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Various Artists – MOJO: Studio One Selector

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

MOJO Magazine, March 2005

I don’t know what I was reading in 2005, but I certainly missed out on a couple of great months for MOJO compilations. I already reviewed this disc that I got for a dollar in a bin somewhere and now I’m reviewing the compilation that preceded it on the newsstands.  Despite my previous assertion that most MOJO compilations are sketchy at best, this will be the third compilation that I’m actually fond of.  I still think they put out a lot of hit or miss stuff, especially this past year’s collection, but when they go with a genre that can be enjoyed by anyone who doesn’t mind a little relaxation then they really can’t fail.  I didn’t think I could either, so I made sure to snag this undoubtedly appealing MOJO compilation of early reggae tunes.

I will confess that although I have recently enjoyed everything reggae, I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about its origins, its various sub-genres, or really any of the artists aside from the usual popular ones.  I suppose that is why anyone picks up a compilation, which by definition is a smattering of tracks that some producer thought might interest a casual listener to consider following up on an artist or two.  I’m not sure if that was in my future, but I did know that Studio One was one of the earliest and most influential reggae record labels that made the genre as big as it is today.

There are a few of the mainstays like Bob Marley and the Skatalites on here, but the compilation also contains some names that don’t necessarily jump out but just sound good.  The first track by Johnny Osbourne, entitled “We Need Love”, is just the kind of light, simple reggae that permeates a very easy feeling right at the start.  The gentle, steady guitar riff that is evident in most reggae tracks slips behind the high crooning of Osbourne’s voice.  It’s definitely got everything one would expect from reggae in the sixties and seventies, and it certainly sets the listener up for what the rest of the record pretty much sounds like.  Ernest Ranglin’s “Surfin” doesn’t sound like anyone’s soundtrack for barreling under the curve of a wave.  Instead, its quiet pace and solo guitar instrumental makes me think of surfers just bobbing up and down the water waiting for the next big one.  The echoed group vocals of the Eternals on “Queen of the Minstrels” is utterly soothing when combined with the song’s lazy, relaxed sound.  One is further smoothed out when the foggy horns enter and exit from the haze.   There are many other tracks that this record that I could go on about, but each sentence would pretty much say the same thing.  This is a good, solid reggae compilation.

Honestly, I really can’t find anything on this compilation that I don’t like.  That’s the way it is with reggae and me in that unless the vocalist is terribly annoying I almost never have a problem with the musicianship and can listen to reggae for hours.  I like this compilation a lot because it is primarily the older reggae sound that I like.  Even though the new stuff coming out these days is a little louder, brasher, and certainly more produced, it still contains many of the same elements that the artists on the Studio One label helped cultivate.  Looking inside the liner notes, it seems that a slew of Studio One-themed compilations came out at the time of this release, so it may be difficult for the casual reggae listener to pick just one.  If you find this compilation somewhere like I did, trust me that this is a great starter for new fans and an excellent party mood-setter for those looking for something to keep things chill.

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John Brown’s Body – Among Them

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Shanachie Records, 1999

Despite what I have mentioned before about record covers that might be trying too hard for your attention, I could not resist this one.  Something about the colors and design spoke to me, as well as the idea that it’s got a picture of a guy with a powerful beard on it.  I had never heard of Shanachie before, so this record could have gone either way in terms of quality.  However, in hindsight, the “Ruff Tuff” wording at the top of the cover should have given this away to me.  No big deal, because pleasant surprises are welcome.

John Brown’s Body is a wonderful group that specializes in some of the most relaxing reggae I’ve heard.  What is even more spectacular is that these guys come from Ithaca, NY!  That means I could actually go see them live!  But I’m getting ahead of myself … John Brown’s Body have managed to put together a reggae record without sounding like they’re trying too hard to mimic the old reggae style.  It just sounds easy for them to develop that late summer night with a cold one in hand feeling.  They’ve got the signature reggae steady riff, the dancing bass beneath all, and the fantastic horn section to carry out the easygoing music that reminds me of Marley’s quieter moments as well as the spirit of the Skatalites’ earlier stuff.

