Monday, November 30, 2009

The Vault Reviews: Binghi Man by Bigga Haitian

Reggae music is a house. There are doors, a roof, windows and even a basement where the various lowlights dwell and do so rather calmly. There are beds, there are drawers and there are clothes. MANY people live in this house. And in a corner by a window there’s a chair. This chair looks like it’s been sitting here forever and as a matter of fact, if you go and move it just a bit, you’ll notice the grooves in the shape of the chair’s bottom in the carpet beneath it. Clearly it is old but it is IMMACULATELY cared for, someone LOVES it, but no one knows how exactly it got there or who bought it. I use this rather strange and perhaps lame setup to represent a very nice class of artists who, for one reason or another, don’t even seem to have come from anywhere in particular and are just kind of . . . There and particularly those from outside of Jamaica. Luckily, you probably won’t find a member of this category who isn’t skilled as (at least typically) longevity is something which requires ability. People I put into this “where in the hell did they come from” category is headed by the likes of Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite. You’ll hear how the group played in colleges all across the eastern US and that the brothers Benjamin, Vaughn and Ronnie Jr., had a Father in Ronnie Sr. who was also a fine musician, but compared to the extent of the information is available for similarly STAR Reggae artists (and that is what they are), Midnite (in all of its various facets) are downright MYSTERIOUS (which I ultimately think is part of their appeal, but that’s another story) (for someone else, lest I be bashed by crazy Midnite heads again). Midnite was just kind of there one day. So to was someone like a Maxi Priest (very strange in his case because I’m pretty sure UK Reggae heads know the man’s story to the letter, but outside of the UK, where he is still VERY popular and has been for decades by this point, not so much), arguably one of the biggest names in Reggae in the entire world. The Priest’s case is exceptional, in part, because now you look at some of his European peers such as Gentleman, Alborosie and even Ziggi these days, compared to Maxi Priest, they’re all open books for the most part. I’d also put rather timelessly mysterious artists such as Bambu Station, Tippa Irie and others who, although clearly there’re those who know, but their stories and how they came to be where they are aren’t on display to any lengths at all and, they just kind of seem to have appeared one day, like that beautiful chair sitting at the window.

And then there’s Bigga Haitian. Wonderfully, although he well fits onto this list and were I to rank these artists, he would rank fairly highly despite not being as well known as most of them, Bigga Haitian’s NAME does present some hint of his eventual origins. Also, in his case in particular, it’s not so much of his actual STORY, but more of his BEING. Despite the fact that I may have gone half a decade or so without hearing anything from the New York based chanter from out of Haiti, I don’t even know if then I could have imagined a Reggae ’house’ without Bigga Haitian in one of the rooms. Maybe he’s just performing locally wherever, maybe he’s working on something new (clearly he was doing both), but there’ll come a point where I’ll almost HAVE TO come across his name in respect to doing new things, otherwise the cosmic Reggae alignment is thrown out of wack, forever. What’s special about Bigga Haitian? Well, besides essentially being the international face of Reggae music from Haiti (outside of that Fugees fellow that is) amongst Reggae heads, Bigga is, in my opinion, one of the very few MASTERS of the craft of Reggae music. Not so much on the musician side (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he had that LOCKED as well), but as a lyricist and really in the way his vibes push through to the listeners, one could tell quite easily, even if “one” is a most casual of observers, that when you listen to Bigga Haitian’s music, this is an individual who truly knows what he is doing on his music. Most recently, apparently the internet has been buzzing with the newly released Sak Pasé for the New York based Walkup Records and deservedly so because, despite its brevity, it is a powerful album. However, arguably even stronger and arguably the greatest piece of work in an album of Bigga Haitian’s career Binghi Man, apparently was also quietly released to the digital world through Walkup and originally from Bigga Haitian’s own self titled imprint for it’s original release back in 2002. There was also (speaking of mysterious) I Am Back which was Bigga’s debut album (and hopefully Walkup can scoop that one up and get it back out there at some point in the future as well at some point), but Binghi Man is EXCELLENT. The album really showcased who Bigga was as an artist as that point and despite the occasional misstep (at the end), it definitely showed, in my opinion, his overall mastery of the game, as new fans and old alike would have to agree that the man’s timing, his pacing and most importantly, the word’s he chooses are precision ON POINT throughout Binghi Man. Of course, it also comes through as being quite personal for Bigga as despite the obvious tune which sheds light on him personally (more on that in a bit), the album is also chockfull of tunes which appear to come at various stages and stops along the line of his spiritual journey and development as a person. I was also very (quietly) impressed at the level of INTELLIGENCE which seems to pervade throughout the vibes of the album, which in terms of being personal and speaking of oneself and one’s experiences, is something which can be very unique (how in the hell do I sound SMART talking about me? Everyone is an expert on themselves). Again, I remind you, Bigga Haitian is a master at this art, something which is evident all over this album.

As I said, for me, the prevailing vibes of the album is that you can literally see Bigga Haitian embarking on what appears to be (for the most part), a very personal journey. And while the ’personal’ aspect of this trip is DEEPLY explored at one signature moment, to my opinion, throughout (particularly the first half), that is a very present source of inspiration for the album. With that being said, kicking off our trip through the wonderful world of Bigga Haitian’s Binghi Man (not Binghi MON, biggup Dale Cooper) is the first of several downright LUSH ROLLING vibes on the album, ‘Nations Fighting’. This one is obvious from the title and the very second that riddim comes through Bigga begins to strike a chord and one which has its heart within the scope of antiviolence and just general negativity spreading across the world. Big opener. Next up is a very curious selection in the title track and it eventually became my favourite tune on the entire tune named after it (through MUCH MUCH deliberation) (between me and myself). You’ll find lyrically better tunes and tunes which have quite a bit more sonic appeal (such as the opener), but the message here is SO unique that I struggle to place a next tune above it. The tune comes very close to the 9/11 tragedy in New York and the NYC resident Bigga speaks openly about himself, a turban clad royal looking Rastafarian, being mistaken for those who participated in the attacks and how ridiculous and just WRONG it is. In pointing out the differences (big and mi-nute) Bigga captures a vibe RARELY seen, if ever at all. MAGIC! Should you choose any tune on Binghi Man for me personally to follow the title track here with no fear of losing the vibes, it is the one which does just that, ‘Red Hot’. This STEPPING is somewhat generic in terms of message (as the title suggests), but on the chorus, Bigga constantly namedrops Sizzla Kalonji. CLEARLY a fan and who can blame him, in terms of just how it sounds, Bigga makes Red Hot one of the biggest flames on the album altogether and does so in the name of His Imperial Majesty.

Now! To that personal of personal moments on Binghi Man. In 2000 Bigga Haitian [Charles Dorismond] lost his brother, Patrick, to a very suspect situation with a police officer, so to his tribute, Bigga offers ‘Tribute To Patrick Dorismond’(“March 16th, year 2000, dem kill mi bredda Patrick Dorismond“). The tune plays over the classic ‘Murderer’ tune via the equally classic Barrington Levy and it is definitely an eye opening tribute to say the least and it’s such a wonderful thing that this album is now out there and not, at least ostensibly, ‘lost’ to the world. Definitely check that tune. There’re also a whole heap of other tunes on the album which strike me as well, but more of a spiritual and less tangible type. Check the KNOCKING ‘Rastafari Seed’ on which Bigga offers his hopes for the coming generation. A well powerful tune there, but it precedes an arguably even more powerful piece in ‘King Of Glory’. BIG TUNE! This one, from the title, you might think that the vibes here are going to well slow down, but they continue in that head knocking style from the tune before it and Bigga Haitian delivers a lyrics espousing on the virtues and the MIGHT of His Imperial Majesty and it may not register the same way for you, but this one comes across as well personal to my ears; you don’t just get up and make a tune like such, it definitely requires a bit of personal reflection as well. ‘Daughters Of Israel’, the obligatory tune for the Afrikan Empress, keeps that vibes well on its way. This tune has an old school feel to the vibes and Bigga doesn’t even appear to change his pacing (this tune isn’t REALLY amongst my favourites, but I think the simple way it’s built is a STRONG piece of ‘evidence’ for Bigga’s real strength) and has NO PROBLEM AT ALL attacking the riddim in a characteristically strong manner. ‘Ethiopian Anthem’, on the other hand, is one of my favourites on Binghi Man and it definitely has a strong claim as being to being the single best tune, lyrically, on the entire album as Bigga offers a message for the ultimate upliftment of Ethiopia, the KING and all of their children! TEARS! The song gives any a ‘run’ for quality and is amongst Bigga Haitian’s very best efforts in my opinion. There’s ‘Destination’ which I was all but SURE was a repatriation tune, but I was wrong and it is, in fact, about helping people see the ‘right’ way in life (destination) and it REALLY works on that vibes and proves to be one of the better tunes on the album to my opinion.

