Tom Orr's Reviews

Bob Marley
Recent Releases
o Anthony Garvey - Soldier On
Roots reggae singer Anthony Garvey once recorded and performed under his surname alone, and did so in good conscience, given that his great-grandfather was Marcus Garvey, the most celebrated figure in all of reggae music save for Haile Selassie. It appears the now fuller-named younger Garvey has only one previous album to his name despite the lineage of the name, so the title of his latest seems a fitting description of what he’s done to bring his music to the world. Having previously sung alongside the likes of Kiddus I and had his music mixed by Scientist, Garvey has been blessed with the kind of good company that pointed him in the right direction as well. Soldier On is uncompromising roots music, with Garvey’s gruffly melodic, half-chanted vocals rising and falling with the riddims while he throws light from a fire of burning issues. “Justice” cries out on behalf of those who need that very thing, the militancy of the title track is further bolstered by “Jah Warrior Soldier,” the Creator is praised by many names on “Hail Him” and the sidestep into lover’s rock that is “Just a little Bit” shows Garvey able to dig deep even when the roots are the sweeter kind. A nicely crackling band is responsible for the music and the harmonies that Garvey touches down in, and a helping of mixing, mastering and versioning by the venerable Jim Fox further assures that nothing but real reggae is what you’ll get here. And you should get it. –Tom Orr
Legacy Music Productions buy
o Alborosie - Back-A-Yard Dub
Is it at all daft for me to be reviewing the dub version of an album I didn’t cover in like manner to begin with? I think not. Dub should be able to stand on its own; the original permutation of what was dubbed need not be part of the discussion. But so long as I’m already on as big a soapbox as I’m allowed, let me be clear that Wailing Souls’ 2020 release Back A Yard was their best in a long while. Core singers Winston Matthews and Lloyd McDonald remain the vocal power behind a longtime reggae lineup that has also been a quartet and a trio, and the sound of the album recalls the Souls’ rhythmically tough but vocally tasty ‘80s work for the Greensleeves and Live & Learn labels. Italian/Jamaican roots artist Alborosie was entrusted with the producing and mixing of the disc’s dub version, and true to a similar spirit of the past, has done so in a style that recalls the landmark productions of Junjo Lawes when roots reggae was expanding into dancehall but before dancehall lapsed into a clumsy Jamaican approximation of rap. It helps that the bass is handled by Roots Radics’ foundational player Flabba Holt, that Tyrone Downie mans the keyboards, and, most importantly, that Alborosie adds his own kind of sonic flair to the dubs without sounding overly derivative. So while the drums pack a wallop that could blast any past and propel riddims as hard as any ever laid down in reggae, the alternately urgent and chilling effects that sprinkle the eight dubs here make this an absolutely killer affair even without all of Back-A-Yard’s 10 tracks broken up and reconstructed. It’s 30 minutes of knockout dub, and that’ll do just fine. And it’s joyous to see that the Greensleeves label, which tuned me in to so much great reggae in my early obsessive days, is still providing that service. –Tom Orr
Greensleeves/VP buy
o David Asher Band - D.A.B.
