New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: burning spear

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.

John Brown’s Body Puts Out Their Best Studio Album in Ages

Imagine your band’s been on the road for the better part of twenty years. You can sell out pretty much any midsize venue you feel like playing. Recordings of your concerts – both the ones made by fans, and your own, which you give away for free – are shared and prized by collectors around the world. Why on earth would you make a studio album – let alone one that sounds ok on phone earbuds, but which sounds AMAZING on a good stereo system?

Because you play so many shows that you’re bound to sell out whatever you manufacture? Because people who are stoned enough will buy pretty much anything? Or maybe just because the band is in a good place right now and you want to document this particular period in its history? Maybe all of the above. Veteram roots reggae band John Brown’s Body are playing Brooklyn Bowl tonight around 9 and as of this afternoon, it isn’t sold out yet – get to the venue by 8 and you should be fine. And you can pick up their new album Kings & Queens, just out from the folks at Easy Star Records, if you want a souvenir that sounds as good as the concert.

John Brown’s Body has been making solidly decent album since the early 90s. They used to have more of a dub vibe, with wah-wah on the keys of all things, and more orthodox, “praise Jah” type lyrics. These days, they’re louder and more driving, Mike Keenan’s guitar pushing the music with Nate Edgar’s bass and Tommy Benedettt’s drums, Jon Petronzio’s keys adding a dubwise edge, their killer horn section usually lighting the way melodywise.

The opening track on the new album has the hook in the bass – it’s irresistible, just like the horn charts. Although trumpeter Sam Dechenne, saxophonist Drew Sayers and trombonist Scott Flynn – who write all their own arrangements – look back to vintage 1960s Motown and soul, the brass on John Brown’s Body albums and this one especially is good enough to recommend to gypsy music fans. They follow with a big anthemic sway on the second track, Invitation (which sounds like “invocation” – it’s that kind of thing).

The Burning Spear influence is all over this record. Track three, Plantation, reminds of Man in the Hills, a snowstorm of keyboard EFX kicking off a brief bass-and-drum interlude before the song picks up again.Shine Bright has the gleaming horns and stutter pulse of late 80s Spear mixed with jazzy 70s Stylistics-style ballad chords. And just as Jah Spear did for one of his heros, Marcus Garvey, JBB finally send a shout out to the guy whose name they took – and reference Old Marcus Garvey along the way.

Empty Hands has a noir Ghost Town/Satta Massaganna arrangement to match its  “Mr. Officer leave me alone” lyric with a little hip-hop vibe as it winds out. Fall on Deep sounds like a Marley love ballad from the Kaya days. Dust Bowl might be the best track here, with its big, intense, swirly minor-key ambience and ominous global warming-era lyrics. By contrast, The Battle reverts to the band’s more anxious, stripped-down spiritually-minded sound from the Kevin Kinsella days back in the 90s, frontman Elliot Martin letting his vocals linger (and is that autotune or just some weird flange effect on the harmonies?!?).

As far as horns go, the arrangements on the dub-influenced Starver are gorgeously dark and bluesy; on Deep Summer, arguably the album’s best track, they’re warm, enveloping and absolutely beautiful. The album closes with Searchlight, which is not a reggae song – it’s a big mid 80s style new wave pop anthem with a sequencer, like ZZ Top used to use. It also offers a nod to P-Funk, sonically if not rhythmically. It sounds suspiciously like it was written to close a show on a, um, high note, a big singalong where everybody in the choom gang who hasn’t reached total absorption yet gets an excuse to raise their lighter to their lips one final time.

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.

Super Hi-Fi Puts Out the Best Reggae Album of the Year

Meet the best reggae album of the year – and it doesn’t have any lyrics. Brooklyn band Super Hi-Fi’s new album Dub to the Bone is all instrumental. Essentially, it’s live dub – to an extent, they’re doing live what Scratch Perry would do in the studio. But this album keeps the studio wizardry to a minimum and focuses on the songs. Theyv’e got an oldschool echoplex, which they use judiciously and absolutely psychedelically, but it’s the tunes and the playing that make this psychedelic. Since this was recorded as a vinyl record for Brooklyn’s excellent, eclectic Electric Cowbell label, there’s an A-side and a B-side.

