Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'Ever Present, Ever Faithful': A Review of "The Fittest" by Earl Sixteen

Where do we go from here? The career trajectory for an elder Reggae artist can be quite puzzling, even for some of the genre’s biggest and most legendary of names. With very few exceptions, as I’ve spoken on in the past, what we see is a great deal of shifting, from various places around the world, and really that brings quite a bit of uncertainty as well which, for someone who has literally made it their life’s work to uplift the masses via this powerful music, is just really fucked up in my opinion. However, it definitely has it’s good points as well. What I’ve been thinking of as of late has been the notion of the lengthening of some of these outstanding careers and even though it may exist in a different physical place, for the most part, it’s still going and not only just going, but continuing to do so with the fine, uplifting standards and CLASS that perhaps a particular artist has made his/her name on (which is especially applicable in today’s instance). Of course, what this means is that not only do we have a particular name who can potentially survive and thrive in an era which is not their own, but also spread messages and ideologies from an older era and do so with a most modern of twists to fans who, thusly, become fans of multiple eras by listening to a single vocalist - To someone like me, who thinks entirely too much about almost everything - That’s absolutely amazing. Last year such an opportunity was given and taken when the esteemed Apple Gabriel of the legendary Israel Vibration group released his very first album in more than a decade, ”Teach Them Right” for a European outfit, the flaming label pair which is JahSolidRock and Not Easy At All Productions, from out of The Netherlands. Say what you will of the results (although they were widely positive, including from yours truly), what that album did was to return Apple Gabriel’s name into Reggae circulation. Prior to that any news you received on the man was that he was suffering from poverty and poor health - suddenly the discussion on Gabriel was, as it should be, about his music and people who weren’t listening to Reggae music ten years previously were suddenly given a wonderful introduction to the performer and his music. Also, it should be said that the album, to my noticing, had become one of the more talked-about in the final quarter of the year as Apple’s older fans also were quite passionate for it and justly so. Well, it certainly hasn’t been a decade from the last time we heard from one Mr. Earl Sixteen (who may just have one of the best names in the history of . . . Music altogether) (anytime you can work in a number in a name, seamlessly, you‘re doing something special), but if you just haven’t been paying a good attention to one of the CLASSIEST singers in the business, he’s about to give you an excellent reason to do just that, through a very familiar source.

Earl Sixteen

Earl Sixteen’s history in Reggae goes back to nearly an astonishing forty year, which is . . . stunning, but in that time he’s managed to acquire a very unique standing within the music to my observation. You’ll find nary a singer in Reggae, with the exception of the absolute top legends in the business - people with names such as Marley, Rodney, Tosh, Hill etc. - who have as fervent of a fan base as Earl Sixteen. I know more than a couple of people whose opinions on the matter I respect, who’ll very flatly tell you that the Kingston native is THE most talented vocalist the entire genre has EVER produced. And while he certainly hasn’t been as active as you would like to see him over the past few years, whenever he does something it is respected and almost always class output. He’s not about to start making exceptions now, obviously, which means that the next thing he does, whatever it is, is likely to be a big release.

Meet a “big release“. Earl Sixteen has now linked up with the aforementioned Not Easy At All & JahSolidRock unit of labels to serve up his new album which, although not a long time coming (in terms of promotion), has quickly generated a very nice buzz online, ”The Fittest”. A very fitting name for an album from someone with as much longevity as the singer born Earl Daley, the album, like Apple Gabriel’s Teach Them Right set, as well as Chezidek’s MASSIVE ”Judgement Time” before it, makes an excellent usage of the label’s old school stylings which are, sonically, some of the greatest productions around these days to be found on intentionally constructed albums. Their music SOUNDS superb, you can have an opinion on the songs and the lyrics . . . , but the two labels always bring forth projects which have glowing compositions and to date, unless you know something that I don’t, they’ve only pushed winners. ”The Fittest”, from its creator and even its title, just has an old school feel surrounding it and it is on that basis that you have to presume, even going in, that the two labels were sure to put Sixteen in his ‘proper’ element as a vocalist and as it begins to unfold what you see occurring, as I mentioned, is him salting in messages from his day which, although not necessarily prevalent in 2011, are, in many cases, just as germane and sensible. We should also mention that, much like the music with which he found himself dealing with on this album, Earl Sixteen sounds amazing as he always does and his voice sounds only a shade or two away from perfect over some of these tracks. So, with all of that being said and many saying much more, the only question remaining is whether or not ”The Fittest” is as ‘toned’ as you may’ve thought it was. Definitely.

Besides being known for their top notch audio ability, JahSolidRock & Not Easy At All have also made a name for themselves, over the course of the now trio of albums of incorporating versions right in the middle of the album (which is a trend we well hope catches on to other outfits) and here, they’ve managed to outdo themselves. Each and every tune on this album is chased immediately by a clean version of the track (making ten vocals into a twenty tracked album) and when you make music as fine as is heard here, you REALLY open an album up and do so in a GREAT way. I’m going to have a very difficult time hearing a case how fans of Roots Reggae, from any era, aren’t going to be able to enjoy SOMETHING from it, even they aren’t necessarily Earl Sixteen fans. Fortunately, for you and I, that isn’t a problem and we’re well looking forward to diving into ”The Fittest”, which gets started with one of its clear highlights, ‘Masterplan’. BOOM!