At first I had this crew confused with the Daniel Asher Band, a reggae outfit from Sweden. But no, David Asher is based in Michigan, was once the front man of a reggae rock band called The Process and now heads the group that bears his name. Their debut release is an impressive slab of reggae with rock, funk, Latin and country overtones. Asher is adept on numerous instruments and has a husky, unencumbered voice that serves handily on covers of “Keep on Moving” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door “ as well as his own hard-hitting material. The latter includes fact-based musical tales of law enforcement gone frighteningly awry (“47 Shots,” “Deputy Dawg and the Marshall”) and songs like “Keep a Little Faith” that hold true to the easygoing steadfastness that has always been one of reggae’s defining features. There’s also a pair of tracks with corresponding dubs- “Donkey Jawbone” and “Love Ballad” -that were mixed by On.U Sound mastermind Adrian Sherwood and deliver the level of mysticism and measured sonic thrills one would expect from that crafty Brit. It’s always good to come across reggae from my sizable American homeland that has the right balance of outside and inside influences, and this disc is a prime example. –Tom Orr
Temple Gong Recordings buy
o Piper Street Sound - Black Eyed Peace
Not much to say about this 4-track instrumental EP apart from the fact that it’s excellent. Matt Mansfield, an Atlanta-based producer and musician who goes by the name Piper Street Sound, enlisted the assistance of veteran guitarist Andy Bassford, who has accompanied many a reggae great both in studio and onstage. So while these instrumentals are reggae in beat and spirit, it’s Bassford’s unfailingly sharp lead guitar that, well, leads the way for the duration. His playing can easily be compared to that of such masters as Ernest Ranglin, which is not to say he hasn’t got his own feel for the nuances necessary to play reggae guitar. He knows just how tightly to pluck along with the rest of the instruments (which are all real) as well as when to soar above the groove and when to float off into the proper space when things go dubby on the concluding “Icemilk.” You could label this fusion reggae, jazzed-up reggae or anything else along those lines. My only wish is that it all could have gone on longer. – Tom Orr
Matt Mansfield/Mookie Music buy
o Rebelution - In the Moment
It's been seven albums and, I'm thinking, twice as many years since Rebelution emerged from the dual Southern California locales of the town of Isla Vista and the University of Santa Barbara. The band has moved handily from up-and-coming to fully established on the reggae music scene specifically and the alternative music scene in general. If there's a key to their success, my ears tell me it's the fact they don't step out of the established parameters of reggae any more then they need to, and more often don't feel the need to at all, which is even better. Thus In the Moment is free to take a reggae riddim and make it "Heavy as Lead" (as the title of one track states), as well as catch you off guard with a song like "To Be Younger" where the beat isn't necessarily reggae but the highlife-ish guitar tones pull you in anyway. In full reggae mode, this band is hard to beat. "Satisfied" broods with an intensity not unlike that of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, "2020 Vision" cops a keyboard hook from Pablo Moses' "Let's Face It" (properly credited) and uses it to enrich already strong guest vocals by Kabaka Pyramid, "You and I" is as simply profound as lover's rock gets and "That Zone" likewise goes for the heart, this time with an able assist from Durand Jones. And if "Old School Feeling" doesn't put you in mind of Roots Radics, listen again. Although lead singer/guitarist Eric Rachmany is responsible for most of the lyrics and music here (his singing continues to progress impressively as well), the rest of the band also had a significant hand in that department. Such group spirit is evident throughout, which is one of various reasons In the Moment is a moment well captured. Tom Orr
Rebelution Music/Easy Star buy
o Curt Ramm - Rogue Island
Sure, you'd expect a horn player whose credits include working alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Levon Helm and Chic to be good at what he does. But the fact that his own latest release is a Jamaican-flavored affair? Hey, even more respect to the man. Missouri native Curt Ramm is supremely skilled on trumpet, trombone and something called a flugelbone, and his playing makes him come across like a melding of Rico Rodriguez, Eddie "Tan Tan" Thornton and many another of that ilk. Rogue Island is packed with reggae, ska and rocksteady riddims topped by freewheeling jazzy horns providing both bright melodies and smoothly intricate solos. All the other instruments are real (including a surprising undercurrent of accordion on the dubby "Pontchartrain") and the whole thing sounds like a post-pandemic emerging from darkness into light with a classic yet modern island groove leading the way. Even though the album was pieced together in socially distanced sessions, the end result is a finely tuned collection of instrumentals burning with an ensemble energy that's infectious and joyous. Get this disc as soon as you can; a good deal of bliss awaits you. This Ramm can jam. - Tom Orr
