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A Second Sick, Reverb-Drenched Disc of Holiday Dub from Super Hi-Fi

Super Hi-Fi play live dub reggae. Their signature sound blends the twin-trombone frontline of Rick Parker and Curtis Fowlkes (of Lounge Lizards/Jazz Passengers fame) into a moodier, sometimes noir-tinged take on vintage Lee Scratch Perry or what the Skatalites were doing in their quieter moments during the golden age of Jamaican ska. When the band started, they had more of an Afrobeat feel, no surprise since bassist/bandleader Ezra Gale led first-rate, second-wave Bay Area Afrobeat band Aphrodesia. These days, they’re a lot slinkier and more low key. From their doomy and seriously excellent debut album, Dub to the Bone, you’d have no idea just how funny this band can be…unless you also know the follow-up to that, Yule Analog Vol. 1, a snarky collection of dub versions of Christmas carols. Sure enough, when the band went into the studio, they did enough of those to fill not one but two cds  – four album sides, considering that the band is known for their vinyl releases – of this shit. And they’re back, with Yule Analog, Vol. 2 – streaming at Bandcamp – and a show in the front window at the intimate, laid-back Bar Chord in Ditmas Park on December 19 at 9.

The previous collection opened with a theme that Jethro Tull was known for pilfering – are you laughing yet? This time it’s Simon & Garfunkel. OK, not a Simon & Garfunkel original, and not with the samples or the antiwar message. What it does have is tons of reverb on the guitar, gently oscillating organ, a rhythm section that sways rather than skanks along and meanderingly goodnatured ska-jazz trombone solos. It sets the stage: the most recurring joke here is the cat-and-mouse game about what song they’re playing and how far they go with it.

O Come All Ye Faithfull (with the double L in “faithfull” – oldschool 90s stoner humor?) doesn’t do that as much, and after awhile the carol has you reaching for the fast-forward. The Christmas Song takes a very, very, very familiar Irving Berlin theme toward swing, with a wry Mitch Marcus tenor sax solo that fades just when it seems like there’s a serious punchline on deck. But the Tschaikovsky theme is killer: who else would have thought to wring Jamdown noir and ambient noise from the Nutcracker?

Gale and drummer Madhu Siddappa keep What Child Is This very close to the ground for a bit until the screams from Jon Lipscomb’s guitar signal another chorus: it’s not hard to imagine this epically delicious plate emanating from the Black Ark in a cloud of ganja smoke circa 1976. They follow that with a funny ska song, Please Santa Bring Me an Echoplex, the album’s only vocal number.

The rest of the tracks are versions of the early songs, and each is an improvement. O Come All Ye etc. gets a black-hole spin through the Echoplex. The Tschaikovsky grows into a mind-altering blend of the baroque, King Tubby and postbop jazz. There’s also the noisy What Version Is This?  [memo to self – isn’t there a carol called It Came Upon a  Midnight Clear?] and a brief Echoplex Reprise. The joke works better before or after December: as heavy disguises as these songs wear, it’s hard to avoid reaching holiday smarm saturation point this time of year. Unless you do your grocery shopping and other retail stuff where this blog travels – in that case, that means salsa, bachata, reggaeton and Polish hip-hop. All of which have never sounded better than they have this month.

It Takes a Lot of Nerve to Call Your Band 10 Foot Ganja Plant

Oldschool dub reggae connoisseurs 10 Foot Ganja Plant celebrate the release of their thirteenth album, Skycatcher, with a rare live show at the Sinclair in Boston on Sept 20. The band plans to have the record “in all good record stores” by Sept 24. One thing that distinguishes 10 Foot Ganja Plant from the other dub groups is that they encompass the entire world of classic dub, from the tail end of the rocksteady era through Lee “Scratch” Perry, on forward to King Tubby and then their own main group, John Brown’s Body. The other is the songwriting: the tracks here are all actual songs, not just two-chord vamps where everything drops down to just the bass, or the keyboard, or the drums…you know the drill. Unless you’re high, that stuff gets old fast. This draws you in and keeps you there all the way through, an eclectic mix of oldschool Jamaican riddims and riffs, instrumentals and vocal numbers.

The first two tracks set the stage: instead of doing the song and then the version, they open with the version and then follow with the fully fleshed-out song so you can see the whole thing coming together. It’s a cool idea. As with the best dub, it’s the little touches that keep it interesting: wisps of melodica, a rattle, reverby conga hits and even wah synth like in the old days of John Brown’s Body back in the 90s. Jay Champany, whose raspy voice has sung many of this group’s songs over the years, carries the song, which doesn’t neglect crafty little elements like the echoey snare riffage in the background, and a fat bass break.