And I don’t want to give the impression that this album is just ALL SO GREAT, because it isn’t and it almost seems to get ‘tired’ down the stretch. The first sign of weakness creeping in is ‘Who Dem Ah Come Test’ which is a Hip-Hop tune and features an unnamed rapper. YOU may actually like this tune, I don’t for obvious reasons if you read my material (most times, me and Hip-Hop don’t vibe well) (especially a broke Snoop Dogg impersonation style of Hip-Hop). Meanwhile, the FRESH, circa 1990 style speed chatting Creole flow of ‘Good To Be Important’ is WELL a release and it is funny at times and good for whoever decided to put it this low on the tracklist because it needs the help. The same could also be said for ‘Come Out Of Babylon’, which isn’t the BEST tune, but it is in no way indicative of the tunes which surround for the most part and even ‘Dangerous People’ is at least decent. HOWEVER, ‘Se Bondie Sel Ki Wa’ [‘Only God Alone‘] (I THINK) is okay, but the levels are off, the music drowns out both Bigga and his unnamed friend for the most part (and how do you drown out BIGGA and that voice!). The real ‘crime’ here is ‘Stay’ which is Bigga Haitian meets Jodeci (I THINK!) and is just REALLY WRONG. And the closer, ‘Don’t Wanna Be Alone’, is a little bit too sappy for my tastes ultimately and hopefully yours too. We can, however, still remember the other 85% or so of Binghi Man, which is EXCELLENT.

Overall, yeah pick this one up despite the rocky landing which is actually, at least to me, literally a less highlighted portion of the album, despite the combinations. This one would have SERIOUSLY been a 5 star contender were it three or four tunes shorter, but still you can definitely tell the quality present here. Bigga Haitian is an artist whose time in the business has afforded him a level of abilities which alone can allow him to make at least NICE music. When you combine that with a real NATURAL talent, like I said, what you get is an all around master class and when Binghi Man is at its absolute best, that is exactly what it is and such an album would make a very welcome addition to any collection. Like the Mansion of Reggae itself, your players just won’t be the same without a spot for Bigga Haitian.

Rated 4/5
Bigga Haitian Records/Walkup Records

Sunday, November 29, 2009

New Artist of The Month: Meet Mr. Williamz!

Mr. Williamz

Meet Mr. Williamz! Typically when I do these things I deliberately try to seek out artists who, if/when they ultimately develop and become the absolute best at their craft that they can, the general audiences will STILL perhaps not hear too much about them, given their locale or their style or what I perceive to be an inevitable lack of promotion for whatever reason. Here? No such chance. If you live in the UK, or if you pay a relatively decent attention, you already know about this artist because Mr. Williamz has been blazing as of late. Scoring hit after hit on the UK scene, the UK born, Jamaican grown Mr. Williamz is critically approaching the point where you simply CANNOT afford to ignore him as of late and it's largely due (in my opinion) to the most wonderful quality one can 'package' themselves based on. SKILL. For example:

One of his biggest hits to date, 'No Cigarette' has been attracting even more attention arguably than Dutchie star Ziggi's own tune 'Joka Smoka' tune over the same Necessary Mayhem (ran by the one name Curtis Lynch Jr. apparently), relick of the famous riddim, which apparently LOCKED Europe for awhile earlier this year. Almost SHOCKINGLY the tune would attract so much attention in such a short while that it would ultimately appear on Reggae major Greensleeves' The Biggest Reggae One-Drop Anthems 2009 album release as well.

Even more surprising, however, is the fact that if you REALLY pay attention (even more than me apparently, because I didn't really deal with this album too much), but that wasn't Mr. Williamz' debut on the bigtime, that came a year ago via his participation on 'Champion Sound' which featured a collective of European artists and would appear on the 2008 edition of the genre's flagship series from the genre's flagship label, Reggae Gold from VP Records.

And Williamz has also done very well with the very familiar 'Police In Helicopter' over Lynch's reversioning of that riddim as well (noticing a trend here?) (biggup Mr. Lynch)

All of that would lead Mr. Williamz to being declared the UK Reggae artist of 2008 and one would have to think he would be amongst the favourites for 2009 as well. Most recently, the artist has been staying active with several things, including 'Badboy', a guest spot on Lloyd Brown's most recent album For Your Consideration alongside Brown and Juckxi D.

And, Mr. Williamz also reportedly recent scored a number one tune in Japan, with the MASSIVE Real General which is probably the best effort I've heard from the artist to date as it finds him in a downright DEVASTATING mood on the oldschool Dancehall vibes (and I'll spare you the Lynch inspired details on this one out of fear of sounding redundant).

So! Keep an eye well on Mr. Williamz. For me, he, alongside Gappy Ranks, seem to represent somewhat of a changing of the guard on the UK scene, with names like Tippa Irie and Chukki Starr being the international faces of the DJ's on that side of the pond, it is soooooo nice to see some new blood in the genre. And while it is my thought that although Gappy (who reportedly has secured for himself a Greensleeves contract already) a HUGE artist in his own right, will eventually receive more of the attention, Mr. Williamz in my opinion, has ALREADY shown himself to be one of the most talented youths in the game and when he develops it out, he figures to become one of the most talented in the game. Period.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Conversation Pieces Vol. 1: Sak Pasé by Bigga Haitian

Recently, while laying around and doing absolutely nothing, thinking about what I was going to write for a Saturday’s post, a good friend, Denise (who manages Lloyd Brown, big album For Your Consideration in stores now), called me up to see what was going on and we ultimately ended up having a conversation (which may or may not have occurred) which was directed in one specific direction and you already know what that is (she is a manager after all). After that, however, it changed and we began to discuss another topic, veteran chanter Bigga Haitian’s new album Sak Pasé from Walkup Records. This is the actual account of that conversation (if it did happen) minus the managerial stuff she likes to go on about:

Denise: Hey Archis, how’s it going?

Achis: Who the hell is ‘Archis’?

Denise: Oh I’m sorry, A-CHIS.

Achis: Thank you, everything is just fine, it’s kind of cloudy, but I really don’t care. Y tu?

Denise: Everything’s great, trying to promote the album.

Achis: Yeah yeah.

Denise: So what’s going on today? Writing a review?

Achis: Trying to write a review, that’s what’s going on today, but struggling a little. But, I can always just write a review for some old ass Sizzla album and they won’t care.

Denise: You should do something different . . . Like a Lloyd Bro . . .

Achis: WOMAN!

Denise: I’m just saying.

Denise: What’s that playing in the background?

Achis: I don’t even know let me check - after I take another bite of this apple - Oh yeah yeah, that’s Bigga Haitian’s new album.

Denise: Bigga Whotian?

