Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"There Is No Spoon": A Review of Crucial Times by Sizzla Kalonji

No matter how much I find myself finding new and newer artists who absolutely dazzle my senses and reaffirm the beautiful future of Reggae music, there is something which I cannot seem to shake at all - the never-ending allure to the enigma that is the music of Sizzla Kalonji. I picture myself, in about twenty years or so, the sickeningly annoying middle aged man literally PASSING OUT old Sizzla albums to youths who swear that whoever the new artist of the day is THE MAN, meanwhile whoever he is, I obviously feel as if he isn’t skillful enough to hold Kalonji’s mic stand. Not to mention that no matter how increasingly GENIUS an artist by the name of Lutan Fyah becomes, how surprisingly WICKED a certain Italy based UK artist is or even how exceedingly enchanting one of Sizzla’s angelic neighbours; it all always seems to come back to the doorstep of one Sizzla Kalonji in terms of to who gets the first crack at gaining my attention and how much of it ‘they‘ (whoever he or she is) get. However, with such lofty accolades definitely comes lofty (and maybe even loftier) expectations, USUALLY, but in Sizzla’s case, it’s almost as if I’m SO used to him and his results that when it comes to albums (and sometimes even singles), I can almost predict the quality level of something prior to hearing ANYTHING about ANYTHING concerning a release. Sometimes I’m definitely wrong, but usually I’m spot on. I’d use the example of last year’s stellar effort Ghetto Youth-Ology, although I’m slowly coming to the realization that given the circumstances surrounding that album (it was worked by his own longtime band, Firehouse), a dolphin probably suspected that one was going to be good. But to stay on that notion, think about that album’s literal predecessor. The album which would have been the prior release from UK Reggae giant Greensleeves - I-Space. I had a pretty good feeling about that one too and it’s subsequently, at least in my opinion, gone on to become one of the strongest albums of his entire career but . . . I don’t think that was much of a surprise either. Okay hold on. Let’s go back another step. Waterhouse Redemption! That WICKED old school vibed album from 2006 must’ve come as a shock to many . . . despite being . . . produced by arguably the . . . greatest producer of all . . . time . . . King Jammy. Okay so maybe that one wasn’t too hard to predict either. But dammit! I know what I’m talking about!

Don’t I? Maybe not. The fact is that the union (and I use that term very loosely, but powerfully) of Sizzla Kalonji and Greensleeves has been doing quite well for itself over the past five years or so. Sandwiched in there also was a very strong greatest hits release, The Journey: The Very Best Of Sizzla, which marked the tenth anniversary of the two ‘working together’. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2005 to find a bit of questionable material there when the label released the very strange Soul Deep, which I didn’t like, in retrospect (because it was strange as hell!) although many people did and still do (which is surprising). Still, despite all of that and despite the fact the hair on my arms literally stood the hell up, as I began to learn more and more about this latest release, Crucial Times I didn’t quite know what to think about it (although CLEARLY, I was excited and even though I have it now, I‘m still very excited). The circumstances here center around the fact that this album comes via the one Homer Harris (Jamstyle) who is ultimately credited as having discovered a young Miguel Orlando Collins and dubbed him ‘Sizzla’, giving a literal GIFT to the Reggae world which continues to give now fifteen years after the fact (which was very long ago if you think about it). That fact alone would CERTAINLY make this album, if nothing else, a bit of a collectors item, just as was, at least initially a compilation release by the name of Caveman Culture Sound Vol. 1 released about a month ago. That thing ended up being HUGE and it was done for the same Caveman sound through which Harris originally gave Sizzla his start. But when you get into the music on Crucial Times something VERY interesting begins to occur. It’s not as you may have hoped with the longtime duo having reunited to go into the studio and put together a release as they may have done a decade and a half ago. It’s more like they kind of did decide to do an album sometime ago and it’s now just breaking out to the public. I’m sitting here now, however (show you how big of a fan I am), nearly salivating at the thought of a completely brand new Sizzla album produced by Harris, knowing how IMMENSE his respect must be for that man, the results could be magical. But, we’re here for Crucial Times and to that, when I finally got a peak of the tracklist, of course one thing GLARINGLY stuck out (more on that in a minute), but it was very strange what you saw and eventually heard. Like I said, you’ll hear things on this album which sound VERY old. The kind of rasp that Sizzla has always voiced with has become increasingly edgier over the years (as you might imagine, given the fact that, despite his longevity, he’s still rather young, in his earlier thirties) and arguably less melodic, but he has developed to no end and still despite Lutan Fyah’s undeniable consistencies, if I need a SINGLE TUNE written absolutely PERFECT, that ‘honour’ goes to Kalonji. It is because of those things that you, like me, if you’re a Sizzla fan, will listen to Crucial Times and hear something which I’m kind of having a hard time putting my finger on. . . But it’s very strange. Interesting, surely, but strange. And it is within those lines that, perhaps (more like definitely) the album doesn’t measure up to its Sizzla/Greensleeves slightly older siblings. Of course it didn’t have to and it’s still Sizzla and I could and probably have listened to him rhyme about dirt, but this one isn’t quite what I expecting. So maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about after all. Nevermind.