The anthemic Collect the Trophy sounds like Harry Chapin Cat’s in the Cradle done as dub reggae – and is this about the Cannabis Cup? Like most of the tracks here, Sounding Zone is anchored by a wicked bass hook, set against a casual, emphatic sax vamp, punchy brass in and out against woozy synth. State of Man has JBB founder emeritus Kevin Kinsella’s falsetto channeling the Congo’s Cedric Myton all the way through. The title track makes a stark contrast with its ominous minor-key harmonica and distantly austere, spacious vibe, then gets fleshed out with Kinsella on the mic.

Champany sings the angry, biting, minor-key Hypocrites in Town , “a warning to all deceivers,” the full band nimbly weaving in and out. The poppiest track here, Sometimes We Play reminds of vintage Marley, circa Kaya – again, it’s the bass hook that drives it. Champany returns to take the album out on a high note on the lively rocksteady of Sing and Dance. As is this band’s custom, there are no musician credits: these guys like mystery, in the real world as well as the musical sense.

Haunting, Original, Rootsy Ethiopian Sounds from Dub Colossus

Dub Colossus’ 2008 debut In a Town Called Addis was one of that year’s most original and enjoyable albums, a trippy blend of roots reggae and bracing 70s Ethiopian sounds. This blog didn’t yet exist at that point…and slept on the band’s follow-up, Addis Through the Looking Glass, when that one came out at the end of last year. So it’s good to see that it’s been reissued. Where its predecessor was more heavily produced, with a vintage dub feel, this one juxtaposes rootsy reggae grooves with edgy, modal Ethiopiques vamps, often fleshed out with a rich, jazzy complexity by a polyglot cast of Ethiopian and British musicians. As with a lot of this stuff, the shadow of pioneering Ethiopian jazz composer Mulatu Astatke towers over this music. While this might be the last project you might expect to be spearheaded by Transglobal Underground founder Nick Page, he absolutely excels with it, not only as a reggae bassist but also as jazz guitarist and impressively dubwise producer. In case you’re wondering, this is about as far from dubstep as Lee “Scratch” Perry is.

The title cut sets the stage as it grows out of a pensive Samuel Yirga piano line to a swaying, intertwined Nerses Nalbandian style brass arrangement featuring the Horns of Negus. Much of the best Ethiopian music utilizes otherwordly, overtone-packed minor-key modes and this is a good example. The second track, Dub Will Tear Us Apart, is no relation to Joy Division – although Ian Curtis probably would have liked it, being a big reggae fan. This one blends noir tremolo guitars, Farfisa organ, melismatic vocals and swirly keys into a vortex of dub, then leaves it there.

Tringo Dub starts out with a brisk sway as the singer leads a call-and-response over a thinly disguised reggae beat that eventually hits a high with a trippy, staccato Joanna Popowicz piano solo. Yirga’s waterfalling, jazz-tinged piano lights up a slow, bolero-esque ballad sung plaintively by Tsedenia Gebremarkos Woldesilassie. The track after that blends Farfisa, loud rock guitar and a jaunty brass arrangement over a hypnotically circular triplet rhythm. They follow that with a darkly insistent funk tune and then a slow, bluestery noir groove that might be the album’s strongest track. The album winds up with a rustic song for krar harp spiced with light electronic dub flourishes, a haunting, slow reggae jam and then a lush, lively Ethiopian swing jazz piece.

There are also two covers here. The first is a faithful version of the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana, where the irony of hearing an Ethiopian woman trade verses with crooner Mykaell S. Riley,  in a song written by Jamaicans who’d never left the island, manages not to get in the way. The other is an amusing Ethio dub version of Althea & Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking which is a lot rootsier than the original. As with this crew’s first album, there’s a spontaneity and intensity here that’s often missing from more reverential or derivative cross-cultural collaborations. Here’s hoping they keep this alive and make another album somewhere down the line.

Richly Creepy Vintage Afrobeat Grooves from Karthala 72

Karthala 72, right down to their name, evoke the crazed, surreal, most menacing side of the psychedelic funk coming out of Nigeria and Ethiopia in the 70s. Is their recently issued album Diable du Feu (Fire Devil) in fact an obscure treasure from that era? As you probably guessed by now, it’s not: the band is from Brooklyn. But hearing the music, you could easily fool someone who wasn’t hip to the scheme. And Karthala 72’s take on that era is spot-on, right down to the haphazard, seemingly on-the-fly production complete with dirty, distorted bass. What’s coolest about this album is that most of the songs are short: even though most of them are one or two-chord jams, they never go on so long that they get boring. The effect is just the opposite: the listener is left wishing they’d go on for twice as long because the band is thrashing the living hell out of them.