Achis: Bigga Haitian! The man has been around from forever, I swear the man is probably about 365 years old. He just put out a new album, Sak Pasé. It’s on a label from out of New York, Walkup Records I think he lives there now.

Denise: Never heard of them.

Achis: I hadn’t either, but apparently they do pretty good work up there, Bigga Haitian a big artist, man wouldn’t sign with rubbish I’m sure.

Denise: Is he the only Haitian Reggae artist you know?

Achis: Wy. . .

Denise: Besides Wyclef.

Achis: Uhhhhh. The only other pure Reggae artist from out of Haiti (and I’m sure there’re more), that’s jumping in my head is that little angry looking guy who Misty Jean let hang around her, Top Adlerman, crazy tune name ‘Ville’, playing crazy from longtime.

Denise: That sounds pretty good, why don’t you review that one, you said it’s new right?

Achis: Yeah I was thinking about it, but it’s only like eight tune and one is a remix, one is a remake and actually the remix is a remake of another tune also.

Denise: Oh, so you what you’re saying is that you wouldn’t have enough material to write one of those big ass things?

Achis: Basically. But I was still thinking about doing it anyway. You know an album have to be wicked for me to be considering dropping 2300 words on it with only eight tracks.

Denise: I can imagine. You said he’s been around a long time but is this his first album?

Achis: No. He had two before. The last one was Binghi Man, was a big album from a few years back yeah. And he had a one before that called I Am Back, but I don’t think too many people got their hands on that one.

Denise: So I just punched this one up, listening to some track clips, it sounds nice.

Achis: Yeah, it definitely has some vibes to it straight.

Denise: And his voice is unusual isn’t it?

Achis: Yeah Bigga has that Luciano and Bushman baritone thing going on, but he’s a straight forward chanter, it almost sounds exaggerated at some spots, but it’s all his voice as far as I know.

Denise: So I listened to the clip of the first tune ‘I Am A Haitian’, it sounds pretty good to me, what do you think of it?

Achis: Yeah that one is a MAGIC. It has that kind of Creole like acoustic sound to it. It’s hard to describe, but I think of ‘traditional’ Creole folk music and it always has that strumming sound to the vibes, as opposed to in Jamaica where most people will think of the DRUM as the foundation. This tune is the best one I hear on this album in a way. Let’s call it the best one that I never heard in any way, shape or form.

Denise: What is it actually about?

Achis: The base of it is being proud of one’s heritage and land of birth and really in my opinion, even though there’re the obvious overtones to Haiti.

Denise: Duh!

Achis: Yeah, even though they’re there, you can apply this one to ANYWHERE and the biggest part of the tune is at the end when Bigga talks straight on and he says, “Haiti, I love you. Almighty Emperor Selassie I, save Haiti”, you can literally sub-out “Haiti” for “the world”. I could do a . . .

Denise: Yeah, I know you could write about it for years and years.

Achis: Yep.

Denise: So what about ‘My Doorbell‘? And who is Craig Dreyer?

Achis: Craig Dreyer is a saxophone player. Apparently Walkup Records has a network of excellent musicians they deal with; they also work with Jerry Johnson and Cedric ‘IM’ Brooks who plays on this song also.

Denise: I’ve heard of him.

Achis. Yeah. Cedric Brooks is a big man. This tune is actually a remake of a tune by a group called the White Stripes.

Denise: I knew it sounded familiar.

Achis: Yeah I didn’t know that, I had to read the release, which was beautiful by the way; you should link them because that thing was gorgeous. And I heard the original and I like Bigga’s remake WAY more and you keep listening to the tune and Craig Dryer PLAYS HIS ASS OFF on the latter stages of it, I was sitting there listening to it and getting hype just listening to the an play. See, you play like that and you get a featuring credit on the album!

Denise: DAMN! So is ‘Empress’ the “obligatory”, as you like to say, tune for the ladies?

Achis: Of course Denise. This one is nice though. It makes its point and keeps its sonic appeal. He’s not even dealing with specifics in terms of like a one relationship, but Bigga’s talking about appreciating the Afrikan woman and the women in general more than we already do.

Denise: Yeah you guys do need to do that.

Achis: Who is “you guys”? I worship the ground my wife walks on.


Achis: Anyway, like I was saying, Bigga brings some of his best on Empress and the man actually makes a point that I, myself, made a few times when he says, “If you diss a Queen, then you disrespect your MOTHER!” Yow! I was straight cheering like LOUD when the man says that. It’s a big tune and at the end you get more straight BIG musicianship yeah. Some guy name Donovan McKitty PLUCKING his fingers off and Cedric Brooks and Clark Gayton take over at the end.

Denise: That sounds like some type of tune all you guys need to hear.

Achis: Yeah, all THOSE guys need to hear it.

Denise: Alright, alright. So what about ‘London Massive’? Who is Yvad?

Achis: Yvad has been around from awhile. The man used to sing for The Wailers and he has a LOVELY voice. And you can hear the nice contrast between deep bellowing voiced Bigga Haitian and Yvad and I don’t know why this tune is here, I would imagine that they did a show or a full tour in the UK, but it sounds so nice that I’m wishing that bcause Yvad is all over the album. . . Maybe he could’ve jumped on another track yeah. He even does some production for this tune for this one and the next track.

Denise: I just googled Yvad and he has his own thing going on.

Achis: Yeah he had an album a long time ago called Young, Gifted & Dread, it was released on Tuff Gong, but last year he jumped up with a few more nice singles like ‘Sweet Jamaica’ and a next one name ‘Preach’, which was a big tune.

Denise: I’ll have to check them out. And you said he worked on the next tune, ‘Gi Me Da Weed’, also?

Achis: Yeah. Apparently this tune was a pretty big hit.

Denise: Yeah I see they even put it out as a single.

Achis: Exactly, I saw that too and it’s not hard to see why when you get into the tune. It sounds EXCELLENT, it’s very catchy, it’s on a relatable vibes so, when people respond so much for it, it’s not too hard to see why you know. AND you can’t tell me you can’t see a club full of people yelling . . .


Achis: There you go!

Denise: No, I’m serious.

Achis: I don’t share, I’m selfish.

Denise: Okay Mr. Selfish, what’s up with ‘Load My Chalice’? Who is Bam, Mecca aka Grimo and Jimmy Two? And two ganja tunes on the same album?

Achis: Okay, first of all, I don’t know who Bam is, but whoever he is, I hope he realize how difficult he is to look up. I THINK Jimmy O, who actually produces the tune works with Wyclef’s label which shares a name with this album and Mecca does also I believe. They’re like Haitian-American hip-hoppers and they ALL go in and out of Creole and English throughout the entire tune.

Denise: Sounds goo. . .

Achis: But that’s not the most important part of the tune.

Denise: HUH?

Achis: The song plays across this high-tech/souped up version of 'Ke’m Pa Soté'!

Denise: What in the world is a Ke’m Pa Soté?

Achis: The greatest song ever made and no. My heart does not jump.

Denise: Okayyyyyy. I’m going to leave that one alone. What about ‘Haiti A Weh Mi From’?

Achis: When I heard this tune on this album I just started singing it. Didn’t know where I knew it from, “Haiti a weh mi from, a weh mi from, a weh mi from. Haiti weh a mi from, from, from”. It’s an old Dancehall tune from like a quarter century ago and whoever’s idea it was to put it here is a genius. It’s in the original version too and damn near impossible to find outside of Sak Pasé now.

Denise: So is like a collector’s item now?

Achis: You could say that, but I hate to say that because it kind of denotes some kind of ‘staleness’ or something like that, like ‘it usedta be good’, but now it’s some shit. But that isn’t the case here, it’s still a very good song and one of the best on this, or any other album you’ll find it on.

