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Tag: bob marley

A Brilliant Live Album From Reggae Road Warrors Tribal Seeds

Roots reggae band Tribal Seeds were a big draw on the summer festival circuit until the lockdown. All that time on the road obviously inspired their latest album, Live 2020, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s one of the few records made in a studio during that time to surface so far, and even though there was (presumably) no audience there giving the band energy to feed off, their set really nails the outside-the-box sensibility of their live show.

This is a long album, fourteen tracks. The template seems to be Burning Spear’s immortal 1988 Live in Paris record: prominent lead guitar, brassy horn breaks, a kaleidoscope of keyboard textures and many breakdowns into dub. They don’t waste time hitting a dubwise, echoey theme as the opening number, Down Bad Vibes gathers steam, part Burning Spear’s We Are Going and Exodus-era Bob Marley

With echoey guitar, swirly organ and balmy horns, Rude Girl has more of a 21st century, post-pop vibe, reverbtoned sax and more dubby echoes bursting up from individual instruments.

They pick up the pace with Guerra, a bubbling, minor-key antiwar anthem in Spanish. Then they slow things down again for Tempest, first bringing to mind Jah Spear and then hitting a catchy Marleyesque four-chord groove with crackling clavinova and spacy organ.

Taking a cue from Peter Tosh for inspiration, the band lash out at “illuminati” in Blood Clot, picking up with an ominous vortex and a snarling, metalish guitar solo out: total Spear, 1988. Fallen Kings has a stark, echoey string section on the intro and a wry detour into J.S. Bach before the band pulse and swoosh their way the rest of the way: the orchestration is a really cool touch.

Dark Angel is even more orchestral: the idea of a reggae suspense movie theme might seem pretty insane, but this works insanely well. Then the band completely flip the script with Lift, a bright, bouncy love song.

Lushness returns along with the bubbling organ and bass and sunbaked guitar in Surrender. The band kick off Sekkle and Cool, their signature anthem, with a big, crescendoing sax solo, loosen into a dubby thicket and then pull back onto the rails. Then the band go back to vintage Marley catchiness with Moonlight, spiced with classical-flavored piano and shivery strings.

They stay in Marley mode with In Your Eyes, but with all kinds of neat touches: squiggly clavinet and a little surf drums. The defiant, blazing Spear ambience returns in Gunsmoke with sunburst horns and a jagged, slashing guitar break. The band wind up the set, pulling out all the eerie stops with the strings and guitars and keys in Vampire “Corruption spread like a virus.” No joke.

There hasn’t been a new roots reggae album this long, and this strong from beginning to end in years.

Director Ted Bafaloukos’ Posthumous Photo Book Captures the Turmoil and Glory of 1970s Reggae

Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.

The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.

The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.

He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.

Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.

Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth

In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.

Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.

The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.

And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.

What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.

Purist Roots Reggae Band John Brown’s Body Make a Long-Awaited Manhattan Return

John Brown’s Body have been touring for longer than Bob Marley & the Wailers were together.

Think about that for a second.

If you count the point in the mid-60s where ska slowed down to rocksteady, and Toots & the Maytals had a hit with Do the Reggay, roots reggae has been around for half a century. And it’s been a long time since reggae was CNN for Rastafarians and the Jamaican pro-democracy underground.

And it seems like almost as long since John Brown’s Body played a good New York venue. These road warriors’ most recent album, Fireflies – streaming at Soundcloud – has been sitting on the hard drive here waiting for the moment that they’d say boom bye bye to Williamsburg bowling alley Babylon. Good news: they’re playing Bowery Ballroom on Dec 1 at 10ish; cover is $20.

The album’s brassy, minor-key first track is Badman. The song was recorded before the 2016 Presidential election, and it alludes to exploitation of immigrants and working people rather than the tweeting twit in the Oval Office. Still:

Created a master fool
Pay what is natural
Won’t be your slave
Don’t want to obey

Reggae wasn’t always just about getting stoned and chilling.

Realistically, not many people other than musicians are going to listen to this album for every single lyric or nuance. But you have to hand it to this band for nailing every oldschool trope from the rocksteady era to the early 80s, right before the Sleng Teng riddim changed the game.

