Thursday, April 7, 2011

Modern Classics Vol. XXVII: "Ten Strings" by Tuff Lion

"Ten Strings" by Tuff Lion [I Grade Records - 2008]

If for no other reason than to make the journey just a bit sweeter for myself, I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to make all of the features which we do here just a bit different and out of the ordinary. In terms of ‘regular’ reviews (although there is nothing regular about my reviews), I give my readers a nice variety of different styles and different artists and even projects which may be brand new or several years old, actually. And in our other features we also try to offer a bit of diversity in terms of what we mention and how we mention it - And I think that we move quite successfully in all of those respects. Still, the most difficult to diversify semi-constant feature that we run is definitely the ‘Modern Classic’, where the field is much much smaller to choose from (as much as I fight the urge to stretch the requirements of the feature, just to add some colour). Still, I do find myself wanting to do different things with the somewhat tedious process of writing them so I cleared out everything and began to search and think of what could be the most unusual album that would qualify for such a feature and I remembered something I had thought of early last year.

"Ten Strings" Preview w/Tuff Lion

Tuff Lion is an artist, himself, who could well be described as a ‘modern classic’. The very fact that you and I are existing in a frame of life which happens to not only coincide with this man’s own, but this man making music at the height of his powers is something really special. Long a fixture on the Virgin Islands Reggae scene, the Lion has played for just about every remotely prominent and gifted Reggae artist from out of the VI as a producer, a musician, an arranger, a writer and pretty much just everything you could want. In 2007, the master guitarist from out of St. Croix released his very own debut album, the very well received ”Utterance”, which actually featured him taking things to the mic and singing throughout the very strong affair. The very next year, however, he outdid himself and did so in the most natural and organic way that he possibly could without uttering a single syllable on one of the finest albums the region has ever produced. “Ten Strings”

On an album like this, besides the quality of a particular sound and song (which is unquestionable in this case), everything is left to the individual perceiving that sound. What I mean is that, when I analyze these songs, where there’re no lyrics, I’m likely (and hopefully) to get something out of them which you won’t and which Tuff Lion didn’t when he made the songs. The album was pushed by I Grade Records, and was, essentially, Tuff Lion’s own musical efforts on some of the riddims from I Grade - Basically placing music where there is generally lyrics. The results were outstanding and probably pretty difficult to analyze. I think I’ll try it anyway.

The Music

1. ‘Yad Along’

The opening song on ”Ten Strings“ remains one of my personal favourites, ’Yad Along’. I still have yet to figure out, exactly, where from I know the base riddim, but the work done over it (if “it” even exists) is absolutely sublime. My feeling in regard to this tune was that, while the title of it seems to suggest some type of transition occurring, that because of its placement, it was more representative of what was to come and not what was already in progress or already completed.

2. ‘Vibes Preservation’

‘Vibes Preservation’ was next and this one was a sound, with its very ‘large’ type of vibes has always struck me as being a very communal type of track. This, perhaps more so than any other song on the album (including those which I like more), was THE song which I found myself playing for other people. ‘You want to hear a new song I just got from Tuff Lion?’ For a while ‘that song’ was ‘Vibes Preservation’ - Not to be played alone.

3. ‘Majestic Honor’

If I recall correctly, this riddim wasn’t too prevalent on I Grade’s productions (although Vaughn Benjamin did take it out for a spin on ‘Stretch Out’ from the ”Rule The Time” album) and perhaps that was because Tuff Lion did everything that could be done with this composition on 'Majestic Royal'. Although I hate to be lame and clichéd, this song, for me, was simply about LIFE. From the big horns blowing coming in (a very ROYAL lead-in), to the way the tune quickly and comfortably settles in and then existing with just a touch of an edge to the vibes - This all encompassing standout tune could well be looked at as a microcosm of life.

4. ‘Coming Home’

This tune was one which I felt it was named SO perfectly - Everything is really covered in the song’s title. Listening through it now, you hear a song which is somewhat hurried and somewhat frantic (when compared to some of the other material here), but it’s also comfortable and comforting. It LITERALLY sounds like a hard road, but one which CLEARLY has something wonderful at the end of - Kind of like taking the long way home after a hard day’s work.

5. ‘Indigo Tides’

If ‘Yad Along’ didn’t start off this album (and it did) THE song I would choose to do so would definitely be the very VISUAL ‘Indigo Tides’. For me, this song has always been very emblematic of what that signature VI Reggae sound has been in recent years. It’s very straight forward, very HEAVY and just GORGEOUS! I could imagine a roll of artists taking this one on (and they may have already), because it just so wonderfully qualifies and characterizes a sound which Tuff Lion has been involved with and developing for a very long time.