At times the album is a nice trip through history, at times it’s very average, at times (one in particular) it’s pretty amazing and altogether, as I said, quite strange. Thus, despite the fact that it, ostensibly, shares virtually NOTHING in common besides the artist, with albums like Addicted and Soul Deep, this one is definitely one of the most eclectic albums of Sizzla’s recent catalogue and probably of all time. Thankfully, however, it is still CLEARLY better than either of those albums and one of the reasons why gets the Sizzla’s ‘brand new’ album Crucial Times off to a start, the tune which I believe is its very first single (it was the name of the album’s EP), ‘Precious Gift’. The tune is definitely strong and I now have a newfound appreciation for it after having vibed it for quite awhile and here, it sounds better than ever. Of course I can’t ignore the fact that the tune is also known as ‘Jah Bless Me With Life’ and it was the title track of an ‘underground album’ Kalonji had a couple of years back (which wasn’t very good). The version on that album is a little bit more stripped down (minus that electric guitar I think is on it) and the version you’ll encounter starting things up here is the best I’ve heard the tune to date. Pretty nice start, albeit a familiar one. Things stay on a very recognizable level with the title track up next as it appeared on the 2008 installment of Greensleeves’ The Biggest Reggae One-Drop Anthems album. This tune is also very good, but I’ve always thought (well “always” being the last two or three years) that it would have been a little better had the energy been ramped up just a little. Still, the vibes here are very nice and on an inspirational level and it was a pretty decent sized hit for Kalonji and perhaps the impetus which brought us to this point. And lastly on the opening lot if ‘Take A Stand’ which I actually like a little. It’s not an AMAZING tune by any stretch of the word and I could probably even envision it kind of flying beneath the radar here, but actually it’s one of the stronger efforts on the album to my tastes (this one also kind of sounds a bit older maybe) (which, in terms of sound, certainly isn’t a bad thing).

And then ‘things’ begin happening. Check the tune ‘Charming’ which is Sizzla meets R&B and just not a very good song (it’s still MILES ahead of ANYTHING you may have heard on the Addicted album, however). The tune is vibed kind of strange also and you may very well find yourself doing what I did, which was singing along to it despite CLEARLY not listening closely enough to learn the word, just because the melody is very unique. Be careful with that one. The very next tune, ‘Jolly Good Time’ is even stranger because it’s Sizzla meets Saturday Night Live, Disco Fever. This one isn’t BAD actually and it certainly isn’t good, but when I listen it, I literally start LAUGHING! I don’t know if that’s a good thing and I don’t even remember the last time there was a Sizzla tune that did that to me (it was probably the HORRIBLY mutilated version of ‘Dress Code’ which mad the compilation rounds several years back), but check it, although incredibly strange, you may actually like it. ‘There’s No Pain’ is another VERY familiar effort because it essentially stands out now as the historical ‘identity’ of another older album, the self produced Black History from 2001. This tune is MAGIC, make no mistake about it and I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t heard it very much recently, but it sounds here, better than I even remember it and it’s dazzling and one of the best tunes on Crucial Times altogether and easily so. Another pretty nice tune is the kind of funky sounding ‘Foundation’, but like most like things here, it has a ‘catch’ to it. ‘Foundation’ sounds like it was birthed in the same session which produced Sizzla’s debut album Burning Up. Like I said his vocal style has changed over the years considerably and this sounds like Sizzla circa 1995-96. I’m not complaining though, like most of the music on that early album, this tune is BIG and it has a very nice and melodic sound to it and not to mention it’s lyrically damn near brilliant as well. I don’t know what’s going on with ‘Sufferation & Poverty’ at all. The tune is probably the epitome of STRANGE on a strange album. It’s kind of a Drum & Bass sounding vibe and it is put together HORRIBLY. It almost sounds like Sizzla was playing around in the studio with an idea which he hadn’t finished crafting yet! I just don’t know what to make of it at all. And of course there’s the previous hit ‘Atta Clap’ which is a scathing tune from that start of the more aggressive era although this tune is probably the biggest example of the shift in his sound, because Sizzla still makes tunes like this, pretty consistently and he sounds MUCH different now than here, despite doing the same thing essentially. ‘Atta Clap’ is big big material to my ears.