Tour enough and you can afford the equipment and the studio time to do this like legends. Some highlights: keyboardist JP Petronzio’s subtle organ flickers on the album’s title track, and his growly sub-bass clavinova on the aptly titled Mystery; drummer Tommy Benedetti’s straight-to-dub snare hits; the spot-on evocation of early Maytals rocksteady in Hard Man Fe Dead; trumpeter Sam Dechenne’s horn chart from High Grade, straight out of a blazing Burning Spear anthem circa 1975.

The three-part harmonies on Mash Them Down, another pro-immigrant anthem that would make the Mighty Diamonds proud. That sneaky Aswad reference in the Steel Pulse soundalike New Fashion. The dubwise production, especially with the layers of echo effects in Pure Fire. Singer Elliot Martin’s vengeful “You never look me in the eye” on the closing cut, Who Paid Them Off. Amazing how much you can do with two chords if you have the imagination, isn’t it? Is it time for all the new jacks to do a John Brown’s Body tribute album?

The Brown Rice Family Bring Their Latin-Inspired Reggae and Ska to Drom, With a Psychedelic New Album

For the past several years, the Brown Rice Family have been one of New York’s most consistently fun jambands. Their catchy, danceable songs blend ska and reggae with all kinds of south-of-the-border sounds. They won the WNYC Battle of the Bands back when that achievement actually meant something – which wasn’t that long ago, actually. They’ve got a new album, Havana to Kingston, and an album release show on July 9 at 8 PM at Drom; advance tix are $10.

The basic band lineup is Sticky Rice and Okai on vocals, Yuichi on percussion, Soils on soprano sax, Amu on bass, Kaz on guitar, Isaiah on tenor sax and clarinet and Tama on drums. Like so many classic New York bands, their members hail from diverse backgrounds, representing Haiti, Japan, Nigeria and Jamaica and this city as well. The album kicks off with a really funny intro, a Jamaican guy hitting on a coy Cuban bartendress, leading into the first single, Latin Goes Ska, drawing equally on the original Alejandro Tovar Cuban hit as well as the better-known Skatalites remake for a joyous dancehall-infused jam lit up with sizzling horn solos.

Listening to the album, the first thing that hits you is that these songs are long: they go on for six or seven minutes at a clip, with a subtle dub influence. The oldschool roots reggae anthem Gun Town blends Israel Vibration harmonies to a classic Burning Spear-style groove, with a potent anti-violence message. Say What You Wanna Say is a punchy, upbeat blend of horn-fueled soca and vintage 80s dancehall. Repatriation (Mama Africa) builds to a lushly orchestrated, Rasta-themed peak, in the same vein as one of the more anthemic tracks on Bob Marley’s Kaya album –  Kaz’s Memphis-inspired guitar solo caps it off.

The propulsively bubbling Zimbabwe (Illegal Economic Sanctions) addresses the issue of how multinational corporations push western governments into terrorizing the third world, creating a new slave state for this era’s global robber barons. Moving Forward takes a potently relevant detour into conscious funk – “Eminent domain taking over your mainframe” – with a shout-out to a classic Crusaders hit. The band goes back to roots reggae with She’s Gone: “I”m becoming dysfunctional,” Sticky Rice laments, before a balmy Augustus Pablo-style melodica solo kicks off a dub interlude. The album winds up with Surfing, a vintage 70s roots groove. Since the record isn’t out yet, it’s not at any of the usual streaming sites, although it’s a good bet that the band will have some copies of it at this show. And as good and purist as the recording is, ultimately this is a live band: you really have to see them to appreciate them, whether you just want to chill and sway to the riddim or rock out and dance, either way they’re happy to have you there.

Legendary Jamaican Guitarist Ernest Ranglin Returns with Another Great Album

You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.

Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.

Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.

Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.