The first song on the record, which also happens to be the title track, combines a lot of elements that can be heard throughout the rest of the album.  It begins with a bit of reverb before vocalist Kevin Kinsella strides in discussing how he wishes to be spiritually fulfilled.  It’s true, Kinsella does not come from a land known for its reggae roots (aka America) but his vocal style is convincing enough to allow the listener to not dwell upon that fact.  His voice actually just slips in with the rest of the instruments that are serenely busy in developing a light, bouncy mood.  This is particularly evident in “Love is a Fire” which is feather-like in its sound.  Sam Godin’s keyboard work, as well as the crisp brass coming from Lee Hamilton and Paul Merrill, make this clearly one of the highlights of the record.  With a band that comprises of seven members, one can expect a full, intricate sound on every track.

Ease on out with a few listens of John Brown’s Body at their website or their MySpace page.

I don’t often gush about a record, especially since most records I listen to for this blog tend to be dodgy in quality.  Even the ones that I find to be good are usually 70/30 at best in regards to likability.  However, I am finding that if one can find an affordable record that picks up one’s mood seemingly without any sort of aggressive effort, then it’s a wonderful thing.  Plus, there’s something about reggae that can be uplifting no matter what the subject matter is, and I have found that John Brown’s Body has put together an excellent collection of bright songs that might turn a stranger onto this kind of music.  The group is still releasing records and touring the States, so if you’re up for a fine evening of reggae rhythms be sure to see if they’re coming to town.  And yeah, these guys get the Golden Dollar and a permanent place in the collection.

Eddy Grant – Killer on the Rampage

January 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Ice Records, 1982

So I rocked down to Massachusetts Avenue one day (woah, did you just see that?!) and was able to secure a copy of this well known classic record, which is mostly due to one particular song and the longevity of one Eddy Grant.  Heck, they made a deluxe version of this record it’s so important to our eighties catalog.  However, if one didn’t know this was a classic would someone pick up a record that had a guy in ultra tight and short bright red shorts on the cover?  Especially if it looked like he saw someone in the distance that may be his nemesis based on his facial expression?  Debatable.  One can’t really determine what kind of music is coming off of this record based on the song titles, so unless someone stereotypically associated Grant’s hair with reggae, they’d likely take a stab that this could be a Caribbean-sounding album that had some light, comfortable beach music.  But oh (“oh NO!”) they’d be wrong.

I have heard it many times and yet I can’t get enough of “Electric Avenue”.  Even though we all do an awkward jig to it despite a rather harrowing message, it’s the delivery of the chorus as well as Grant’s deep, forceful vocals that continue to make the tune a particular favorite of mine.  I admit, I sometimes add in my own “oh no’s” whenever I deem it necessary.  The rest of the disc is probably what’s in question in here, and the truth is that it’s a real mix.  There are some catchy numbers that don’t sound strictly reggae, like the bouncy “It’s All in You” and the slightly edgier “Killer on a Rampage”.  There are, of course, the more traditional, simply riffed reggae tunes like “War Party” and “Drop Baby Drop”, the latter of which is a charming love song if you can picture that tough guy on the cover getting all sentimental and stuff.  One might say that Grant opted to intermingle pop and reggae so as to make sure every song can conceivably get someone to move, which I’d have to say he succeeded in.

I know why you came here, though, and that is to watch this beauty:

You can also hear a lot of Eddy on his website.

Grant is still out and about playing live shows and, of course, giving the people what they want with a slightly quicker version of “Electric Avenue”.  His lengthy stay in the business is rather remarkable given that he’s still considered a one-hit wonder up here in the States.  What might be even more impressive is that he put out about a record a year from 1980 to 1988, with most of those records turning out as mediocre.  Since Grant’s eighties output has that eighties tinge to it one may not be so interested to follow up on his career at that point, but what remains great no matter the decade is Grant’s notable vocals.  For a dollar, this was worth a revisit to those jean jacket, big haired reggae days.