Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More Than Just 'The Help': A Review of Machel Montano Presents The HD Family

Chances are that if your experience and fascination with Soca music goes any deeper than say Kevin Lyttle’s Turn Me On and Rupee’s Tempted To Touch you’ve probably heard the name Machel Montano somewhere before. In terms of the hierarchy of pure Soca artists’ popularity, even the most objective critic would have to place Machel at the top and I’m really having a hard time making an argument for anyone else. Season after season Machel has remained one of the most visible faces in Soca who actually participate in Carnival who would seemingly ‘threaten’ to become overnight sensations outside of the realm of Soca should his music ever be accepted anywhere near the mainstream. This is, of course, despite the fact that, when at his best, Machel’s style is very much on the typically thought to be largely inaccessible POWER side. I’m convinced that he may be one of the only names that could take that side to the next level if given the opportunity. Also, its worth mentioning that for the past few years, Machel remains one of the very few artists with a REALISTIC shot at taking the Road March crown in his native Trinidad (the biggest Road March in any Carnival season). He, along with only two others, Faye-Ann Lyons and Shurwayne Winchester, have won every Road March title in Trinidad from the past half decade plus and neither super star Winchester nor Faye-Ann (who can claim a level of CONSISTENCY unmatched by even Machel as of late) enjoy an overall level of popularity anywhere near rivaling that of Montano’s. This can be tangibly evidenced by the fact that in recent years Montano has headlined MULTIPLE bills at Madison Square Garden in New York City (probably the most famous ‘normal’ venue in the world (‘normal’ meaning somewhere like the Roman Coliseum notwithstanding). Now, with all of that taken into account, its rather nice that Montano, who has been accused of having a big head and an attitude, hasn’t eschewed the popular practice in Soca of associating oneself with a bigger group/band to the point of virtually synoymizing one’s own name with the group. Previously (and probably still to quite a few), when you thought the name Machel Montano, the direct correlation would be drawn to his band, Xtatik, one of the most popular Soca bands in the world (even still). Much like the DIVINE Alison Hinds with Square One and Edwin Yearwood with Krosfyah, Machel’s name and face became one thought part of the group, despite the fact that his were far and away the most popular on either case and he was the head of the group. It is also a WONDERFUL practice which continues as many newer artists like Faye-Ann, Bunji Garlin, Tizzy, Claudette Peters and MANY others have at one point or another been associated with their popular group at the time. That was of course until things changed for Xtatik.

For all intent and purposes Xtatik is ‘gone’. In its stead was constructed the HD Family/Camp which is A LOT more fun! Unlike Xtatik, at least to my knowledge, which, although it had a couple of different lead singers (another rather popular (and NICE) practice in Soca) but was largely built and pushed as ‘Machel and His Band’, the HD Family is more vocal artist spotlighting. And The Family does include a varied group of faces outside of Machel’s. The first would be longtime Xtatik member Farmer Nappy. The Farmer is a very versatile and SEASONED performer and artist in general who has probably been one of the more underappreciated talented names in the history of Soca music. There’s also Zan, a very impressive younger singer (I think he’s my age actually) whose music, at least in my opinion kind of runs ‘hot and cold’ but definitely when he’s HOT, he is one of the more impressive singers in Soca right now. And then there’s the Princess of the Family, Patrice Roberts. Roberts is probably THE most impressive young Soca artist to be found in the world right now and has tangibly become BY FAR Machel’s most often and downright BEST sparring partner over the past few years. The two took Road March honours together in 2006 with the MASSIVE Band Of De Year and every year since their one or two combination tracks have been amongst the season’s most anticipated (including Rollin’ from last year, probably my favourite the duo has ever pushed). Roberts is also an accomplished solo artist, having scored multiple hits on her own, most notably Sugar Boy, has had two solo albums to her credit (including Blossoming back in 2003, before she even joined Machel) and is the cousin of Bunji Garlin and Faye-Ann Lyons. And the most recent addition to The Family is Umi Marcano and even younger singer Umi Marcano who, like Roberts, will seemingly spend his formative years with the group after rising to prominence by winning Synergy’s Soca Star (Trinidad America Idol) in (I THINK) the show’s second season. Okay, now that you know the players, you should know the game. Each and every year Machel Montano releases a solo album and 2009 is no different with his anticipated Heavenly Drum dropping recently. HOWEVER, unlike last year where Roberts was the only other HD member with a big release out (album was named Looking Hot), this year a very interesting thing has occurred as Machel and company has released Machel Montano Presents The HD Family alongside Heavenly Drum. Now, by most opinions Machel’s 2009 wasn’t his very best season in recent years, his piece for Road March, Wild Antz, wasn’t very well received (an AWFUL video didn’t help) although it has grown on me and definitely the lowlight of his 2009 was the fact that one of his engineers, Ephraim Douglas was killed in an automobile accident. Also. He was also reportedly involved in a physical confrontation with the aforementioned Shurwayne Winchester and, on top of that, the somewhat ODD Montano was, as is his ’usual’ way, working on concepts and plans which didn’t seem to benefit his music very much. So maybe what we have here between Heavenly Drum and The HD Family albums is a matter of the Kingdom outdoing the King???