Rocktorium Records buy
o Reggae Angels - Remember Our Creator
San Francisco vocal group Reggae Angels has been making angelic reggae for a lot of years. I can't be the only one thinking they're doing it exactly right, given that Remember Our Creator features Sly and Robbie -solid as ever- as the rhythm section and players like Dwight Pinkney on guitar, sax master Dean Fraser and Addis Pablo channeling his bloodline on melodica. Lead singer/lyricist Peter "Fenton" Wardle sports the serious look of an Old Testament prophet in contemporary garb, so no surprise that his songs, delivered in a plainspoken, understated style, are full of ancient wisdom that resonates in the here and now. Tracks like "Positive Way," "Look to the Good," "God Fearing" and the title tune reflect the upful spirit that made roots reggae matter in the first place, and few could argue the contention that such vibes are needed now more than ever. The heartfelt sentiments and organic grooves on disc one of this double set are compounded on disc two, comprised of dub versions of all the songs, mixed by the always spot-on Jim Fox at his Washington DC studio. So make no mistake- roots and dub are fully resurgent here. The Almighty has deemed it and angels are delivering the message to mankind. Rejoice. - Tom Orr
Peter Wardle buy
o Cultivated Mind - No Quarter for Thieves
In performance, it's a band. On recordings, Cultivated Mind is mostly one guy. His name is Anthony Brand and No Quarter for Thieves features him on guitar, keyboards, vocals, bass, drums, trumpet, percussion, harmonica, melodica and production. A few other gents are credited with saxophones and some additional keys, but by and large, Brand is the band. That means he calls the shots as to how his reggae is crafted. And not to worry- he calls all the right shots. Besides singing like a rootsman and chanting like a Bobo Ashanti, Brand captures a vintage reggae vibe through the way he works the instruments, the simplicity of the DIY production and the subjects at hand. The title song has a thing or two to say about corruption in high places, "Sunday School" deals religious hypocrisy a well-placed body blow, "Another Man's Cologne" potently details a love gone awry, "Can't Get Enough" sheds light on the culture of greed and "Blood in the Water" implores Babylon to keep their filthy hands off those who do no harm in partaking of ganja. Such are the concerns that Brand has on his mind, and he explores them through a lens of dub-drenched real reggae music with hints of jazz, blues and Latin flavors. It all adds up to what Brand calls East Coast Reggae. A designation like that makes me proud to be from the east coast, but regional specifics notwithstanding, Brand's brand of reggae is a mixture of multi-talent, lessons learned well and a commitment to reality that hits the mark and never disappoints. -Tom Orr
King Street Records buy
o Rough Sounds - Roots Vibration
If Cultivated Mind exemplifies East Coast Reggae, Rough Sounds is a solid example of what the west coast is up to. Helmed by bassist/vocalist/co-mixer Mike Irwin and featuring a lineup of Californian and Jamaican players including legendary Soul Syndicate guitarist Tony Chin, Rough Sounds delivers what the name of the CD promises and does so in a most conscious manner. Some of the tracks existed as instrumental works on previous Rough Sounds releases and it's good to hear added lyrical might to songs like "Tell the World," which makes it clear that some of us aren't buying what the established order is selling. "Big Money" similarly calls out an unjustly controlling factor in so much of today's decision making, and the following tune, "Good Friend," goes a long way toward pointing out what money can never buy. The back-to-backing of those songs amply demonstrates that the vibration espoused by the album title comes not only from reggae that's authentic in sound (even with unconventional additions like violin), but in theme. A cover of Gregory Isaacs' "Universal Tribulation," in fact, feels not the least bit out of place. While there are songs here that point out problems, a common sense solution never seems far away. Kudos to reggae DJ and artist Chuck Foster, who wrote most of the songs and had a hand in the production, which brings just enough contemporary sparkle to a mostly old-timey sonic atmosphere. Get this disc and let the good vibes roll. -Tom Orr
No Label buy
o The Georgetown Orbits - Solar Flares
