Tuesday, April 5, 2011

'Back By Popular Demand': A Review of "The Return" by Machel Montano

When it comes to music, it seems that what everyone on the highest level of any particular genre has in common is that they all serve a purpose. They all seem to fulfill some level of expectations from fans and from themselves which make their presence at any given time, very necessary. For example, these days if one were looking for really large and spectacularly vibed Roots Reggae music, one might draw a line which would lead them directly to the ever increasing catalogues of people like Etana and Tarrus Riley, but if you wanted something a bit lower-key and scaled back without sacrificing any of the brilliance, and even increasing it in some aspects, you’d probably reach for a tune from someone like a Queen Ifrica. They all fall in an serve their purposes in that regard and for that reason, and the fact that they are all extremely talented and DEPENDABLE, they’re not likely to be going anywhere any time soon. Dancehall, of course, is ridiculous but, it too seems to fall into this line of thinking and even more so, actually. In Dancehall we have ’templates’ for artists - There’re bad guys, there’re those who stir controversy, there’re those, guys and girls, who do nothing but rhyme about sex 90% of the time and so on and so forth and a look around at the current landscape of Dancehall reveals that all of those positions are currently filled. And seemingly all Zouk producers place ads in newspapers and online which say something to the effect of - ‘Seeking female Zouk singer. Must be French Caribbean or French, must sing like an angel and be absolutely spectacular to look at’. That genre probably has dozens who fill those conditions. In Soca music where all lines tend to be blurred, this is also true, but in a bit of a different way. In Soca we’d look at someone like Bunji Garlin and Ms. Alysha to fuse their highly lyrical styles with the more standard ‘jump & wave’ simply because they can do it and not because it’s ever been done in that way. It’s more about the individual showing their capabilities and defining their own role. Currently, Fay-Ann Lyons may be in the process of redefining, or just defining in the first place, what it means to be a VERSATILE Soca artiste and, at the same time there’s someone in Patrice Roberts who may end her career having spent the entire thing at the highest level of the genre. And then there’s Machel Montano. Besides being probably the most popular consistent face of Soca, Montano’s role is different and probably the most full of pressure, because in a genre built on the jump and wave, it is his role to make people jump higher and wave faster and harder than they ever have and ever will.

'Advantage' @ Soca Monarch

And he made us do it in 2011 like he hasn’t in quite some time. This year, Soca’s premier showman, Machel Montano served up a dazzling presentation of vibes which is . . . Exactly what most of his fans demand from him, year in and year out and he even surpassed expectations as well. In the most lasting scene of the 2011 Trinidad Carnival season, for me at least, Machel Montano took his very first Soca Monarch title by delivering one of the most devastating performances the Monarch stage has seen in recent years and probably ever. He would also cap off the year, early as it was, by capturing his fourth Road March title. All of this came after something which probably makes 2011 look even stronger for Montano, as if he needed the help - A self-imposed exile from Trinidad Carnival 2010 - Which he reportedly said was in order to allow the light shine brighter on some of the younger artists, such as Patrice Roberts. Some have argued as to the real reasons for the absence last year or whether or not it actually proved to be successful but, in retrospect, the fact that he did essentially take the year off did add even more hope to what Montano might bring this year. In a season long and unsurprisingly dubbed ”The Return”, Machel did exactly that and to mark the occasion he releases his thirty-fifth album to date with the same title. Last year, although he wasn’t around for the most part, Montano did manage to release the decent ”Album 34” which, even despite his inactivity was packed with fairly well received material and flat out hits. In terms of his albums, Montano had seemed to hit a very SLEEK stride with some of the last few such as ”Heavenly Drum” and particularly my personal favourites, ”Flame On” and ”Book of Angels” which were pieces built within the frame and the ‘roaming concepts’ he had envisioned for each particular season and with his last album he certainly seemed to get away from that, but it’s well back intact for ”The Return”, right down to the songs. For the music, of course there was one obviously MASSIVE shot which we’ll speak about a little later directly, but the vibes around the piece were nothing out of the ordinary for the Soca supernova. Everything was well polished and streamlined Soca with just a bit of pop music mixed in and seemingly aimed at pretty much everyone who generally enjoyed Montano’s music. What I did notice, however, and as we’ll see when we get into the music was that Machel didn’t have much of an eye on doing combinations in 2011. I’m not actually the biggest of his fans, but there’re definitely two things which I really look forward to everyone from him - The first being the BIG and dominant tune, which he definitely did deliver, but the other is a combination with the aforementioned Patrice Roberts and while it is likely that the two could link later this year for one of the other Carnival seasons, like Crop Over, something just seems to be out of place when they don’t bring that huge song, at least for me. But, as someone who isn’t necessarily a foaming at the mouth fan of Machel Montano’s, I do have to give credit where it is due - The man showed flashes of brilliance in 2011 and all of those flashes are present on this album - A return for the ages.