Still, all of that being said, and with other solid material like ‘Agriculture & Education’ - a tune which is probably the second best on the album and one which is VERY familiar sounding - ; the aggressive ‘Progress’ - another solid one which is familiarly vibed and probably from the same era roughly as ‘Atta Clap’ (maybe a little earlier) - ; and the closer of Crucial Times, ‘Get Rid Ah Dem’ - ANOTHER very familiar sounding one which probably isn’t very good although I find myself liking it to a degree (especially the chorus) - all roads of quality on the album lead to one tune. The MASSIVE ’Rat Race’ is a tune which has quietly and frustratingly been one of my favourite Kalonji tunes of all time. The tune has been all but invisible over the years, but putting it here was the best thing anyone could have done for this album and the very first time I saw the completed tracklist for Crucial Times my eyes IMMEDIATELY went to track #7 and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Sounding LUSH and being lyrical perfection on top of that, as Sizzla pushes a message of maintaining and striving in a very tough world, the tune is a real winner and one of the best of his morbidly obese catalogue to my opinion (now if I can just get them to put the studio version of ‘Humble Thought‘ on an album, I could die a happy man).

Overall, I’m kind of confused by Crucial Times (DUH!) and confused by who to recommend it to because the same crowd who will most likely appreciate it, will also be the same crowd with who will most likely criticize it. With the way it runs, it’s definitely best for more established fans in whose collections this will be FAR from the very first Sizzla album, but those fans are more likely to have extensive experience with these tunes, so it’s kind of a blast from the past or a collector’s item like I said. It’s NOT as good as any of the last three Sizzla albums from Greensleeves, just judging it from a musical standpoint. It lacks the cohesiveness of those albums and does so because of what is probably going to be its main attraction. Like I said, Sizzla has sounded so different through the years and longer tenured fans will probably be frustrated by how suddenly the shifts are (whereas a newer fan might just think he’s flipping things up). Still, YOU older fan, like me, are probably going to buy it anyway (even though I got it for free) (biggup Nate) the question will be how it resonates with those beyond us. Crucial Times is a decent album, albeit one marked by an inherent level of inconsistency and some just WEIRD moments. Not one for the time capsule, but not quite the rubbish bin either.

Rated 3/5
Greensleeves Records
2010



8 comments:

  1. That is pretty much what I figured when I listened to the sample a couple weeks ago... I haven't got my copy just yet though.

    (Also, for the record, I love "Soul Deep"! It's my favorite weird Sizzla album, beating out "Rise to the Occasion" and being about fifteen times better than "Addicted.")

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  2. Yeah I agree with this revue, I heard most of the samples and I'm still going out now to pick it up beacause I buy most all of his music except Penitentray and RudeBoy releases.

    I was a huge Soul Deep fan as well and I like most all his weird albums, but I can understand why other fans don't.

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  3. I'd probably go with 'Rise To The Occasion'. I know a whole heap of people who LOVE 'Soul Deep' (and apparently now two more) and some who even think it's one of his best (and apparently my new friend Nico is very fond of 'Addicted' also). Gentleman, I believe, also loves 'SD' yeah.

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  4. Yeah I like Rise to the Occasion Better but Soul Deep is still a good record. Addicted is okay it's much farther down the lsit tho.

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  5. I like Soul Deep!

    I was expecting "Rat Race" to be on the Bob Marley "Rat Race" riddim (what's the real name of it? I dunno but it's one of my favorites), but it's not.

    Somebody tell Sizzla to get on it straightaway!

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  6. There's a youtube clip of Sizzla rhyming on the rat race riddim yeah

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  7. Yeah that's right! The Caveman Session video...tune is called "Babylon Yuh System Crash."

    It wasn't on that Caveman album OR Crucial Times tho. :( I think that was the one I expected to be on Crucial Times called "Rat Race." But the one on Crucial Times is very nice regardless.

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  8. 'Foundation' is the very first studio recording of Sizzla and previously unreleased. 'Atta Claps' is a single from 2000, 'Progress' & 'Rat Race' are both singles from the later 90s. 'Get Rid A Dem' is a single from 1999 but on the Xterminator label and produced by Fatis (not sure how that ended up on this album). It's not supring most of these earlier tracks outshine the latter material as the Sizzla of old was on different level.

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