6. ‘Burning Bush’

Two things have always reached me about ‘Burning Bush’ in particular: The first is that, where the tune which precedes it is one which I find is heavy on that quintessential Virgin Islands sound, this tune composition is straight out of some big session circa 1975 in Kingston. This one is Jamaican all around. The second thing (and I hate this word and it may very well be the first time I’ve used it in a really long time) (a search on this page reveals that it’s only been used once on this blog and in reference to a song title actually) is that besides just sounding confident, ‘Burning Bush’ has a SWAGGER around it. It’s vibed to sound like something you’d hear in a movie when the cool guy walks in - Or when the cool guy sits down to play his guitar in a studio on St. Croix.

7. ‘Kindred Spirit’

‘Kindred Spirit’ is a tune which CONSTANTLY fulfills its purpose, over and over again, in its time. The song has a very electric feel to it and one which isn’t ‘normally’ considered to be within the spectrum of Reggae music - But it so very much is and the MERGING of those sounds is where I think the title and the purpose comes in. I believe I’ve heard Tuff Lion speak on this or similar issues in an interview before (biggup Podcasts, I LOVE Podcasts) where he talked about how different genres can kind of roll in together and not really dilute one another but ultimately just produce good music, like kindred spirits.

8. ‘Ivahlasting’

This song not only remains my absolute favourite tune on "Ten Strings”, but it also continues to reign as the greatest source of frustration for me because I’m almost completely sure that I know the base sound from somewhere. This MIGHTY track is the autograph of this album and it may just be the musical signature of the Lion, himself, as well. So well done, so STRONG, so confident and so BRILLIANT was ‘Ivahlasting’ that it stood out EASILY in a line of eighteen standouts without a problem.

9. ‘A Different Iration’

About ninety seconds into ‘A Different Iration’, the vibes kind of set themselves up into their electric way and seem to attempt to smooth themselves over, but the electricity does remain well active. This one, which marks the end of the first half of the album and the beginning of the second, figures to suggest some type of change occurring, but it doesn’t quite turn out to be that way (the next tune isn’t very different) . . . Or does it? I’ve begun to take this one in tandem with -

10. ‘Lalibela’

Clearly we’re on the move in some way when you take these two tunes into account. ‘Lalibela’, in particular, has always come off to me like a conversation. The premise of the album is that lyrics are replace by Tuff Lion’s guitar and that is very evident here as the Lion seems to almost tell a story. It doesn’t have a melody to it (in the terrestrial sense, where we would have a singing melody) (biggup Singing Melody), it almost sounds like the guitar doing Spoken Word and doing in transit - But to where?

11. ‘Love Is All’

“If you feel a way about the herb . . .”

My ears probably JUMPED when I heard ‘Love Is All’ because it featured the same backing track as a favourite of mine from a favourite of mine - ‘Positive Herb’ by NiyoRah. The riddim is FULL and BEAUTIFUL and Niyo used it to deliver a very healthy herbalist tune which has pretty much become a classic to many people by this point. The Lion uses it, instead, to deliver what is the second best tune on ”Ten Strings” to my ears and a tune which may not bring love in the stereotypical sense, but YOUR EARS will certainly fall in love with it.

12. ‘Zion Awake’

I actually have a personal story about this STERLING track, ‘Zion Awake’ because maybe about a year ago my Wife was playing through this album (which I remember having situated in a playlist with a Ras Attitude album - Specifically to help deal with ‘writer’s block’ and it’s a technique I use to this day with a variety of different sounds) and she stumbled upon this tune and declared it her favourite (without hearing the rest of it, mind you). What she obviously heard was the kind of ENCHANTING vibes surrounding this one. The song definitely does sound like an awakening and maybe a change and just a rising in general. For me it helped to loosen up brain waves and helped me focus on the task at hand. These days? It just helps me feel nice.

13. ‘Firm Foundation’

This song is one which, at least these days, comes in for me as an ode to the music itself. When you see the title, ‘Firm Foundation’ and then combine it to hear the song relying heavily upon this somewhat rigid, but lovely one-drop. The foundation there, in my ears, is Reggae - The firmest of musical foundations. You can, of course, then go on to tie it in a wide array of different knots and areas, but whatever and wherever you go with it, isn’t it always nice to have that firm foundation?

14. ‘Set Dem Free’

As probably the most skeletal track on the whole of the album, I think ‘Set Dem Free’ is a vibes which is left COMPLETELY to the whim of the listener - And I think that’s the point of it. I think Tuff Lion would have made this one and knew just how wide open it was - An electric guitar over a one-drop and sometimes just a one-drop, almost sounding like old school Dub - And he knew it would take many different people in many different ways. Meanwhile the joy here is appreciating the musical journey to arrive wherever you do - Not the actual destination, itself.