Alpha Blondy Brings His Revolutionary African Reggae to B.B. King’s

Ivory Coast bandleader and songwriter Alpha Blondy has built a career that ranks with the work of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Through decades of censorship and repression, he toiled on, a crusader for peace whose rage began to boil over even before the Jasmine Revolution began in Tunisia and then started its inevitable spread around the world. Like Tosh, especially, Blondy is a big-picture guy with a gift for metaphor that cuts to the root of whatever he’s going up against. Many of his albums are roots reggae classics, beginning with his early 80s collaborations with the Wailers. NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture ranked his massive 2007 double album Jah Victory as one of the thousand best albums of all time, a spot-on state-of-the-world account that skewers dictators, genocidal regimes and hypocrites of all kinds. Now, in what has been a considerable coup in the reggae business, VP Records has released Blondy’s new album Mystic Power, an often caustic, sometimes epically powerful album that’s as valuable a historical document as it is for its infectious grooves. He’s playing B.B. King’s at 8 PM on July 2; advance tickets are $30 and still available as of today.

Blondy sings in French, English, Arabic and his native vernacular. The albums opens uncharacteristically with a nod to current African autotune pop, a weirdly worrisome tune featuring a Beenie Man cameo, then closes with a brief coda from a gospel choir. In between, the riddims are an eclectic mix, from seriously oldschool roots reggae with rippling organ, layers of guitar, real bass and drums, to high-tech, artsy anthems with all kinds of synthesized orchestration.

With its fuzzy P-Funk synth riffage, My American Dream takes the ominous and tragic point of view of an African immigrant whose experiences here were anything but dreamy. If you’ve ever wondered what I Shot the Sherriff would sound like in French, you need to hear J’ai Tue le Commissaire – and the music is remarkably close to the original Marley classic, something Blondy no doubt learned from working with Marley’s band.

With its gospel gandeur, Crime Spirituel is sort of Blondy’s Masters of War: “Mohammed isn’t a terrorist prophet, don’t connect him with your wars,” Blondy intones in French. La Bataille d’Abidjan begins with a viciously sarcastic surf rock quote but then offers hope for a post-revolutionary future, as does the Middle Easterm-flavored Ouarzazate, and also Reconciliation (a collaboration with fellow African roots reggae revolutionary Tiken Jah Fakoly).

The snidely catchy France A Fric (one of Blondy’s signature Peter Tosh-style jokes, a pun on “French Africa” and “France Has Big Bucks”) – is a warning to any wannabe imperialists. Woman, sung in English, is a Burning Spear-style shout-out to the strength of women around the world – much as you might not expect a feminist anthem from a guy from the Ivory Coast, that’s what this is. Danger Ivoirite looks at the terror Blondy’s fellow citizens have had to deal with in the last few years, even if they have to go online to get the real story about war atrocities. There’s also a French Mediterranean ballad done as roots reggae, and a gospel anthem, as well as a couple of bouncy tracks in Blondy’s own dialect. Like so many Africans, Blondy shifts easily between languges: in concert here in the US, he adjusts the set list to include a lot of stuff in English, including his haunting, plaintive cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

Kiwi’s On the Move with Good Original Reggae

Jersey City reggae band Kiwi’s new album On the Move manages to be purist without being a ripoff. Frontman/guitarist Alex Tea’s songs draw a straight line back to Bob Marley and Burning Spear at their late 70s peak, while adding original touches including elements of jazz and Brazilian music. The arrangements are everything that’s good about roots reggae: they’re slinky and hypnotic yet constantly change shape, with light dub tinges that enhance the psychedelic factor. Much as the album’s sonics are crisply digital, the production values are strictly oldschool. What’s interesting about this band is that everybody seems to come from either a rock or jazz background, yet they get what reggae is all about better than some of the Jamaican posse does these days. Drummer Ramsey Norman is a harder hitter than most of his reggae counterparts, and like the great Sly Dynbar he does a lot more than just the one-drop beat, teaming up with percussionist Ben Guadalupe. Likewise, bassist Matt Quinones basically functions as a second lead guitarist, a couple of octaves lower. Keyboardist Dave Stolarz varies his textures from swoopy Wailers-style organ to various piano and synth voicings: he’s their secret dubwise edge.  The horn section of tenor saxophonist Barami Waspe, trumpeter Curtis Taylor and trombonist Rob Edwards make the most of a bunch of juicy charts, adding to the richly tuneful, retro 70s vibe.

