SOJA: New Jack Reggae, Oldschool Philosophy
“I wonder if you know what I’m saying when you sing along?” SOJA frontman Jacob Hemphill asks his audience during a rare lighthearted moment on the band’s new album, Strength to Survive. As much sarcasm as that line may have, it carries just as much sincerity. This is a deep record. The vernacular, the accents and the music are a lot different than they were when roots reggae was reaching critical mass in Jamaica around 1972, but the vibe is the same. The Rasta artists of that era were looking for philosophical and spiritual answers, not to mention solutions to the same mundane earth crisis problems that have only multiplied since then, and SOJA are the same. Most people think of reggae as lighthearted party music, and a lot of it is – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but this band goes deeper, not only lyrically, but also musically.
SOJA’s not-so-secret weapon is keyboardist Patrick O’Shea. The band’s sonic architect in the same way that Richard Wright was to Pink Floyd, he shifts between an endless, lustrous series of glimmering, echoing, twinkling, purring, soaring and swirling electric piano, organ and synth textures. Hemphill’s smart, thoughtful guitar playing echoes his lyrical sensibility: rather than assuming the lead, he takes a conversational role, with O’Shea in particular. Bassist Bobby Lee Jefferson and drummer Ryan Berty make a purist, fat yet strikingly stripped-down rhythm section that goes all the way back to rocksteady for its source; the harmonies of trumpeter Rafael Rodriguez and saxophonist Hellman Escorcia often add a potently plaintive, or anthemic, or triumphant edge, depending on the song.
There are many different grooves here. Among the slower ones, Slow Down examines the toll alienation takes on the spirit; Be With Me Now is a moody attempt to fend off an impending breakup that builds to a powerful, anthemic swell which the audience probably feeds off of at live shows. There’s the funky, faster Everything Changes, a trio of reggae-pop songs with 60s soul tinges, and a straight-up, catchy backbeat rock song that closes the album’s twelve tracks. But the best songs here are the serious ones. Gone Today ponders a carpe diem theme, synthesizer oscillating quizzically over its upbeat bounce, while It’s Not Too Late offers a hopeful message, with a tasty mix of blippy horns, twinkling keys and the album’s single guitar solo (which is a good one). Not Done Yet works an unexpectedly stripped-down groove with hints of jazz in the chords. The two strongest tracks here are both big, biting anthems: the first is the opening cut, Mentality, which calls out trouble spots all over the world, BP Oil poisoning the planet along with the war profiteers: “Forwards never, backwards ever,” Hemphill muses sarcastically. The other is the Peter Tosh-inspired, apocalyptic title track: “Does the dollar really matter when the whole world’s gone?” Hemphill asks, “Our world will recover in a billion years, but fuck it if we’re not here.” Words of wisdom from a band who deserve to be taken seriously. SOJA are on tour this summer and are likely to move a ton of these smartly and warmly produced albums at shows; the entire schedule is here.