This Seattle-based band certainly has a knack for cover versions. Their takes on the Skatalites' "Garden of Love," Familyman Barret's "Cobra Style" and the Heptones' "Crying Over You" (which jolts the original from reggae to ska) would be enough to make Solar Flares earn a spot in your collection. But the Georgetown Orbits' own material also brings an authentic Jamaican feel to the American Pacific Northwest and shows them fully adept at adding their own ideas to the sounds that influenced them. They make it clear from the outset that social conscience will get its due, as the ska/rocksteady hybrid "Why, Why" kicks in with lyrics about struggling to survive and an infectious groove hinting that dancing one's troubles away will be part of the survival mode. It's a great song and although it fades out a bit too soon, the goodies that follow are worth getting to. The lover's lament of "I Never Knew," edifying sentiment of "Keep Your Chin Up" and classic ska sound of "High Noon" (continuing the longstanding tradition of ska tunes with wild west overtones) are all spot on and so is the rest. There's a pretty even split between tracks with and without words, and regarding the former, singer/keyboardist/trumpeter Timmy Conroy provides vocals that are as passionate as the horn-laced arrangements. And the uncluttered production, courtesy of bassist Cale Wilcox and guitarist Orion Anderson, makes certain that nothing gets in the way of the consistently genuine article music. Clearly a labor of love for everything that makes ska and reggae so enduring, Solar Flares is a definite keeper. -Tom Orr
Ready to Launch Records buy
o Various Artists - Send I a Lion: A Nighthawk Reggae Joint
Along with the Shanachie and Heartbeat labels, Nighthawk Records was my go-to during the 80s when reggae became a consuming passion and the funneling of Jamaican sounds into the American market was well underway. Originally a blues label, Nighthawk became a reggae provider under the guidance and production of Robert Schoenfeld and Leroy Jodie Pierson. It's Pierson who compiled this collection, which serves as a reminder of just how high a caliber of music Nighthawk released in their reggae prime. And to those possibly unfamiliar, it'll serve as just as handy an introduction. A generous 20 tracks are found here, and everyone is likely to single out their personal favorites. Nothing here is short of essential listening, but if I had to peg a few as particularly crucial, I'd start with Culture's "Calling Rastafari" (which is very different from the version produced by Joe Gibbs), the teaming of the Gladiators and Leonard Dillion the Ethiopian on "I'm Ready," Wailing Souls' "Harbor Shark," Winston Jarrett and the Righteous Flames' "Babylon Broke Dung Me House" and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes' "Travel With Love." The ruling theme of the compilation- which also includes works by The Mighty Diamonds, Morwells, Junior Byles and Ronnie Davis -is roots and culture, clearly the doctrine that Nighthawk was looking to spread and did so successfully. Oddly, even though they're mentioned in the liner notes as one of Nighthawk's first contacts, nothing by The Itals is included. Perhaps some legal issues prevented their being part of it. Even minus them, this compilation is one gem after another, culminating with The Mighty Diamonds' audition version of "4000 Years," on which the acclaimed vocal trio was accompanied by a makeshift guitar and a rhythm drummed on a phonebook. Now, that's sufferer's music, and it's the kind that Nighthawk helped bring to a growing reggae audience. I'm glad they did. -Tom Orr
Omnivore Recordings buy
o Tommy Tornado and the Clerks - Back on Track
The sight of Netherlands-born Tommy Tornado on the cover of this disc might lead you to believe that it's primarily a ska album. After all, he's wearing a sharp suit and wailing on a saxophone. But most of Back on Track is jazzed-up reggae, and believe me when I tell you there ain't a thing wrong with that. Expertly backed by the Clerks (who hail from Germany and, despite their name, most likely don't work desk jobs), TT sizzles his way through a dozen selections comfortably packed with horns, guitar and keyboards taking on various lead and supporting roles over the drums and bass. A few syndrum fills are the only techno hints; otherwise this is flesh and blood music that handily combines reggae roots with smooth soloing and a freshness that makes repeated listening as satisfying as the first go-around. The opening title track sets the tone with Tornado's lead sax a bright contrast to the more ominous sounding horns that form the backdrop. That same kind of variation in sonic color, combined with solid riddims throughout, make the entirety of the disc (including a trio of dubs) a real dandy. The characteristically animated voice of King Django gives "Lively Stroll" an even more energetic stride, and the entirely instrumental remainder, from the jamming jaunt of "The Tube" to the clockwork tightness of "Dearest," will have you glad to be in the eye of the storm that Tommy Tornado and the Clerks stir up. The title is somewhat misleading, since it's hard to believe that anyone involved in the making of such great music was ever off track in the first place. -Tom Orr