Denise: And lastly is a ‘Mike ‘Angel’ McLaughlin Guitar Mix’ of My Doorbell?

Achis: Yeah yeah. Just listening to that one you can’t, or at least I couldn’t, tell much of a difference until near the end where Craig Dreyer’s saxophone is replaced by Mike ‘Angel McLaughlin’s electric guitar. HONESTLY, I think it was kind of useless, but I imagine if you like electric guitar, you might like it.

Denise: Play it for me.

Achis: Okay

Denise: Oh okay, well I kind of like it.

Achis: There you go.

Denise: So what do you think? I’m thinking about picking this one up.

Achis: Yeah I’d say it’s a pretty good purchase. I can’t really critique too much about it besides its length and I suppose it’s better to put out what you have than trying to FORCE something which may not be done well, but I just dealt with the Focus Riddim a little while ago and Bigga Haitian has two nice tunes on that one yeah. So maybe even just those two, but as it stands it’s probably the best eight tracked album that I’ve heard all year and it’s a helluva lot better than a few twenty track ones sameway. It’ll appeal to you if you like modern Roots Reggae, first and foremost of course, but there’s some Dancehall in there too and some Hip-Hop even still. So something for everyone, but not enough too far away from the arena of Reggae music. And it’s Bigga Haitian, so at least to me, with that man’s track record, it all but guarantees its quality.

Denise: Okay, you convinced me, I think I’m going to get it right now.

Achis: Cool

Denise: Okay, now lets talk about you doing another feature on Lloyd Bro. . .

Achis: Hey Denise, my wife is calling me, gotta go.


Rated 4/5
Walkup Records

Friday, November 27, 2009

Something I Can Feel: A Review of Solid Ground by Empress Robertha

The word inspirational is one which is probably is underused in terms of music when you really think about it. If you take that and contrast it to something like ‘great’ or ‘amazing’, then you’ll probably notice ‘inspirational’, by comparison and in regards to its actuality, is woefully absent from the musical linguistic landscape. Think about it. Why do you listen to music? For myself, I’d say, first and foremost, because it makes me feel good - it’s uplifting to my senses. My next reason would probably be because inspires me. It draws me closer to doing something, regardless of its importance, that I should or just want to do (and my reason after that would be to LEARN). I would imagine that it’s probably a similar case with most people who listen to a substantial bit of music, you draw different things from the music and it serves a large range of purposes and reveals an even larger range of emotions. So much so is this the fact that I know literally DOZENS of people who have different (but SPECIFIC) tunes which aide them in doing certain. You’ll have someone who listens to the same song everyday when they get up and have to go to work; there’ll be a person who plays a specific tune while they’re waiting for something - ULTRA specific things like that and, still you’ll have more kind of broad and general inspirational purposes for it as well. So, for the sake of t his review (because . . . damn) I began to think of what and more particularly WHO in Reggae music makes music which actually and truly INSPIRES me. The first OBVIOUS stop for me was Sizzla Kalonji and I can go over this very quickly because Sizzla is an artist who, when at his absolute best, taps into emotions and thoughts in me that no one else does musically, but Kalonji’s music almost single-handedly inspired me to change the course of my entire life. And then there’re the very stereotypical answers of artists for whom the term is seemingly almost exclusively reserved such as Luciano, Bob Marley and Queen Ifrica who has seemingly replaced ’The Messenjah’ as the living and breathing CONSCIENCE of modern Reggae music and they all do occasionally serve that purpose for me, but I wanted to, almost as a precursor to the artist in question here, think of more off the radar type of names. A great one that I came up with was Beres Hammond. Through all the accolades and grand adjectives used to describe Hammond’s music (and deservedly so, in my opinion), ‘inspirational’ is one which is rarely applied, but you have to ask yourself: How many babies were inspired to be conceived through the music of that man??? I’ll even (SHOCKINGLY) give it to someone like Bounty Killer who, besides INSPIRING quite a few youths to grow up and wanting to be artists (and then actually doing it), with those high-tech battleground type of songs, inspires how many people to do something as simple as exercise. Inspiration, although you won’t hear it discussed much outside of gospel, is to be found in some very interesting places within Reggae these days.

Well, I’ve found someone new to add to the list. Following very much in the vein of strong emerging female artists such as the aforementioned Ifrica and Etana (who could also be in this category to a degree) is the Kingston born Empress Robertha. Now, certainly hers won’t be a name anywhere near as familiar (at least not yet) as her very powerful peers, however, Robertha has been around from quite awhile as a minor act and a backing singer (like literally from the 1980’s!) and although her status hasn’t been exactly at the top of the Reggae food chain, having had a breakout within the past two years or so, definitely things are on the rise for her. I add Robertha to this category because of a very subtle and unique talent which she has which I have a difficult time drawing comparisons to anyone with Cruzan singer Dezarie being the only one coming to mind: Empress Robertha has a base style, this cool and very natural sounding singing, and EVERYTHING she does musically revolves around it. It can change ever so slightly, but not very much and STILL she is able to convey anything that she needs to through her vibes and I don’t even know if she, herself, knows that she has this, but besides that other thing (meaning the subject on this review), it was the first thing I noticed about her WONDERFUL music (more on that in a minute). And besides that, another reason why her time to shine may be quickly coming is because she now brings forth her debut album, Standing Ground, through the label which she has made her biggest push in her career, Cecil Halsted’s Kickoff Records imprint. Actually, maybe that’s wrong because one of the earliest tunes I know from her, which curiously doesn’t appear on Solid Ground, the wicked ‘These Wars’ is labeled from Conscious Vibes Entertainment, but is still produced by Halsted (so she, ultimately, is definitely where she belongs). Also, Kickoff has been releasing a steady stream of solid riddim albums as well, so if you’ve picked some of them up, you’ve probably heard a nice chunk of Solid Ground and like those compilations, the album comes digitally via the fine folks at Zojak Worldwide (Zojak to di world!). The album is not only a nice introduction to Empress Robertha as an artist, but at times, it almost kind of SEEMS like we’re hearing something we shouldn’t in the sense that it seems very personal at times and no, she’s not just telling all of her business to anyone who’ll listen, but within that straight forward style, there’s quite a bit (at least in my opinion) of emphasis on showing who Robertha is as a person as well (Sonya Robertha Downer is apparently her name), so you see a few nice tunes on the relationship side and on the romantic side of the vibes as well. Also, I think it’s evident that (even if you don’t know how long she’s been in the game) Empress Robertha has DEFINITELY developed her style already and developed it as one to be INSPIRATIONAL to the masses, yours truly (and hopefully you too) included.

I was struggling for awhile to think of a singer who Empress Robertha reminded me of vocally and, incidentally, the one who I came up with is certainly one who I’m sure millions of people worldwide would say has been inspirational to them, American Neo-soul superstar Alicia Keys. They have a similar kind of slight ‘rasp’ which they both use to GREAT effectiveness. I think actually Alicia Keys herself would be quite pleased with Empress Robertha’s debut album Solid Ground which gets up and going with the PERPLEXING ‘Reverlution’. I don’t really know what to make of this tune. I will go as far to say that it’s not one of my favourites on the album, but despite the fact that it isn’t, it is still CLEARLY very well put together and crafted on all fronts. So, don’t let my confusion (from a critic’s point of view), diminish from a tune I may very well enjoy this time a week from now (or tomorrow). Far less vexing is the next tune in, ‘Call On Jah’ which starts kind of slowly but eventually ascends into an absolutely BEAUTIFUL tune, so much so that it (after several spins through the album), grew on me to the point where it was one of the finest things I heard on Solid Ground altogether. The tune wonderfully speaks of seeking help and reassurance in a higher power and really just sends out a very lovely vibes to all lucky enough to hear the tune. GLORIOUS! ‘Can’t Give Up’ is the first relationship-type of song on the album and easily one of the best. This one deals more with the social effects of trying to maintain a family and the struggles families go through and it’s a very moving vibes as she details the story of a Father attempting to make the very best life that he can for his family.