15. ‘Fly Away’

Something is definitely airbourne on ‘Fly Away’ and if you really fall into, what’ll be taking flight is your mind and DAMN - It feels good. Although it, too, is rather ‘thin’ sounding, unlike its predecessor, ‘Fly Away’ is not as open to interpretation in my opinion (did you just catch that one???). This one has more of a direct point, as once again we’re traveling and, again, it’s not about the finality of the journey so much as it is enjoying the journey itself. It’s going to the airport and booking a flight - To nowhere in particular. I just like to fly.

16. ‘Carry On [Livication to Dumisani Dlamini]

This song, obviously, stands as a tribute to Dumisani Dlamini who was a South Afrikan film producer who was slain in 2004, but I don’t feel very sad when listening to it. Quite the contrary, ‘Carry On’, being one of the most sonically pleasing tracks on ”Ten Strings” makes me feel VERY good and I think that was by design as well. There’s nothing that inherently says that death must be such a sad time or an angry time or even a mourning time - I think it’s a time to be reflective and just celebrate the goodness of someone and I can do both of those to this tune, not cry. Not even a little.

17. ‘Blessed Feeling’

I didn’t remember ‘Blessed Feeling’ much at all when I began listening through this album for the sake of this feature so when I did get to it, it was almost like the very first time I heard it and coming through sequentially, what it did was to take the vibe of ‘Carry On’ and build on it. This one isn’t so much reflective that it is nearly a joyous type of tune, as the title would suggest. Also, I feel a bit of freedom here as well and I can’t say that I think that was by design, but maybe it was because a blessed feeling for myself would surely involve freedom.

18. ‘Ancient Trees’

Finally we get to ‘Ancient Trees’ which, in Reggae terms, generally indicates the obligatory ganja song, but we can’t actually call anything compulsory in the case of this album. While I don’t get that particular vibes here, it does have a place in what I do get. This is the type of selection where you kick your feet up, maybe grab something cold to drink, maybe grab a beautiful woman and wrap yourself around here and just drift off. It sounds NOTHING like it, but for me it could serve the same purpose as a very well executed Zouk song even a Groovy piece of Soca. It’s time to relax and be thankful for the sake of being thankful.


I’m actually going to give this one a shot (brief as it may be because I did the most of my work in the intro) and try to provide and suggest an overall and prevailing direction in ”Ten Strings”. And I’m not going to be lame and just something like, ‘it’s a celebration of the music’. No. I think it’s a celebration of the mind and of the self.

I look at the cover of the album for my first ‘cue’. I’m not very musically proficient, but I don’t know of a guitar having ten strings (and neither does my good friend, Google), but as Tuff Lion is so nice to point out, there’re ten instruments at work here, the ten fingers of course. Those are the extensions of the mind and the representation of the SELF. And when you then take it to the actual music, those things don’t matter as much anymore. Do you really care HOW this wonderful music was created? I don’t! The fact that it does exist is more than enough for me - And it goes from existing in the mind of Tuff Lion and in the mind’s of Tippy and company at I Grade to existing on an album and then existing in my mind and in your mind and probably changing ALL along the way - Existing as different things to different people. And while you can well say that about just about every album, when you have lyrics and then you have a song title and then you can go to an artist and ask him/her what they mean and solidify that, the mystery of interpretation (even though I will most certainly continue to engage in locating and interpreting that non-existing mystery) is virtually gone. That’s not the case with ”Ten Strings” is it? Even if we asked the Lion about a single song and he gave it a direction, the SOUND is still left to interpretation of whoever is hearing it and to the interpretation of HOW it is being heard. If I’m in a bad mood, I’m likely (to be cheered up after this album) to hear something TOTALLY different here than when I’m feeling good and having a listen.


Then when you get into specifics you see even more of that interpretation of the mind evident. This is Reggae music. This is Roots Reggae music and such vibes are ‘generally’ applied for certain reasons. We all know the more usual subjectry of reggae music and if we were to attempt to try to place this sound in categories such as ‘social commentaries’ and ‘tunes for His Imperial Majesty’ and ‘inspirational songs’, again, we’d probably all arrive at different places for the various tunes, but we all know just how developed that ‘umbrella’ of subjects and of the genre is and how colourful it is as well. This is the type of an album, and not just because it doesn’t have lyrics, but because of that AND how exceptionally strong it is, which is going to force people to think of these things and that is the point.

”Ten Strings” is food for the mind. Delicious food for the mind. It’s meant to open up your mind and do so with a side specifically from Reggae music, but to just in general, open up your mind to the wonders which reside within. It’s also a bona fide Modern Reggae Classic!

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