Lush, Solid Modern Roots Reggae Grooves from St. Croix
Are you one of those people who can’t wait for summer, for when all the reggae tours come around? Those bands will no doubt come equipped with new albums to sell at their merch tables. Here in the northeast, it sure doesn’t feel like we’ll have to wait much longer. Groundation have an excellent, eclectic new one due out next month; and if you like them, you’ll probably like Midnite. Extremely popular in the Caribbean, this roots reggae outfit hail from the Virgin Islands and have put out a ton of albums throughout their remarkably consistent career. Their latest, Kings Bell (out on I-Grade Records) is refreshingly purist, conscious roots stuff: the band here is anchored by producer (and co-writer of all the tracks) Andrew “Bassie” Campbell. A nonchalantly brilliant bassist who serves as the lead instrumentalist here much as Flabba Holt does in the Roots Radics, he combines groove and melody together in his busy, soaring lines without wasting notes. While the production is sleekly digital, this is real roots, not your typical bumba clot Babylon system computer garbage, with horns, organ and piano, and drums comfortably in the back like they should be: frontman Vaughn Benjamin’s vocals and the bass are the two highest things in the mix. The album has all kinds of clever dubwise production touches: brief, echoey keyb oscillations, drum breaks, unexpected little piano interludes and even watery Leslie speaker guitar on Peak Tension Time, one of the more dub-oriented cuts.
Overall, the album is a little like Sizzla fronting Israel Vibration around 1995, switching out the vocal harmonies for a broader worldview. Benjamin’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics tumble out 2Pac style – what’s obvious right away is how smart this guy is. Bringing a healthy cynicism to everything he sees, he’s quick to articulate how oppression is driven by corporations rather than by governments, equates global economic exploitation to a bodily “chemical imbalance” and doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues, especially on the slinky, hypnotic, gorgeously pulsing On a Watchlist. On the scathing What About Sudan, he remarks caustically how little regard the west has for indigenous populations around the world in cases where vital natural resources aren’t involved. Throughout it all, Jah Rastafari and Mount Zion are the rocks that give him strength: those looking for love songs, or songs about banging in the club with booze n’ babes will have to go elsewhere. Which is interesting, because Benjamin’s delivery comes straight out of dancehall rather than roots. The songs’ melodies vary from slow and psychedelic, to faster and poppier, and there’s even a drum-and-voice Nyabinghi chant here. Fans of roots reggae from the classic 70s era through today won’t be disappointed (legendary drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace even makes an appearance, and proves he hasn’t lost a step).