'Coming Again'

As I said, the music from Machel Montano’s 2011 season presents no drastic level of steps away from the music his fans are used to and at this point I don’t even know what would actually represent something that I would call “drastic” musically from Montano, so this is an album which is going to appeal to traditional fans of Montano’s and Soca in general - Which is VERY accessible to new fans as well. To no great surprise, one of the very first tunes he released for this season begins Machel Montano’s new album, ”The Return”, ‘Coming Again’, his announcement that he would, in fact, be returning to the madness in 2011. I LOVE this song! From the first time I laid ears on it, it was excellent to me. It’s a very nice and groovy spot which probably gets a bit too direct at times, but it definitely conveys what everyone wanted to know and makes it sound SO damn nice. The next tune in, ‘Bend Over’ didn’t move me as immediately as the opener did. This one is kind of Techno-ish/Electo-ish and that’s not typically something that I do enjoy, HOWEVER, if I am going to like it, surely the vehicle to get it to my senses would be Soca music. I’m not going to say that I like it, actually, but what I will say is that I have more of an appreciation for than I did the few first listens two or three months ago at this point and, as far as we can tell, the reaction to it, across the board has been positive so check it for yourself. Next is another tune which I think is absolutely spectacular, the vibrant and colourful great time that is ‘So High [A.O.A]. This tune is also kind of electric, but its roots are firmly in the spectrum of Soca music and it is DAZZLING! It is the kind of song you expect and DEMAND from Machel and he delivered here superbly. Still, the best thing about the tune, relative the scope of the entire album, is that it’s only the second best song here.


While there have been exceptions to this, generally speaking, every season has a signature tune, that song usually wins Road March and for the past three years that song has also won Soca Monarch in Trinidad. Last year was the year of ‘Palance’, in 2009 Fay-Ann Lyons told us to ‘Meet Super Blue’ and in 2011, Machel took center stage and top honours for the very first time since 2007’s ’Jumbie’, with the MASSIVE shot that was ‘Advantage’ which also provided us with the lasting colourful sentiment of the year as well.

“The stage is in front of us
Time to get advantageous”

Just about every year Machel tunes up such a song and although such MADDENING moments are my favourites and I’m probably pretty easy to please when it comes to them, I’m compelled to say that this tune is one of his finest and it was definitely THE crazy jump and wave inducing moment of the 2011 Carnival Season. It would also net the legendary performer his very first Soca Monarch title which, in retrospect, does seem long overdue. HUGE!

Besides ‘Advantage’, ‘So High’ and ‘Coming Over’, Machel did have a bit of the Midas Touch in 2011 and a trio of other big tunes make up the great ‘middle class’ of ”The Return”. The first, ‘Illegal’, finds Montano going all ‘Gully Creepa’ on the people with a tune which opens in a very familiar fashion and does take awhile to fully get going - But when it does, it is golden. The midtempo set is downright intoxicating and just an unforgettably fun time to be had. Not as fun, however, as ‘Hard Wuk’. For some reason my daughter finds this tune absolutely hilarious and for a kid who doesn’t laugh very much, it’s very odd. Me, however, I just think it’s a big song and one which you will, as I am right now typing this, find very hard to sit still while listening to, especially at the chorus, despite the fact that it’s almost barely existing at that point. And lastly in that row is another stellar track, ‘Spin Class’. Tortola Soca diva and Achis Reggae favourite, Jalena, keeps me company every morning working out - Soca music fantastic for workouts, just in general - And they should have gyms all around the world pushing Soca music in classes. Machel would be in on that and perhaps his first entry would be ‘Spin Class’ which is also, although rarely noted, pretty good lyrically for what it is. The album also does have one more special moment for me and that comes actually in a tune from last year, which I was pretty damn convinced was on the ”Album 34” album but it wasn’t, ‘On De Road’. The song actually was Machel’s effort for Crop Over and it was gorgeous. Gifted with one of the best melodic approaches on the whole of the album and a ridiculous ‘SQUEAKY‘ riddim, ‘On De Road’ is the type of song which, if any of Montano’s song could, might’ve fallen between the cracks, but anyone taking it in a big dosage will know its quality.

'On De Road'

And the remaining four tracks on ”The Return” are of the very Soca ‘standard’ remix/road mix variety. The first is ‘Go Dung’ which features Bajan veteran, Lil’ Rick. The song is actually Rick’s original and while I do like some of his music, this one is fucking ruined for me from long time because it comes across the awful Condemn Riddim which I pretty much condemned the very first time I heard it. Next we have a remix of a tune which I did actually enjoy, ‘Bumper To Fender’, which actually did appear on ”Album 34”. The remix features Vyb . . . Swappi and I prefer the originally and substantially so, but the mixed version isn’t too bad either. And finally are two roadmixes from two 2011 tunes, ‘Bend Over’ and ‘Advantage’. As I’ve said in the past, I’m not the biggest fan of roadmixes or of remixes in general, actually, but in these two cases, what we have aren’t very dissimilar from the first songs, especially in the case of the latter after it gets going, so I don’t complain much here and I know a lot of people really do love these songs every year and REALLY look forward to them.

Overall, while I cannot say that ”The Return” approaches the level of ”Book of Angels” or ”Flame On”, it’s much better than either of its two immediate predecessors in my opinion and it does well to fully display the outstanding music which Machel Montano released in 2011. And on going back to the premise of this review, Machel Montano is one of the few reigning undeniable superstars that we have in Caribbean music today - He is on the top shelf - And while you can argue whether or not he’s still in his own prime, what is unquestionable is his impact in Soca and in music altogether. In 2011 Machel Montano returned to Carnival and we looked to him, like we always do, to take whatever the level of intensity was and destroy it and make everything that much more fun in the process: Mission Accomplished.

Rated: 4/5
Ruf Rex Productions
[Digital reportedly coming soon]
Machel Montano

{Note: I'm SICK! Had some stuff planned that will have to miss another day on or two. HOPEFULLY I'll be back on Thursday with a special something. Friday with an even more special something and then a milestone. BALANCE}

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