The opening track, Aprendiz, blends tropicalia and anthemic rock over a rootsy groove, like a Brazilian John Brown’s Body. The second track, Burden, is a killer singalong, the first of several rocksteady-style numbers that remind of vintage early 70s Toots & the Maytals. They go for a pensive Marley feel with Change and then add spaghetti western touches and Augustus Pablo-ish melodica on the apprehensively jungly Dead Man, which segues into an unexpectedly weird, trippy atmospheric interlude.

Edwards’ balmy trombone lines pair off with the jaunty bounce of Fine and Mellow, while Give a Little goes back to the rocksteady before raising to a gorgeously soaring chorus. I Can Fall nicks the riff from the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and takes it more upbeat on the wings of the horns; the band hits a dub passage and segues from there into Lady Lady, the poppiest thing here, which has the feel of a carefree early 70s Johnny Clarke hit.

The most intense and original track here is Pirambu, an unexpectedly ominous, lushly anthemic tune with intricate jazz-tinged guitar, ethereal horns and another hypnotic dub interlude. Pema mixes up samba and reggae, while Sun Never Set is sort of Marley’s Dem Belly Full crossed with Henry Mancini. The album winds up with the easygoing Tell You Once, spiced with a sweet trombone solo and the best outro of any of the songs here. Kiwi play the album release show tonight, Feb 21 at Joe’s Pub at 11 PM.

A Reggae Golden Jubilee: Oxymoron?

 What would you put on your ultimate reggae mixtape? If this is your thing, you gotta start out with the national anthem of reggae, the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana, right? Then there’s the classics: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear. For the sake of the Wailers, you’d probably want something from Bunny, right?

Then there’s the golden age. The tape wouldn’t be complete without Jacob Miller…or Big Youth. U-Roy, Freddie McGregor, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs…plus don’t forget Steel Pulse, Linton Kwesi Johnson. Aswad, Lucky Dube, Culture and Israel Vibration! Imagine the dilemma for would-be compilers of an official “greatest reggae album ever,” doing the heavy lifting to get all the rights clearances, versus those of us who just download whatever we want.

At this point, enter the Reggae Golden Jubilee, a 4-cd compilation only available at record stores. On face value, the idea of putting former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga in charge of selecting the tracks – ostensibly, at least – is ludicrous. Until you realize that Seaga – a Harvard-educated Lebanese-Jamaican – got his start in the music business. And he wasn’t unsuccessful: having introduced ska to an American audience at the New York World’s Fair, he rode hits by Prince Buster, Joe Higgs and Delroy Wilson to the point where he was able to sell his studio to the Dragonaires’ Byron Lee for a tidy profit.

So here’s what’s on the box set. Seaga, predictably, is at his best in the early years. Lots of obvious stuff: Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop, but also Justin Hines & the Dominos’ caustic Carrry Go Bring Come. There’s the Folkes’ Bros.’ mento original of Oh Carolina…and also the Paragons’ original of The Tide Is High. Other obvious choices include the Maytals’ Sweet and Dandy and 54-46 Was My Number, and Desmond Dekker’s Israelites. There are three Marley tracks, two of them outtakes at best: It’s Alright, an early version of Trenchtown Rock, without the Wailers, and a dubious outtake of Kaya. Likewise, Peter Tosh is not represented by, say, Get Up Stand Up or even Bush Doctor, but by an obscure dub track from 1969, Them A Fi Get A Beatin. Likewise, Big Youth’s colossal debut single, S-90 Skank isn’t here; in fact, there’s nothing by Big Youth here at all.

And that’s the limit of a reggae compilation in the internet age. As a holiday gift for a young person who’s just discovered roots reggae, this is a $60 treat. You get Hopeton Lewis, Alton Ellis and the Ethiopians. There’s Many Rivers to Cross, and The Harder They Come – the concluding 100th track. There’s only one Burning Spear cut – that’s Marcus Garvey – but there’s also Junior Byles’ Fade Away. There’s classics like the Mighty Diamonds’ The Right Time, Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves and Culture’s Two Sevens Clash. On the flip side, there’s Gregory Isaacs’ Number One…but not Night Nurse. Likewise, Freddie McGregor, Johnny Clarke, Ken Boothe, Jacob Miller and, if you count Black Uhuru (why no Sinsemilla here? Seaga is in his 80s and doesn’t smoke anymore?) aren’t well represented.