No Label buy
o Gussie Clarke - Dub Anthology Collector's Edition
There's a lot to love about this 3CD, 1DVD set, the least of which is not the fact that the works of rightly acclaimed producer Augustus "Gussie" Clarke were very much in need of being compiled inna dub style on such a level. Clarke crafted the sound of landmark albums by such notables as Gregory Isaacs, The Mighty Diamonds, I Roy, Dennis Brown, Big Youth, Leroy Smart, Cocoa Tea and many a more. He made a smoother transition from roots to dancehall than a lot of his contemporaries, and the lineup here reflects that fact in addition to how well his output in the roots realm merited dub treatment. Four of Clarke's most acclaimed productions- Big Youth's Screaming Target, The Mighty Diamonds' Dubwise, The Revolutionaries' Dread at the Controls Dub and his own Black Foundation Dub -are the basis for the material on the filled-to-maximum CDs. Dubs from those milestones are embellished with further roots-heavy dubs from their respective periods, and taking into consideration the engineers involved (including King Tubby, Ruddy Thomas, Errol Brown and Karl Pitterson) and the studios utilized (Harry J, Channel One, Federal, Tuff Gong and Randy's, to name a few), it's no surprise that the set is very much a testament to the glories of dub reggae in general. Drum and bass-bedded riddims flow like rivers in Zion, familiar and more obscure melodies have their mystic layers revealed, and the players of instruments (not listed, although you can pretty much guess) are expertly showcased. The third CD contains some ragga-centric dubs that are too mechanized for my taste, but they're part of the story and demonstrate Clarke to be a man unafraid to break new ground. The DVD, entitled Dub Talks!, is a lively panel discussion, moderated by an ever-serious Mutabaruka, that's all about dub: how it came to be, what characterizes it, its place in sound system culture, etc. Participants including Clarke himself, Professor Carolyn Cooper, Sylvan Morris, U Roy, Flabba Holt, Solgie, Bongo Herman and Danny Dread express some differing viewpoints in their heavy Jamaican patois, but all agree that any dub engineer worth his salt is as much an artist as any singer or instrument player. That's an assertion all dub fans can get behind, and nothing proves it more than the generous and crucial helping of tracks on the audio discs. No matter your predilections when it comes to the genre, this set is monstrously good and an absolute must for dub lovers.-Tom Orr
Music Works Records / Gussie Clarke Music Group buy
o The Green - Black & White
The Green didn't arbitrarily decide that an acoustic release was to be the next step in their budding career as one of the world's most successful reggae bands and arguably the most popular to ever emerge from Hawaii. Rather, the notion was sparked when they (and others) realized that their pre-performance custom of giving the songs a low key run through backstage sounded more than good enough to be the basis for an album. Given that the band is rife with members who sing both lead and harmony, it's not surprising that the unplugged feel of Black & White, on which The Green reprise past songs, showcases their vocal prowess like never before. And so it is that "Alone" radiates with new intimacy, "Runaway Train" runs on cleaner-sounding energy, "Foolish Love" becomes even more relatable, the gumption to "Trod the Hard Road" is found deeper in the heart and the remainder of the 15 songs The Green reconfigure are all up close, personal and shimmering beautifully. The reggae feel is both retained and expanded upon, with basslines suitably prominent, acoustic guitars chopping and adorning, and hand percussion taking the place of a drum set. Vocals are naturally higher in the mix than instruments but never more than they need to be, underscoring the fact that this stripped disc gets its power from both sources (check, for example, how the melodica on "Never" spurs the tune's convictions as much as the voices). Love songs, conscious songs and celebratory songs are all given their re-do due, and let's hope that the bright future that still lies ahead of The Green includes more of this kind of thing. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Manjul - Dub to Mali Season 3: Douba