Empress Robertha then goes on to knock out three similarly vibed tunes consecutively. ‘Tonight’, ‘Key To My Heart’ and ‘Remember’ all ride in as lover’s tunes (or derivatives thereof) and are all SOLID at least. For my opinion, I’d ever so slightly favour Tonight although not far behind is Remember and not too far behind that is Key To My Heart (which is somewhat sappy, as you might imagine). Later we get the even stronger ‘Change Your Mind’ (on which Robertha poignantly declares, “I can’t understand why one would not wanna experience love when love is such a beautiful thing) (neither can I), which is downright STUNNING at times. Still, the biggest love song on Solid Ground is ‘Now That You’re Gone’ [aka ‘Where Do I Go’] which finds a lovesick Empress Robertha just CONFUSED ALL IN THE BRAIN following a broken relationship and doesn’t know what to do next with herself; a VERY relatable emotion which she taps and doesn’t lose a stride in the process across what appears to be Kickoff‘s flagship riddim, the Recharge. There’s also the funky ‘Alright’, which is a bit of Dancehall and is completely out of the vibes of the album, but it’s so catchy and when you do generally good material, it makes such a tune so digestible and less . . . weird for your listener and Alright becomes one of the best tune son Solid Ground to my ears. Unsurprisingly however, I favour more so the cultural and social tracks which appear on the album although I greatly appreciate Robertha’s duality of vibes. Of course on that side all eyes will be on track #7 ‘Mystery Babylon’ which features Roberta alongside lyrics maven Lutan Fyah. The tune is a holdover from his own ‘mysterious’ album from Kickoff Rising Up (and I promised myself I wouldn’t mention that album here) (oh well) and is so VAST! I get something new from it each and every time I hear it and I think, with the proper promotion, it could prove to be a really big tune for both artists with the LESSON it has to teach. But don’t get far thinking it’s the only such tune on Solid Ground which can make an impact (need I remind you of Call On Jah). Check ‘Home’. You wanna talk about INSPIRATION??? DAMN! I feel like loading up a damn paddleboat and taking my family back to Afrikan soil by any means necessary after listening to this heart pushing tune and so will you (even if you’re from Antarctica, TRUST ME). TEARS! Then there’s the title track. Oh boy. The title song of Empress Robertha’s Solid Ground is one of the best tune’s I’ve heard ALL YEAR. Period. On this album, it goes without saying (or at least it should), it’s the leader of the pack and an obvious choice for the album’s title. This song is going to help a lot of people and I’ll probably be one of them as Empress Robertha speaks from some LOVELY corner of her being about the wonders and splendour of her Friend, His Majesty. I’ve literally spun through this one dozens of times and it never waivers in terms of quality, not in the slightest. AMAZINGLY inspirational tune and you will absolutely love it, I’m sure. ‘Cold Heart’ is a VERY different tune as it finds Robertha singing with just a (sometimes present) saxophone backing, but this tune will make you cry and probably not in a good way. Still, like everything here, it’s very well done tune, but I think it struggles with its identity (more on that in a minute) all the while featuring some of the best vocals on the album altogether. No such problems appear on the next tune, ‘Hail The I’, which is another HUGE praising tune for His Imperial Majesty. The tune comes across the same dazzling Step Riddim as Lutan Fyah’s Family Effort and Robertha arguably outdoes that beautiful vibes with Hail The I (the riddim also features big efforts from Marley and Emmanuel Stain, definitely worth checking out) and for me, it features the punch line of the entire album when Robertha says, “As long as there’s breath in this body of mine, I will Hail the Name of Rastafari. Haile I”. TEARS AGAIN! I love that tune. The final selection on the album, ‘Try’, is a sweetly vibed piece. Although somewhat generic and not my favourite tune here, I think it serves well as a closer because it’s not SO involved and it definitely has a bit of a carefree nature to it (despite its subjectry of never giving up and staying with things when they get difficult) which, generally speaking, is a nice trait to have and Try serves as a very nice BOW to the very nice and influential Solid Ground.

Overall, I feel compelled to mention two things, one being a broad critique and the other being a pretty veiled compliment (veiled on her part, not mine). The critique is that Empress Robertha seems to have a bit of difficulty making her tunes CRYSTAL CLEAR in terms of their meaning. There’s the opener, which isn’t very difficult to overstand, but seems to have some type of hitch to it to me for some reason. But there’s also Cold Heart, as I alluded to and the one tune on the album which I didn’t mention, ‘Time’, both of which I’m sure have some meaning to her, but it doesn’t come across very easily and I would be guessing in both cases as to their actual meaning. The compliment is something I noticed when scrutinizing Solid Ground for the sake of this review, but not when casually listening: Empress Robertha is VERY STRONG lyrically and her music actually seems to revolve around that fact (which is great) and all the while I built this review around the WAY she sings being inspirational, now I’m not quite so sure. She says things which make you want to do them or to seek them out or just make you interested in them and it may be WHAT she says and not so much HOW she says them (which is still lovely and interesting). Regardless, Empress Robertha’s Solid Ground is recommended for all fans of modern Reggae (and maybe a few R&B heads also), especially if your collection is in need of a little inspiration. Whatever it is, Solid Ground can surely help to bring it to fruition. Well done and one of the better Reggae debuts of 2009.

Rated 4/5
Kickoff Records/Zojak Worldwide

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Right On Time: A Review of Strictly The Best Vols. 40 & 41

Is it that time again already? There are but a few series in Reggae music today (and historically speaking as well), which kind of fit on a schedule and can be ‘managed’ as a buyer. It is perhaps even more of a tracking point for the more casual fans to a degree, but even the hardcore faithful (like I’m doing here) can kind of check up on the progression of the year when the latest installment of such a series rolls through. I cannot tell you how many times over the last decade I (like an old ass man) may have remarked, ’oh! Is it this month already!’, because some album came through, right on schedule. For example, if you want that kind of mainstream like SPARKLING Reggae music, well then you might want to make sure you have your money in order in around June or so, because that is typically when you can expect the latest release from the most popular Reggae series in the world, VP Records’ Reggae Gold (and Soca gold just a month or so before that). And with RG covering the middle portion of the year, definitely the next biggest series in Reggae Strictly The Best serves the same function with the latter portion of the year as when an StB pops up, most assuredly the year has all but passed. It is in that respect that StB is somewhat of a younger sibling (even though, having debuted in 1991, it’s two years older) to Reggae Gold. Still, where that series seems to focus on collecting the most obvious choices for the hordes of mainstream fans who will pick it up through name value alone, StB, tends to go A LITTLE further for the more experienced listeners and although the results are typically mixed, most big Reggae fans will almost always favour Strictly The Best over Reggae Gold. This year it’s pretty guaranteed that it will remain that way and StB comes with a very friendly ‘twist’ as well. With VP having acquired its closest competitor, Greensleeves Records, and having maintained its release schedule, it would seem to be that StB, once a MIGHTY double simultaneous release would be (as it was last year) but a single album into perpetuity, but things aren’t so. This year, we WONDERFULLY get two editions, volumes 40 and 41, released not too long after Greensleeves’ The Biggest Reggae One-Drop Anthems and The Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2009 albums, so apparently the label doesn’t so much mind competing with itself (so maybe next year, I can get my anthems album back at FORTY tracks each???). Regardless of the case (and really regardless of the outcomes), it’s so nice to see the double release rebirthed, if only even for just one year. The results? Varied as usual, but the surprises don’t end at two separate albums. Within, listeners will find a decent Dancehall compilation in 40 and one of the most interesting (and BEST) Reggae compilations of the year in 41. Let’s examine.