When you get actually into the music you have to also mention a member of the HD Family who resides behind the scenes, Kernel Roberts. Being the son of the LEGENDARY Lord Kitchener is the songwriter/producer/engineer/drummer for the group and from a musical standpoint is even more ‘important’ to The Family than Machel Montano himself. The way The HD Family album is set up is that each member gets a few of the tracks for some of their bigger efforts from the 2009 TnT Carnival season and, of course, Machel makes more than his fair share of appearances alongside The Family, but never as a solo artist. Case and point would be the first two tracks on the album which get things going on a very high note. First up is Zan who brings in Mr. HD on a remix of Zan’s tune from last year, Out On De Road. The original version of this tune was harmless but COOL as hell and to be honest I prefer it than Machel’s bit (which isn’t too much) in tow but its still pretty good, showing off Zan’s very nice style. Up next is the boom. For all intent and purposes Patrice’s combination with Machel for Crop Over 2008, Tempa Wine is the best song you’ll find on The HD Family album (although I’m reserving that title for a newer song) but if your interest in this album is of any major degree, chances are you’re probably WELL initiated (read ‘tired) with it already. However, the tune definitely pulls a big vibes from Dwaingerous (who I believe is still a member of the HD band) and if you haven’t heard it, definitely a nice place to start would be here (only the second album on which it has appeared officially to my knowledge after Don’s Collector: Saison 3). Completing the opening of The HD Family album is Farmer Nappy’s first appearance with Belly Dancer, which I believe was his own Crop Over 2008 effort. I’ve heard so many different opinions on this tune and I happen to be one of the people who aren’t too much in love with the song. It certainly isn’t bad to any degree, however, its actually almost COMPLETELY average. All in all, a decent opening with one of the real highlights from the album.

As I mentioned, the newest addition to the HD Family is the very young potential (more like ‘ordained’ with the way people talk about him) superstar Umi Marcano and he shows off on two tracks on The HD Family album with the top of the rest of the family. The first is the Road Mix to his tune Block To Block alongside Machel and I don’t really like it much. It’s actually better than the original tune to my ears and I hardly EVER enjoy Road Mixes but in this case it didn’t exactly have far to go in opinion. Marcano’s other effort, Show You is quite a bit stronger as his style seems to better blend with Patrice Roberts’ than Machel’s. Show You is very nice actually and probably a pretty big statement for the future as, as bright as Montano’s star definitely is, eventually, for the better of his group, he will have to cede to the youths and they’ll have to deliver nice tunes like Show You and even better as well. Nice tune. Speaking of Roberts, she is the undeniable star of The HD Family album as she appears on more tunes than anyone (even Machel) at five in total. Besides the aforementioned duo of Tempa Wine and Show You she also has two more VERY nice efforts, including my choice as the album’s best (NEW) tune, the WICKED Sway In D Mas. This tune is just BEAUTIFUL. For some reason I still kind of hear it as a bit of a groovy tune but its really not important, ‘Sway’ is definitely one of the biggest tunes in Patrice’s catalogues as she burned a hole in the BIG Rave riddim which not even Machel himself could repair. And, unsurprisingly, Patrice returns to close the album out with (DUH!) Machel with their obligatory tune for the 2009 season, Simply Everything. This song, like pretty much anything I ended up liking by Machel this year had to grow on me a bit first and following Rollin from last year (which I LOVED!) and Tempa Wine, it definitely had some big shows to fill and it did very good. Something about these two just works perfectly almost every time they link up and adding Patrice to the camp consistently was probably one of the greatest career moves Machel ever made. Simply Everything is a HUGE tune. I also have to mention Bubblin Gal which I can’t stand as it falls into yet another ‘daggering trap’ which is always terrible, despite the STRONG vocals. That leaves Zan and Farmer Nappy to carry the balance of The HD Family album and they do a very good job Check Zan‘s BIG effort Hold You Down. I used to REALLY like this song and Zan kind of ruined it for me and everyone who saw his SHITTY performance of it at Soca Monarch but in its original studio version, its still very impressive indeed and one of my favourite tunes from this album. Zan also comes back with another very nice effort from last year in Slip Away. Zan really, in my opinion, will NEVER be a SUPERSTAR but seems to have a decade or so worth of prime time making music and it will definitely be something to watch. Farmer, on the other hand, has decades behind him and still in his future as well and he checks in with his finest offering on the album later with Go Brave from this season before setting the stage for Patrice to end things with a remix of the aforementioned Belly Dancer alongside the only non HD member to appear on their album, Red Rat of all people. The remix is slightly better than the original but it sounds NOTHING like the original.

Overall, even though I’m (INCREDIBLY) partial (AS HELL) to Patrice Roberts as my favourite in the HD Family (including over Machel) but I have to say that, although she steals the show, everyone does a decent job. I would have liked to see at least one solo tune from Umi Marcano and maybe even a solo tune from Montano (Tell Me???) (even though I don’t like it) thrown in also but those are small gripes only. For the future I could see this album becoming a staple with a Vol. 2 and such but I would DEFINITELY like to see full on albums from Roberts and everyone for that matter down the line as well (maybe they could have The Family album every other year). Its not the absolute best Soca album you’ll hear this year but it was a very nice idea to showcase some of the members from one of the hottest collection of attractions in Soca right now. Machel Montano Presents The HD Family is recommended to all fans of Soca, particularly the newer ones who haven’t been spinning these tunes mad for awhile. What you take from this one are names you should know right now and for the future. Something besides and maybe even more powerful than just Mr. Montano.

Rated 3.5/5 stars
Ruff Rex/J&W Productions

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