When Dub to Mali 2: Jahtiguiya caught my ear and refused to release it a decade or so ago, I didn't know a third volume would one day follow. But it must have been in the works for some time, given that the tracks on Douba were recorded in Bamako, Mali between 2006 and 2011. A longtime resident of Bamako, multi-instrumentalist Manjul (a Rasta who I believe is originally from Paris) mixes roots reggae with West African sounds, and both sides of the equation emerge edified. The bass and drums at the foundation of these songs are seasoned with the same sort of guitar, keyboards, horns and percussion that make the best reggae tasty, but it's the addition of instruments like the n'goni (lute), kora (21-stringed harp/lute), balafon (gourd xylophone), tama (talking drum) and traditional wooden flute that make the foundation as much African as Jamaican. True to the title and very much akin to its predecessor, there's a gloriously heavy dub element to this collection. Much of it is instrumental, and one couldn't be faulted for believing, whether true or not, that a high grade of herb found in Mali had a hand in these creations. Or it could simply be that Manjul isn't kidding when he cites Lee Perry and King Tubby as influences. But whatever makes the magic work, I'm here to tell you that it most certainly does. The occasional African vocals have the keening, soaring feel that fans of singers like Salif Keita will appreciate, the reggae riddims recall the music's classic era, the production is crisp and modern without being glossy, and the disc is first rate in every respect. Oh, and I don't know if this qualifies as a spoiler, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are 17 tracks even though only 12 are listed. -Tom Orr
Baco Records buy
o Black Roots - Take It
It's been 40 years since Black Roots formed in the U.K. metropolis of Bristol. After making a big splash and then dropping out of the British reggae scene for an extended period beginning in the 1990s, a steady stream of comeback albums over the past few years has cemented their re-establishment. While Take It doesn't break any new ground in terms of reggae being the against-the-system music it's always been, the fact that the system seems to get more and more fucked up provides all the fuel the band needs to drive their roots sound. Things get right down to business as the opening title track melodically shames those who do nothing but feed their greed. And don't necessarily be assuaged by the fact that the next song is entitled "Forgive Them"; in Black Roots' worldview, with forgiveness comes the responsibility to end partisanship, tribalism and other factors that divide us. Those who are complacent or weak of mind and heart aren't equipped to make the changes, and it's everyone's business to call them out. Black Roots do it eloquently with the political/spiritual slant of "Tories" and "What a Crisis" even as they deliver glimmers of hope like "Children of the World," which references the youth of Palestine in particular though the message pertains to all. The band's frontline of vocalists- Errol Anthony Brown, Kondwani Ngozi and Carlton Anthony Smith -sing like veterans who may be a bit war weary but have no intention of giving up the fight. And the players, an all-real outfit that includes the always great Tenyue brothers on horns, provides the crackling support needed to keep the roots rooted. From the look and sound of it, these blokes are back to stay, and Take It shows them to still be very much at peak strength. -Tom Orr
Nubian Records buy
o Gentleman's Dub Club - Lost in Space
Nothing lost here. Gentleman's Dub Club, an acclaimed and potent cutting-edge reggae band from the U.K., continue their winning ways on Lost in Space. Combining roots and contemporary textures ain't easy, but these gents pull it off by keeping their drums and bass at the forefront, their effects sufficiently jarring though not overpowering and their songs grounded with enough foundational elements to please purists and enough, yes, space age coating to cast a promising eye toward reggae's future. Most importantly, GDC knows how to wrap reggae's inner tensions in its seemingly relaxed outer shell, and do it on their own expert terms. Front man Johnny Scratchley gears his lead vocals toward the fragile or the forceful depending on what the song needs, and the players (including horns and percussion, always a good sign) wield their instruments as sharply as any celebrated Jamaican studio crew. After a brief ambient intro, opening tracks "Light the Fuse" and "Stardust" set the cosmic tone for what lies ahead, including a serpentine instrumental called "God of War," the into-the-fray "Eye of the Storm," exuberant vocal commentary by Million Stylez on "Turning Back" and classy longtimer Winston Francis bringing an added layer of smoothness to the band impeccable riddim on the concluding 'Walking Away." The corner of the reggae universe occupied by Gentleman's Dub Club is well worth visiting, and you don't need a spaceship to get there. Just score a copy of this album and go full warp speed ahead. -Tom Orr
Ranking Records/Easy Star Records buy