The rest of the box set is pretty predictable. On one hand, it takes serious balls for Seaga to go for the original Wayne Smith classic Under Mi Sling Teng. But there’s nothing unexpected post 1980. Chaka Demus & Pliers’ Murder She Wrote; Dawn Penn’s remake of No No No; Buju Banton’s Untold Stories (but NOT Boom Bye Bye); and token inclusions from Luciano, Sizzla, Lady Saw and Elephant Man, nothing particularly radical or unexpected. It’s easy to argue that Jamaican reggae went to hell in the 80s; but why no American bands – no Groundation, no Lambsbread, no John Brown’s Body? And for that matter, the omission of Steel Pulse practically disqualifies this whole venture. Answer: dis ere about Jamaica, mon, in every possible positive and negative way. Even the title breathes unease: a Golden Jubilee? That’s for the queen of Babylon! As Lord Creator says on his wonderful 1962 ska hit (one of the deliciously obscure early tracks included here), Independent Jamaica!

Deep Roots from the Nazarenes

Is it overkill to have reggae on the front page here for three days in a row? It’s reggae season, after all – back when reggae bands started finding an audience outside Jamaica, they’d typically go on tour in July and August when the tourist season is at a low and it’s really hot down there. So in honor of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and all the great ones who came before, today’s band is the Nazarenes, led by two Ethiopian-born brothers, Medhane and Noah Tewolde. They’ve got Rasta cred that’s hard to beat – their father worked for H.I.M. Haile I Selassie I, Jah Rastafari! Their new album Meditation is just out on I Grade Records. What they do is minor-key reggae: towering, and anthemic, and just as intense as it is catchy. These guys are dead serious about their message, familiar as it may be: respect for mother earth, bun down Babylon, love Jah, there’s strength in numbers, etc. “Watch how I survive today,” they sing on the album’s balmiest track, Love Jah: they go for the big picture evey time. A lot of this you can stream on their youtube channel – the production and arrangements are strictly oldschool roots with swirly organ, jangly guitars, pulsing bass, laid-back beats and clever dub touches. It’s a lot like what Israel Vibration were doing around the turn of the century but a lot more epic and ornate.

The title cut, which opens the record, sets the tone. “I’m flying higher, higher, I’m in paradise.” Hmmm….The second one, simply titled Food, has some deliciously creepy backing vocal harmonies that contrast with the song’s bouncy, upbeat tune. They rhyme “globalization” with “United Nations,” and take care to remind that’s where the similarity between the two ends. It’s Too Late, featuring Lutan Fyah, paints a cynical picture of what happens when so-called leaders get careless and self-indulgent: “It’s been so many years since you’ve been in power, but you couldn’t fulfill the basic needs on time – the youth are frustrated, they are out of control…equality and justice are the urge of the mob, not George Bush bling bling showing off to the rest of the world.” By contrast, a big, bright horn riff opens Mother, an optimistic tribute to Mother Africa – and are those ringing, pinging tones a steel pan, or a synthesizer?

They bring to mind both classic, early Steel Pulse with the jazzy guitar and Israel Vibration with the vocals to On My Way, a defiant on-my-way-to-Zion anthem, then chronicle Bible verses in The Lord Said, featuring St. Croix reggae stars Midnite: that one’s like an oldschool American soul song as Marley or the Mighty Diamonds would have done it. Mamy Blues begins with a couple of suspenseful, lingering piano chords and follows with a jazzy solo – it’s a prime example of how artsy a band can get, spiraling hammer-on soul guitar mingling with melodica, and still be true to their roots. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Lucky Dube songbook. Alive, a stoner existentialist lament and then Everlasting, with its catchy minor/major changes are the next two tracks, followed by Politrickcians, pulsing along with a murky but catchy bassline and sarcastic, conspiratorial synth: “Powertripping control freaks, they give me the creeps.” Amen to that!

There are three more tracks here. Get Together is kind of skeletal, with more of a dancehall vibe, a call for world unity. Destiny chronicles our “mysterious journey, fighting day to day,” with echoey, majestic electric piano and artsy rock guitar. Another track in the style of early 70s Marley is Lonesome Lady, an unexpectedly sympathetic portrait of a hooker. Play this for anybody who thinks that all reggae sounds the same – it’s a welcome change from all the lovey-dovey pop and tedious smalltime criminal tales on reggae radio.