Strictly The Best 40 is a very nice and dynamic project which focuses, for the VAST most part, on lover’s rock and does so with styles and artists across the board. It wonderfully mixes established (and VERY established) talents alongside those of the ‘who in the hell is that variety’, with artists from both standings scoring and doing so almost equally well. Two of the most varied of these talents open up Strictly The Best #40 from VP Records as Buju Banton brings along his new friend, US R&B superstar John Legend with the remix version of a tune on Legend’s most recent album Evolver, ‘Can’t Be My Lover’. This tune is probably going to (continue to) get quite a bit of attention and deservedly so, it is really a big deal and although it isn’t the strongest tune you’ll hear on StB40, it’s certainly right up there and an excellent choice as a start. Up next is much less of a surprise but an always welcome addition, reggae legend Beres Hammond with an effort from his most recent album A Moment In Time, ‘No Goodbye’ which sweeps in across a Sea Of Love [Riddm]. This tune has remained one of the more popular and a crowd favourite from the album and justly so because really the more you listen to it the sweeter it seems to get (and I still LOVE when the man just breaks down and says (while clearly DEEP in thought), “just wish I was man enough to. . . come out and say it to you. You know”). And then there’s another staple of VP Records (STILL waiting on them to give the man an album with as much as they seem to call on him), UK singer Bitty McLean who chimes in on a remix to one of his better tunes, ‘[To] Fall In Love’ (and you can find the original on his On Bond Street album). This is right with McLean’s area of expertise (he’s very much a ‘hired gun’ of VP’s) and ANY tune on such vibes of his will benearly spectacular, here, no exception.

The RIDICULOUSLY talented Hezron’s is the first of quite a few names on StB40 which I’m sure quite a few Reggae heads might not immediately recognize. His piece ‘So In Love’ is absolutely GORGEOUS and while we quietly begin to look for ‘the next’ Beres or Sanchez (outside of Stevie Face that is), certainly Hezron has to be a name in the running because of songs just like So In Love. Heading back to the UK, we get the potential star Gappy Ranks with his downright DOMINANT ‘Heaven In Your Eyes. So much so has this tune grown on me in the last couple of months or so that I’m going to go as far as to call it the best LOVER’S ROCK tune on this lover’s rock packed album. I LOVE THIS SONG! And I’ve heard called gimmicky by some people, but I guess I’ve fallen for it because Heaven In Your Eyes is a mighty tune in my ‘eyes’. Immensley talented cutie from out of Kingston, Sherieta, makes her VP debut on StB40 as well, with one of her tunes, ‘All In The Name of Love’. I’m kind of conflicted here and not because this one isn’t a nice tune (it most certainly is), but it’s not her best (look for a BRUTAL tune by the name of ‘I Wish’) and I think they could have picked a finer one. However, if this what gets her name in the door and get YOU seeking her future works, then I guess this lovely song will more than serve its purpose and DEFINITELY keep an eye on the future superstar known as Sherieta. Speaking of artists to look out for, you may also want to do so concerning Maikal X, a potential Dutchie Reggae star. I’ve been keeping an eye on the singer for awhile now and he’s definitely developed quite well and his tune for StB40, ‘The Best In You’ is an excellent example of just that and you can well expect successes from X in the future. And you probably don’t know the name Chuckle Berry and you’re probably expecting me to slam the tune. but I’m not (and not just because CB is from ST. ANN’Z!). I don’t like his song, ‘Good Life’, and I’m in a small minority with that and I’ll just leave it like that. And lastly, Jah Vinci may be a bit more familiar to you as a member of Vybz Kartel’s Empire. I’m not a fan of Vinci’s either and his tune here ‘Baby Girl I’m Alone’ (from TJ) kind of wears thin on me after awhile, but I do expect Vinci to develop quite nicely and perhaps become the only member of the Empire who I can tolerate some day (Aidonia not included). As for the artists with whom you’re well acquainted, just about ALL of them standout to my opinion. That includes what is the provider of the best tune on the album in my opinion and the sole non-lover’s piece, ‘Lioness On The Rise’, the lioness herself, Queen Ifrica. I love this tune more each and every time I hear it and nowadays it’s ULTRA familiar to my ears and still, it GROWS. HUGE tune. There’s also ‘Lucky Man’ from Courtney John which, were I not caught up in the rapture of “Heaven”, would be my choice as the best lover’s piece on StB#40 without a doubt. You certainly have no good reason to be expecting Busy Signal on StB40 (he would figure to be more prominent on #41, well he’s on that one also) and you also certainly have no good reason to expecting to hear him going all Phil Collins on the people like he does on ‘One More Night’. This tune will GRAB YOUR ASS! QUICKLY! Think it’s corny as hell (because it is), but around the start of the second minute or so, you’ll be singing that hook, helplessly addicted. VP chose to use this album as the debut of a powerful single from an even mightier artist, young star Etana, with ‘Heart Broken’. This tune figures to feature quite significantly on her next album (which is apparently coming sooner than we think) and it’s given a test run on StB. . . A successful test run. Big tune. you should also be at least somewhat familiar with young Euro vet Million Stylez, who shines with his OUTSTANDING tune Me & You. I think this may be the first time that Stylez has appeared on a VP project and if so, let’s hope for many more. And lastly are veterans Fiona and Red Roze, both of whom do very well on their tunes, respectively. Red Roze reaches on the Merry Go Round riddim (just like Chuckle Berry), with the very nice ‘Under My Skin‘. He is ‘topped’, however, by Fiona who DOESN’T PLAY with syrupy sweet tune ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. It won’t get the opportunity to (it would have already if it were possible), but this tune, in my opinion, could do so well amongst R&B fans as it is so close to that vibes and Fiona has always been one of the most quietly talented songstresses in the game and definitely check out her new album More Than Words (where the tune also appears). Fiona is ALWAYS welcome and helps to put a nice bow on Strictly The Best #40 down its final stretch. LOVELY.

Unlike it’s ever so slightly older sibling, StB40, Strictly The Best 41 doesn’t go very much in the direction of the ‘new’ and ‘up and coming’ artists. Instead, of its fifteen tracks, nearly half of them (seven) come from the same three artists, all established artists (DUH) and there are four more artists on the project which are, for the most part, Dancehall household names at that point, leaving only four somewhat up and comers (and one of them is already established as doing something else, dancing, in the genre). Those aforementioned three artists who cover three tracks here cover the first three on VP’s Strictly The Best Vol. 41. The first, Mr. Vegas, delivers an absolute homerun across the first of two consecutive doses of the world famous Good Life riddim (the best Dancehall riddim of the year were the year to end today) with ‘I Am Blessed’. This was a big tune for Vegas for me because his is a name which, while I don’t fret when I see it (would be a lot of fretting these days), it generally, like his music doesn’t do much for me, but I Am Blessed is DAMN different and a huge tune no less. So wonderful, in fact, was the Good Life that aside from making Vegas looking GREAT it also did quite well for Vybz Kartel who chimes in next with his very solid and well done ‘Dollar Sign’. This is the type of tune I’d like to hear him do more of these days. It’s not very far (in terms of subjectry) from what he’s usually doing these days, but it’s less RIGID, MECHANICAL and downright boring as hell than what he typically ends up going into, it has much more of a natural and adlibbed type of flow to it which really shows off the true powers of the still devilishly lyrically talented Kartel. Kartel, however, is ‘out dueled’ by nemesis, Mavado, in terms of quality on StB41 (at least here) who comes in with the SCATHING ‘Mocking Bird’ (which may or may not actually be about Kartel) (okay clearly it is), which is the first non-Good Life riddim tune on StB41 and is WICKED.