o The Temple Rockers - Festival of Lights
From use of the Davidic Star in Rasta iconography to the fact that one of the most enduring reggae songs ever recorded is entitled "Israelites," there's always been something rather Judaic about reggae music. (And yes, it's for deeper reasons I won't get into now). Former John Brown's Body bassist David Solid Gould and his band The Temple Rockers aren't steering clear of that connection, having already put out an album called Feast of the Passover and a dub version of it. They're going a step further with Festival of Lights, a full-on meeting of Hanukkah and reggae. Don't expect some kind of Adam Sandler-ish spoofing. This is roots music that celebrates more than one kind of roots. Starting off with a nyabinghi instrumental blessing at the crossroads where ital and kosher converge, the album features guest vocalists Wayne Jarrett, Ansel Meditations and Linval Thompson spinning, at times in Hebrew, rabbinical wisdom and celebratory vibes over no-nonsense riddims. Feel free to take or leave the religious angle (I'll take it, thank you), because this is great-sounding reggae either way. Gould's bass anchors flawlessly and the players get to show their chops between the vocal passages with horn, guitar and keyboard solos that were clearly not honed on the Borscht Belt circuit. The mix by Craig "Dubfader" Welsch handily balances the high and low frequencies and adds just enough murkiness to give it all the same mystical air as 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, another Northeast U.S. reggae outfit that has personnel connections to the Temple crew. I don't suppose this disc will become de rigueur listening at Hanukkah parties, but as a testament to the reach and versatility of reggae, it's got everything going for it. -Tom Orr
Fresh Roots Records buy
o Black Uhuru - As the World Turns
Derrick "Duckie" Simpson has been the one constant in all the incarnations of the Black Uhuru harmony trio over the decades of their existence, even when longtime fans called out the lineup as inauthentic. Now it appears that Simpson is Black Uhuru, and this first release with him at the helm is pretty damn good. As the World Turns doesn't ascend to the heights of BU's early greatness, but it's solid enough to hold the reggae line and thus hold your interest. Simpson's authoritative, low-register delivery recalls the ominous tones of Peter Tosh and the material on the disc reflects the pillar-like air Simpson has always exuded, even when his role was a supporting one. The title track asserts BU's place in the current state of reggae, with Simpson making it lyrically clear that he will not suffer easily the fools who might think this new phase is some kind of dodge. He carries thing further on "Stronger" (featuring Agent Sasco) and "Five Star General," which address, respectively, reggae's militant stance and a name-checking account of one man's survivor status within it. Tosh's "Jah Guide" is covered handily, as is the early Wailers' "Stand Alone." Duckie puts a goodly amount of his own stamp on both, and even though his version of the well-worn "Police and Thieves" is frankly awful, he's solidly on course with "Jamaica Herbman," previously known as another Wailers song, "African Herbsman," itself a reworking of Richie Havens' "Indian Ropeman." Simpson examines lost love, ganja and the ills of Babylon elsewhere and ties it all together with a version of Black Uhuru's own "Emotional Slaughter," a quietly wrenching testimony written by Simpson and here simply titled "Slaughter." Although the production, largely by Simpson and Horace Campbell, sometimes sells the music short with too much slickness borrowed from hip hop and contemporary dancehall, there's plenty to like and recommend about this disc. -Tom Orr
Black Uhuru Official buy
o Various Artists - Ska Around the World
It was the Two Tone era that turned me on to ska, after which I, like many, backtracked to the music's origins in Jamaica. There remains some disagreement as to what ska is and isn't (if that You Tube video titled "Top Ten Ska Bands" makes you simultaneously laugh and cringe, you're not alone), but rest assured that all the selections on Ska Around the World are sufficiently authentic. Sure, some take ska slightly off the path, such as The Netherlands' Zazi with their use of instruments like the accordion. Still, all have that accented offbeat that prefigured reggae and jumping feel that doesn't need any punk or rock additions to keep you moving. Instrumentals are a staple of ska and half of what's here is wordless, including The Skatalites' foundational "Glory to the Sound" and a scorcher called "Atlantida" from Brazil's Orquestra Brasileira de Musica Jamaica. Playing for Change gets in on the action with a multi-country take that gives a new beat to an old Indian folk song, the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble handily shows exactly why jazz and ska are forever allied, and Russia's likewise remarkable St. Petersburg Ska Jazz Review seals the deal with a version of Depeche Mode's "Policy of Truth." At less than 40 minutes, the disc is hardly a comprehensive view of global ska. It is, however, a very satisfying sampler and every track is a winner. -Tom Orr
