylon manage (marginally) to have it both ways, thanks in part to co-producer Craig Welsch, who has worked with John Brown's Body, 10 Ft. Ganja Plant and Pressure Cooker, and here balances the sonic dualities of rock and reggae implied on the vocal tracks and more fully realized on the dubs. It's those dubs that make this release a keeper for me, though many of you may well appreciate the whole package. -Tom Orr
Young Cub Records 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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