With the artists here you may not know, as I said, there aren’t that many but a couple do impress. Of the four, DEFINITELY the most notable on StB40 is young singer G-Whiz. His tune ‘Life’ for TJ’s Mood Swing riddim is BIG, although it’s placement on this Dancehall compilation is quite questionable. Still, we do like to see the artists getting a nice spin and the exposure offered by StB is more than just “nice”. The same goes for Wasp whose Bugle-like ‘Unfair Officer’ did serious damage for the typically agitated youth, but it is well impressive and of all the youths here, I think Wasp is THE name to look out for. Those two are joined by the less than inspiring Laden, whose ‘Really Like You’ is nowhere near the best material that he’s done thus far. And you can call me a hater if you like, but I’ve never liked Ding Dong as a vocal artist and ‘Man A Gallis’, although EASILY some of his finest work, doesn’t even come close to changing my mind. Munga Honourable is beyond this group at this point, but MAYBE it’s your first time hearing his name, if so, his effort here, ‘We Want Money’ from the big Clearance riddim, will point you in the right direction, it is CLOSE to being very strong. Unsurprisingly, it’s VP’s own Mavado who is the only artist to get three different tunes to their credits and he’s set up to steal the show as all three are at least decent. Mocking Bird is still the best, but both ‘Just To How You Move’ and the electric ‘Hope & Pray’ on the Trippple Bounce are nice as well (with Hope & Pray being the better of the two). I’ve been really high on Mavado this year and he continues his good streak here heading into a potentially even bigger 2K10 for the singer. Kartel ESSENTIALLY reverts back to his uneventful state as he takes on the same HYPE Street Team riddim Mocking Bird rode in on ‘Something Ah Go Happen’. Again, I just don’t know what it is and I am starting to think I have my own partials at this point because, despite a WICKED riddim and very nice lyrics, I think there’s something missing here (outside of the chorus, which is outstanding). And the other artist on StB41 to have multiple tunes, Vegas, comes back with the HILARIOUS ‘Gallis’ over the Trippple Bounce (biggup Bobquisha, every time) and I’m now slightly ashamed that I haven’t been paying him more mind these last few months. And what would this be without Beenie Man? The Doctor comes in over the too hype Gimmie Gimmie. The verses are nice, but that damn riddim is ridiculous outside of a techno dance club and I don’t live in a techno dance club (unfortunately). And you probably don’t either (also unfortunately). And if someone mentions “too hype” of course Ele can’t be too far behind and his tune on StB41, ‘Swing’ is corny and gimmicky as hell. . . But it caught me! I like (not LOVE) the tune, as another in an increasingly LONG ASS line of gimmicked out and otherwise tired tunes from the ‘Energy God’ which just kind of catch you off guard (and that riddim is better than you in each and everyway and it doesn’t care if your feelings are hurt). Still, I reserve ‘best tune’ honours for last and taking them is the only artist to appear on both of the latest installations of Strictly The Best, Busy Signal, whose ‘Da Style Deh’ is another statement of just how WICKED Busy has gotten. After starting out when everyone was proclaiming him the next greatest and then being passed by Aidonia (and you could even argue that he lapped him in terms of skill), Busy is now himself in a different class in my opinion and Da Style Deh, for all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies (and there’re literally MILLIONS on this one tune), is fucking Genius.

Overall, between these two releases DEFINITELY #40 is the top dog and it’s also arguably the single best lover’s rock dominated compilation that I’ve heard in 2009 (and I know that it’s not saying a great deal at all). That album is pretty close to magic at times and I was so surprised that VP chose to take it in that type of direction and with The Biggest Reggae One-Drop Anthems now under their direction as well, doing such a thing is ultimately a WONDERFUL idea: Having the even number of StB become known as a Lover’s Rock album almost strictly. With #41 however, although it isn’t BAD, ultimately I don’t come away from it with any great emotion either way AND there’s also the similarly vibed The Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems album to make things even more difficult for listeners to choose (and that album this year has eighteen tracks with efforts from Laden, Mavado (3 tunes also), Kartel and even Assassin), but this one is slightly softer than that one (which was the ‘traditional’ difference between Greensleeves and VP’s output), but that separation isn’t one which I think will come across so well to casual listeners just seeing a lot of the same artists with more tracks on something else you supply, so I think there has to be things worked out on that side. Still, it is Strictly The Best, and it well has that name value for the new heads. When they come looking for it (and they are), hopefully they’re prepared for some nice lover’s rock from some of the best in the game. If so, then they’ll be well satisfied. If not, then they probably may want to look elsewhere this year.

Rated in Full: 4/5
VP Records

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Vault Reviews: Everton Blender - Live At The White River Reggae Bash

When the discussion of greatest stage shows in Reggae music comes up, you’re likely to hear the same group names. The first, almost always, is of course Elephant Man. I can’t find an argument against that as, at his best, Ele tends to show no regard at all (and even a bit of disregard at times) for his own physical well being, climbing stage supports and leaping from really large speakers as if it were completely normal. Then you’re likely to hear the name Capleton. Outside of the physical antics of Elephant Man (although, if I do believe correctly, a few years back the Fireman did break a bone in his foot while attempting such a maneuver), Capleton exhibits more palpable ENERGY than probably anyone I know of performing these days (and he’s really to the point where I could literally see him doing what he does on a Soca Monarch stage) and combine that with the several really unique things Capleton does as well, such as the long lyrics and the full on free-styling as well, and his name has to be one in such a discourse. You’ll also hear of others like Beenie Man with his incredible stage COMMAND and even Morgan Heritage who, despite the fact that until very recently (apparently) I maintained a healthy apathetic view of, I (like anyone with semi-functioning eyes and ears) have to give them respect for their wonderful performance also. BUT! That being said, you don’t need to jump up and down and scream your audiences into oblivion like Capleton or Elephant Man; you don’t need to come armed with the lyrics of seemingly the command of EVERY tune you’ve ever done since you were a small child like Beenie; and you also don’t need to this large, encompassing and well-oiled-machine of a unit, like Morgan Heritage to impress on stage. You can just be ON POINT like Assassin or Vaughn Benjamin. You can be very close to being on point and just be pretty as hell like Alaine or, you can be totally and wonderfully ridiculous like Denise Belfon (I digress) or you can even just be pretty amazing and respected as such, like King Yellowman. OR, such as the case with the artist in question here, YOU CAN JUST SOUND SPECTACULAR. Everybody has been in the situation of having one of your favourite artists perform one of your favourite tunes and perform it in a way, seemingly oblivious to the version that you know and love. In Reggae, that occurs generally with the usages of ‘medley’s’ where an artist will go with bits and pieces of various tunes on a single riddim and, while that, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily bother me, someone just kind of acting LAME and not quite pushing it to levels you’re familiar with and (more importantly) NOT EVEN TRYING TO, is pretty fucked up in my opinion. However, thankfully they’re people like Everton Blender who rather easily has to be one of the best SOUNDING performers I have ever heard in my entire life.