Mike Rimbaud’s Coney Island Wave Is a Riptide

Any conversation about great lyrical songwriters since the punk era needs to include Elvis Costello and Graham Parker…and Mike Rimbaud. Rimbaud is younger than they are; stylistically, he’s closer to Parker, both in terms of surreal, aphoristic, dark lyrics and excellent guitarslinging. In fact, Rimbaud’s the best guitarist of all three, equally interesting whether he’s working an oldschool soul vamp, playing twangy noir surf licks, angry punk rock or glimmering, nocturnal Stonesy lines. His most recent album of originals, Coney Island Wave is one of the great New York rock records. It’s both a celebration of this city as well as an often savagely spot-on look at the state of the world, 2012, set to catchy, usually upbeat tunes that run the gamut from vintage new wave, to creepy garage rock, to oldschool soul. It’s the rare album where the melodies are as good as the lyrics, which are just plain kick-ass pretty much all the way through, Rimbaud handling all the guitars, keys and occasional harmonica and backed by a no-nonsense rhythm section of Chris Fletcher on bass, Andrea Pennisi on percussion and Kevin Tooley on drums.

The first track is Burning the Night Out Early, set in a vivid late night Coney Island of the mind where “it’s getting early”- that kind of night. If you’ve experienced one of those there, this will resonate mightily. Rimbaud follows  it with Dance with a Mermaid, a noir garage rock song packed with loaded metaphors, the mermaid dancing on the Titanic since the ocean’s full of oil and global warming has brought the mix to a boil, so to speak.

With its clever Like a Rolling Stone allusions, Don’t You Love This City keeps the sarcasm at boiling point. The next track, Everybody Needs a Daddy sounds suspiciously sarcastic as well, especially with the Simpsons and Darth Vader references – could it be a jab at the Bloomberg nanny-state patriarchy?

Got to Sell Yourself is just plain great, an anthem for anyone who’d like to take the world’s oldest profession to the next level: “You’re a failure when nobody’s buying, you’re something else when you’re sold out; you’re a loser ’cause you only own yourself,” Rimbaud snarls over the song’s casually biting, insistent hook. Here Comes the Subway Sun could be a tribute to the joys of tripping on the train; Mamma Say Something Nice follows in a brooding blue-eyed soul vein, like something Parker might have done in the late 70s.

The album really heats up at this point. Puppet Man, with its soul organ groove, is packed with more politically-charged sarcasm. “Like Pinocchio, go to Tokyo,” is one recurrent motif: a Fukushima reference, maybe? The album’s funniest, and probably most timely track is Put Your Facebook on the Shelf:

Don’t let it get in your head
Slavery’s not dead…
Your password’s not a secret
Eyes wander on the page
Your tongue hangs out like a hungry dog
How many friends can you count on?

Rimbaud rasps over a catchy groove that’s part Elvis C., part Bob Marley.

Saving to Go Bankrupt – an anthem for the Occupy movement, with some very insightful and useful background from Rimbaud here – offers both a succinct condemnation of the one percenters’ bankrupt system as well as hope for the future: “Wake up from your American dream!” Rimbaud follows that one with Tears for the Rich and Famous, a searing, guitar-fueled condemnation of celebrity shallowness capped by a sweet, vengefully swinging guitar solo. The last track, Unicorn, is the most retro 80s of all the songs here – with its goth tinges and synthesizer, it sounds like an outtake from a previous session that might have been tacked on here to end the album on a more upbeat note. Rimbaud also has a killer new album just out, Can’t Judge a Song by Its Cover, which imaginatively reinvents an impressively diverse mix of classics and standards by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Dave Brubeck, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Tom Jobim, the Beatles and others. That’s up next here. Rimbaud is also featured on the upcoming Occupy This Album anthology, a benefit record for the Occupy Movement featuring some obvious suspects along with several refreshingly not-so-obvious ones including Immortal Technique,Willie Nelson and Toots & the Maytals plus New York talents My Pet Dragon, Taj Weekes & Adowa and Stephan Said.