The band keeps it simple and catchy as they make their way methodically from one hook to another. A lot of reggae is verse/chorus/verse/etc. and this isn’t, which keeps it interesting while maintaining a fat groove. And while a lot of dub is an endless series of textures echoing and fading in and out of the mix, the band does this live without missing a beat. Bassist Ezra Gale’s songs lean toward the dark and menacing side: some of this is absolutely creepy, as the best reggae and ska can be.

The opening track, Washingtonian works trippy variations on a dark reggae vamp, the occasional vintage newsreel sample adding snide commentary on the military-industrial complex (is that Eisenhower?) The tightness of the twin trombones of Alex Asher and Ryan Snow reminds of classic Skatalites, or Burning Spear’s peak-era band with the Burning Brass.

There are two versions of Tri Tro Tro here and they couldn’t be any more different: they’re basically two separate songs. Which is the coolest thing about dub – the first builds to a carefree Will Graefe guitar hook over the equally catchy bassline, the second begins as a new wave guitar song before the reggae riddim kicks in and morphs into a soukous tune. The third track, Neolithic, runs from a twin trombone hook to a wickedly catchy turnaround, wailing guitar giving way to the swoosh of the echoplex and then an unexpectedly balmy, jazzy interlude.

The best track here is the absolutely Lynchian We Will Begin Again with its noir trombones, creepy, lingering guitar and shapeshifting melody. Q Street drops the individual instruments in and out over an Ethiopian-flavored groove, while Public Option – another political reference  – centers its echoey orchestration around a moody minor groove and Madhu Siddappa’s hypnotically boomy snare drum. The final track, mixed expertly by Victor Rice, somebody who knows a thing or two about classic dub, is Single Payer, the most psychedelic, Black Ark-style plate here, the veteran ska and reggae producer having fun matching the bass and drums against the guitar and trombones and vice versa. The album release show is at Nublu at around midnight – you know how that place is – on Dec 13, and it’s free.

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.

A Reggae Time Trip from the Archives

Washington, DC roots reggae band the Archives are a trip back in time to the days when reggae wasn’t about computerized beats and effects that sound like a video game soundtrack. Their new album has bubbly organ, catchy, simple bass hooks, tasteful guitar that rings out in the mix, an edgy brass section, hypnotically clattering percussion and a mellow, summery groove – but at the same time, it’s very serious. Some of the songs sound like they could have been written in 1975; maybe that’s why the band call themselves the Archives. You could also call this the new Ras Puma album because he does the vocals on most of the tracks, direct and confrontational without being preachy.

He takes the lead on the opening track, Who’s Correct, with a real oldschool, throwback sound that reminds of the Abyssinians, the horns throwing off some catchy Ethiopian riffs. He’s joined by crooner Lenny Kurlou on the jazzy, vintage Steel Pulse-ish Ghetto Gone Uptown, then explains his Rasta mentality – “it’s not a religion, it’s a way of life” and disses the fake ones, “wolf in sheep’s clothing” on the anthem Nuff a Dem Claim. The longest song here is More to Life, with torrents of lyrics examining the evils of the Babylon money system and a casually gorgeous, psychedelic wah guitar solo.

With its irresistible shuffle beat and cinematic horn swells, Message for the Messenger goes after artists who steal from history and don’t give credit where credit is due. Ras Puma also sings on the clever ganja anthem Sensibility and the anthemic closing cut, Blasting Through the City, which with its early 70s Wailers feel is this band’s Burning and Looting.

Desi Hyson sings Crime, a passionate dissection of the hypocrisy of the war on ganja with more than a little Peter Tosh influence: “Police at my door, knocking hard, flashing badges, waving guns, and they tell me it’s a crime to let the herb give birth to a simple seed.” Kurlou sings a cover of the Clash’s One More Time – which is kind of a cross between the original and the dub version – while Ichelle Cole takes over the mic on the poppiest track here, Boof Baff, driven by a cheery piano riff, namechecking all kinds of greats from the past including Sugar Minott, Gregory Isaacs, U-Roy and especially Big Youth, whose early stuff this one resembles. Sleepy Wonder fronts the band on Music Is My Prayer with a rootsier Luciano vibe; there’s also a single instrumental here and it’s killer, starting out like Augustus Pablo and then growing livelier, with joyously dancing flute, like one of the instros on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey. If classic roots reggae is your thing, this is for you.