If my memory is accurate, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Blender perform twice in my life and even if it isn’t accurate the number itself isn’t as important (although I’m pretty sure it was twice) as the distinct sound is implanted in my memory. You can hear it on form also, pick up an Everton Blender album (like the one I’m about to discuss) and you can definitely hear the attribute which has made itself probably the most reputed addition to his arsenal, THAT VOICE! Somewhere between that wailing type of singing that you hear from the likes of Junior Reid and Mykal Rose (biggup Yami Bolo sameway) and the far more straight forward tones of people like Luciano and even Sanchez), exists the wonder which is the voice of Everton Blender. The man is truly one of a kind and seeing him perform, if you REALLY love the music, it definitely well comes through. Apparently it comes through on an industry level as well as, despite being in this day and age where having a live performance album isn’t necessarily a very popular thing, the Blender (who, in terms of POPULARITY (certainly not in terms of abilities and skill) isn’t amongst the worldwide most well known Roots Reggae artists today) has quietly had two. The most recent of which, Everton Blender: Live In Berkley from a couple of years back, came was very well received and came via the always welcomed 2B1 Multimedia. But the first of which was the better of the two (in my opinion) and a little bit lesser known and came way back in 2000 from the once mighty Heartbeat Records (who did quite a bit of work with Everton Blender, releasing upwards of five or six albums from the Clarendon native), Everton Blender: Live At The White River Reggae Bash. The title is a bit ’deceiving’ as it’s more than just “live at the White River Reggae Bash”. The album actually takes place across (at least) two shows, one being at the WRRB, while the other(s) occurring on the Blender’s 1999 tour in support of his Rootsman Credential album from that year (also from Heartbeat). The listener can assume that the material appearing on the album was from one show, however, the album itself credits these tunes as being recorded “live during the Rootsman Credential Tour, North America, October 1999”, but it ultimately doesn’t matter as the real star of this show, Everton Blender, is in OUTSTANDING form wherever his tour bus stops. Live At The White River Reggae Bash sublimely features some of the biggest hits of the Blender’s entire career up to that point (which would have arguably been his prime years) and in lieu of the fact that Everton Blender DISGUSTINGLY doesn’t that one elevating type of FINAL greatest hits compilation (which is really a damn shame) to his credit at this point, the album is pretty solid (along with Live In Berkeley) as the greatest compilation of his very best material in a single place. Therefore, with its situation of being a live album and with its very nice complete package, Everton Blender: Live At The White River Reggae Bash proves to be a release worthy of both newer and more established fans alike.

So what do you get in an Everton Blender show? Well, besides the aforementioned and well documented spectacular vocals, you’re also going to get quite a bit of CLASS and classy performance and I don’t know who exactly constitutes the ‘Blend Dem Band’, but they’re on point as well and all of that comes through excellently on Everton Blender: Live At The White River Reggae Bash. The way the album is situated is that the first eleven tracks come from said White River Bash and the final six are taken from the Rootsman Credential Tour. After a brief, yet dazzling, ‘Overture’ to get things started (where the riddims from some of the Blender’s biggest tunes are displayed by the band), the first time we actually hear our star of the evening is on the performance of one of the biggest hits of his career. ‘Create A Sound’. Although the vocals (in terms of the volume) may have had problems here (and they may throughout also, but not to a frustrating degree at all, and at times, not at all), the message of just living up fully and truly CRAFTING a joyful noise is full on display and apparently the crowd, energetic throughout the set, were well in tuned to that message. Good for them! Speaking of popular tunes, another of Blender’s two most popular ring through in succession and on the same track (on the CD at least) in ‘Bob Marley’ and the MASSIVE ‘World Corruption’. This is about the time when levels kick in and the MOOD really starts to transfer of the show to the listener at home (or wherever the hell you may be) and you just get downright JEALOUS that you weren’t here and World Corruption, in all of its beauty probably is my favourite performance of either show on the disc. The start of the next tune, ‘Where Do The Children Play’ (a cappella style) is just so nice. This one has never been one of my favourites from the Blender (and I’m probably well in the minority on that sentiment), but the crowd reacts IMMEDIATELY when he and his backing singers jump in on the tune and their energy stays high throughout. I just always LOVE to see and appreciate the INFORMED and EDUCATED audience, apparently even more so than me in this case. The next three tunes ‘False Words’ , ‘Live Up’ and ‘The Man’, three of Blender’s lesser known gems (especially The Man on which he specifically calls for the Baltimore riddim which backs it) all comes in nicely and I’d definitely recommend a fan to check out them all in their original forms as well to become more acquainted. And as the set at the WRRB, Blender draws for some of his more well known material such as ’BLEND DEM’, ’Piece of the Blender’ and ’Family Man’, all of which sound so nice and receive good (if not great) crowd response, before he drops the BOOM and has them in the palm of his hand to end things with the always EPIC ’Lift Up Your Head’. TEARS! I love that song and it’s every bit as strong of a performance as ’World Corruption’ (call them ’1a’ and ’1b’).

As for the second stage of the album from the Rootsman Credential Tour, two (actually three) things stand out in my opinion. The first is quite clear: As is indicated by the tour’s title, you may not be familiar with these five tunes but they’re all from the Rootsman Credential album. Secondly, the band isn’t as strong as it is during the WRRB (but the volume levels are all around better throughout and it literally sounds like they have a different setup instrumentally speaking). After another Overture (this one not as strong as the first), Everton Blender and company dive in on the first selection of the set (and now listening to it even better, I’m all but sure there’re no tricks going on and the music is actually from the same show), ‘I Love Jah Jah’. This tune has never been a favourite of mine necessarily (it doesn’t do much and is VERY elementary), but perhaps I should go back and give it a next listen (I doubt it), because it sounds FINE here and is definitely one of the best of the five tune performances. It is, however, quickly outdone by the SUBLIME ‘Higher High’. This tune (as if you can’t tell already) definitely has been one of my favourite lasting pieces from the Rootsman Credential album/era and I was so happy to hear how the crowd seemed to almost overwhelm the tune to a degree even then. You have to think it would have been almost completely new to them at the time, therefore they would have almost exclusively been responding to the absolute STRENGTH of this MIGHTY praising tune for His Majesty. The very nice ‘We No Fear’ is in next and I also find myself responding to it even more so than I would and have to the studio version of the tune. I always thought this tune could have been HUGE if it had just a bit more in the way of urgency in its vibes and while that doesn’t come to fruition here (at least to what I feel might be the PERFECT degree), it’s a bit more than on the studio version of the tune and to my ears, obviously, that’s a very nice touch (and on the studio version, while definitely nice, it isn’t engineered well, it sounds SO much so like Everton Blender is in the studio and FAR away from actual instrumentation and while that is normally the case, it shouldn’t sound like that). ‘Danger In Your Eyes’ is the penultimate tune of the set and the entire album altogether and I should be completely honest and say that is my least favourite performance on the entire set and the reason is largely fault of the Blender himself. His vocals are just not as sharp as they usually are - as they are on the tune preceding it and as they are on the tune following it - so call it a fluke or whatever you like, but here you can’t call it ‘good’ by any means. And lastly, as I said, he quickly gets things back in order with the closer ‘Why Do We Have To War’, a BIG social commentary. While certainly a rather curious choice on which to finish a set (and with the way things go out, I’d be tempted to say that it wasn’t actually the final tune performed that night) the tune, in any form that I’ve heard, is a big one and its presence here is a plus to an album which definitely sets the table for it in fine style as only Everton Blender can.

Overall, I’ll reiterate the fact that pretty much regardless of what level of fan you may or may not be of Everton Blender’s, this one is well recommended to you. For the newer fan it’s kind of a greatest hits and thus, a wonderful introduction to the Blender and his vibes and you definitely get to see a more colourful side of the artist with him just talking several times and the vibes coming through how much he just generally enjoys singing hi songs. And for the older fans, I’ll use myself as the example: While I’m definitely not the biggest of Everton Blender fans you’ll find in the world, listening to some of the music here and writing this review, I cannot tell you how many times I stopped listening to the music on Live At The White River Reggae Bash and went back to the actual studio CD on which the particular tune appears just to see how the comparison was, or simply because I got caught up in the moment and NEEDED to hear the original and you too (even more so) will definitely enjoy the more colourful side of the Blender. All in all, while not the BEST live album I’ve ever heard, Everton Blender: Live At The White River Reggae Bash is just so enjoyable to listen to as the Blender proves it definitely is possible to entertain and do it greatly, sans the jumping, speaker climbing, million words per minute chatting, fire starting. . .

Rated 4/5
Heartbeat Records