Putumayo buy
o Brother Jerome - Progress
The name sounds like one man, but Brother Jerome is a band (think Jethro Tull). They got their handle from the late sibling of Ryan Bria, the group's front man and main songwriter, and the music they make is genuine reggae straight out of Brooklyn, NY. Most of the songs on Progress have to do with the title subject: how necessary it is, how difficult it can be to achieve and how threatening it is to the narrow-minded. "Hustle," for example, is not about a long-gone 70s dance style, but rather what ordinary folks have to do to survive. Other pieces address the need to reestablish our civility as human beings ("Roots"), the problems of male dominance ("Macho Man," thankfully not the Village People song of the same name) and what love is always better than ("Gold"). The music is nice, slow-burning reggae, with Bria's urgently compelling vocals and a full band of real players, including horns, laying it down. There's an indomitable spirit here that's found in all good reggae. A better world is envisioned but work must be done to achieve it. Brother Jerome addresses such work amply, offering both the clean-slate solution of "Change it All" and the more whimsical "Cookie" as the means to go about it. Yes, consciousness is alive and well in reggae music, and Brother Jerome grasps that fact very well on this impressive and well-rounded debut album. -Tom Orr
No Label buy
o Idren Natural - Satta on the Rocks
This guy is new to me and there isn't a whole lot of information about him out there. Then again, maybe a Luddite like me doesn't know where to look. The riddim tracks for Satta on the Rocks were recorded in Italy and the vocals in the U.K., so perhaps one can surmise that he's a denizen of one of those countries. No matter, really. It's modern roots reggae and dub and it's quite good, with a throbbing, slightly chilled feel reminiscent of Jah Warrior's productions in the late 90s and early 2000s. Mr. Natural (well, what else am I gonna call him?) is more of a chanter than a singer, and his plainspoken delivery gets to you with understated flair that makes a song like "Message to the Youth" sound urgent without overselling the message. He's got a thing or two to say about the state of the world but comes across as much a learner as a teacher, asserting that it's "time to broaden your horizon" at one point and imploring "tell me about your culture and your history" at another. The title track portrays Natural unpretentiously as simply a dread with a chalice by his side, giving praises and getting by, and the rest of the album echoes that perspective. Each song is followed by a dub, and the slinky melodica that colors the dub of the title song makes it particularly fine. The programmed riddims can be a bit cold (a moratorium on canned cowbells, I implore you) but the roots come across and make their mark. -Tom Orr
Roots Traders Records buy
o For Peace Band- Always Love
For Peace Band is a four-piece band from Guam, where there is reportedly a healthy reggae scene even though most of their homegrown artists don't get the chance to branch out internationally. FBP is bucking that trend, having toured the U.S. and shared the stage with the likes of The Green, The Expanders, Arise Roots and Hirie. It's easy to see and hear why. This foursome is certainly looking to "Move Out of Babylon," as they state in one of their more fiery moments, but proclamations of love like "Rarest Flower" and "Secret Recipe" show where their hearts are at in the meantime. Keyboardist Jacob Iosia keeps his lead vocals warm and committed, and his mates- guitarist Ronald Pereira, bassist Danton Cruz and drummer Freddy Bordallo -all prove themselves handily in the instrumental and backup vocals department. It's clear they've gleaned from the music of another small island (Jamaica), and as the name-dropping lyrics of "Revival" impart, they're keen on keeping those roots up and running, even if the rockish lead guitar shows they're not completely beholden to them. These guys give me hope for the future of reggae; they play real instruments, can truly sing, vary their grooves and subject matter and sound like they can fill a dancefloor with fans who want to sway the night away while also looking for substance. For Peace Band has that substance, plus enough sweetness and good vibes to make you remember the necessary role those play in reggae as well. -Tom Orr
Rootfire Cooperative buy
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

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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