The album opens with the title track, a creepy chromatic horror surf guitar riff rising over circular, blippy bass and boomy percussion. Swirly sax takes it back from chaos to that evil opening riff – and then they’re done in less than three minutes. The raga-funk Marche de la Mort (Death Market) is sort of Within You Without You done as macabre Afrobeat, while the slow, hypnotic Bahari Farasi works call-and-response guitars into a surreal clave groove.

Armour Sombre is a brisk Afrobeat-rock shuffle with clattering percussion that harks back to 80s noiserock bands like Savage Republic (who ironically were influenced by the original stuff from Africa) as much as it does Fela. The same goes for Dans le Coeur Du Feu (In the Heart of the Fire), the A-side of their 2011 Electric Cowbell 7.”

The B-side of that single, Dolores sets surprisingly blithe sax against a brooding one-chord trance vamp. The longest jam here, Triomphe Dieu de la Mer (Sea God’s Victory) pairs echoey East Bay Ray guitar with trippy, echoey, distorted Rhodes piano that builds to a weirdly bluesy jam over an omnipresent percussive groove, rising from a slither to a gallop. They follow that with Trop Fort (Too Strong), which comes together out of a woozy dub-flavored intro with more offcenter chromatic reverb guitar and an even creepier Ethiopiques horn riff.

The brief Le Vieux Chien Marcel (Old Dog Marcel) is the closest approximation of the imitation James Brown coming out of Africa forty years ago, followed by Kishindo Hekalu Wa Roho, which starts out like an amazing Lee “Scratch” Perry dub of an early Black Sabbath track and ends up like Savage Republic. The album closes with the ominous stoner funk of L’Expansion Bantoue (Bantu Takeover).

That’s the nuts and bolts of what Karthala 72 sounds like. Emotionally, this album takes you on a heart-racing, darting tour of the ill-lit back corners of some nameless, dusty third world city of the mind where danger lurks around every turn and the pungent, skunky smell of Durban poison hangs heavy in the air. Creepy dance music doesn’t get any better than this.

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.

New Sounds in Reggae and Dub From Extra Classic

Los Angeles-based Extra Classic’s album Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like a Laser Beam is an imaginative update on classic roots reggae with purist sonics and an edgy soul/rock vibe. Josh Adams’ drums are more straight-up rock than reggae, but the music still swings and sways, and keyboardist Adrienne Verhoeven’s shoegazy vocals make a great match with the deliciously analog-sounding, reverb-toned Lee “Scratch” Perry-influenced production. Alex deLanda’s tasteful, bluesy Chinna Smith-style lead guitar, propulsive bass and a gently trippy cascade of oldschool dub effects round out the mix.

The first track is Congo Rebel. It’s got distorted guitar and busy drums that go prowling around. Metal Tiger blends a catchy reggae bass lick with understated, smart piano and bluesrock lead guitar. With a nice, creepy organ intro, You Can’t Bring Me Down sounds like a classic reggae-pop hit from the early 70s, a vibe echoed on the absolutely gorgeous, swirling, organ-driven Creation. Electric Stars has the same kind of dubwise vein the Clash mined on Sandinista – you can imagine the crew gathered around the mixing board, its lights twinkling through the haze of ganja smoke. It comes together with a warmly atmospheric vibe before the bass picks it up with an unexpectedly funky edge.

Verhoeven gets a chance to really cut loose on Give Them the Same, her big soul crescendos alternating with more of those tersely bluesy guitar leads. The aptly titled Demon Hit swirls around a catchy bass riff, while Lesser Pan has noir trombone and absolutely luscious layers of sound. The album ends with a couple of straight-up soul songs: Angel Eyes, with its pretty two-chord melody and stripped-down production (just bass, guitar and vocals) and Give Me Your Love, a wickedly catchy, soaring number that wouldn’t be out of place in the One and Nines catalog. Whether your taste in reggae leans toward greats like Burning Spear or Jah Bob, or current-day bands like John Brown’s Body or iLamawana, Extra Classic are worth checking out. As a nice plus, the album is available on vinyl – where the richness of the sonics really rings out – as well as the usual digital formats.