“Why are we always fighting brothers?
We’re killing and maiming one another
Some say, that we can’t do no better
I heard some say, we’ll never live as one
But soon, the nights are days
Bright and shining sunrays -
Jah’s got the master plan”

This song nearly brought a tear to my eyes (it’ll probably get me some day soon), because it is SO finely well put together and makes a mighty showcase of Sixteen’s STERLING vocals. It is, essentially, a social commentary, but one with very much of a spiritual foundation and just a big big track. Next is ‘Rise Up’, which is a song specifically meant for the youths of the world to step forward and take their rightful place as the leaders of the world. This one, like another which comes later on, is very much a tune with old school sensibilities. You’ll very much hear songs like this from artists of today’s era, but it’s much more ‘involved’ usually - You’re far more likely to hear words like ‘we’ and ‘us’ - Sixteen’s song, on the other hand, very much comes from an unusual prospective, one which isn’t entirely detached, but one which is very much of an observing and more mentor-ish role. Very interesting tune there. ‘Modern Slavery’ is another effort where you literally have to take a second to take in the sound of the tune before you even dive into on a lyrical level, because it ‘simply’ sounds so nice to the ears (as opposed to sounding nice to the elbows, I suppose). When you eventually do get into the message of the song, I found it to be somewhat of a mix between the two tunes which precede actually. As the most ‘rigid’ of the three (which is just odd to say actually), the song very much is looking for a “solution” (or a ‘master plan’) and it’s also looking to the future and to the youths as well. ALSO, it just so happens to feature one of the most powerful statements made on the whole of “The Fittest” when Sixteen says, “There are more slaves today than were there four centuries away”. That’s something which TOTALLY gets the point across on this tune and where he hopes to have it register, which is on powerful, powerful levels.

'This Yah Business'

I alluded to the cool ‘This Yah Business’ just a moment ago as this one, also, is one which you’re far more likely to take in from an elder artist (and I hate to try to paint Earl Sixteen as being exactly ANCIENT, because he’s a few years younger than my own parents, apparently) (biggup my Mother & my Father) - Where the singer is giving his opinion on the state of Reggae music today and the business side of things. Being the most ardent of supporters of the modern school of the music, obviously I was prepared to dislike this song . . . But I didn’t. He doesn’t say anything which is incorrect actually and he doesn’t say anything which is 100% condemning. Also, somewhere in my mind I’m of the impression that Sixteen would make a tune like this because he does actually see promise and potential and although he doesn’t directly go into it, I’d like to think that he wouldn’t make such a song if he thought it a completely lost cause and purpose. Someone who would likely agree with Sixteen in that notion is the legendary Dennis Brown whose tune, ‘Changing Times’ he updates on the lovely One Blood Riddim. An interesting thing here: He never actually specifies what the “change” which “has come” is, which ultimately leaves it to the interpretation of the listener (and of course I have no problem with that!). This strikes me as tune which Sixteen has loved for quite some time and always wanted to sing and he more than does it a justice with his update. The same could be said ‘Big Car’, which is a remake of a classic R&B song from singer William DeVaughn. What can I say about this one??? I hate that song. I’m sorry (I’m not). I just do. I never liked it and I imagine that ANYTHING you could do with it sort of changing the lyrics and the melody and adding . . . Oh, I don’t know, maybe a Jab Jab Riddim or something like such to it, I probably wouldn’t like that either. HOWEVER, for a song which I do not like I can appreciate certain aspects of it (unsurprisingly, it sounds divine) and, as I’ll tell you shortly, it isn’t a total lost.

A big WIN for Earl Sixteen and ”The Fittest” is ‘Sinner Man’. This song is another social commentary, but a very INTELLIGENT one and I feel compelled to mention that it seems that the vocalist ever so slightly turns up the intensity and urgency in his voice just a bit, which adds so much to this song, to my opinion. The romantic ‘Stay Together’ caught my attention for another reason. This song apparently utilizes a version of what is, to me at least, one of the most underrated riddims from the turn of the century, the GORGEOUS Senior Riddim from Al.Ta.Fa.An. Sixteen impresses greatly on the track with just a cool and easy vibes which is just candy to the ears. Later, we get another taste over another big riddim (the same one which backs Chezidek’s MAMMOTH herbalist tune ‘Ganja Tree’ from the ”Judgement Time”) (“chalice haffi light before the news read”), ‘The Key’, which is a tune praising Reggae music, itself. You can never go wrong with those types of tracks, particular in the hands of someone who not only espouses on the magic of the music but, in doing so, provides an excellent example of such.

'Fittest of The Fittest'

Lastly (not really), is essentially the title track and single favourite piece on the entire album, ‘Fittest of The Fittest’.

“We need to find another prophet”

That opening line from the tune has, for me, become a bit of a modern classic and it just opens up all types of feelings and joy in listening to it (it makes me smile). This may be the only tune with which I was familiar before the album actually reached, because it was also present on the excellent ”Cultural Vibes” compilation from late 2010 and it was a fine piece of work then. A few months on and it’s even better and the tops of the album named for it as Earl Sixteen continues to impress with the most ambitious of HALTING tunes.

And then there’re the versions. As I alluded to, the piece for ‘Big Car’ wasn’t completely downhill for me and that’s largely due to the fact that its version ranks amongst the very best on the album. While it does take awhile to get settled, when this one is sans vocals, it is lovely. The biggest highlight on the musical side, however, is sure to be the version for ‘This Yah Business’ which actually includes the legendary U-Roy (whose voice is the first you hear on the original tune, actually, before he vanishes). Dubbed the ‘12 Inch Rockers Version’, this one is an utter JOY to spin through as U-Roy does what he does and, even further, livens and spices up an already glowing composition, by calling down legends such as The Maytones, Burning Spear, the Congos and others. I also thoroughly enjoyed the versions of the title track, ‘Master plan’ (BOOM again!) and another which I was very much looking forward to hearing, ‘Stay Together’. I do so love that riddim and part of the benefit of it appearing here is that I don’t think I’ve ever heard it dubbed out in anyway and, as usual it is done so well. All of the instrumentals are so nice and I do definitely hope they continue to place them on the albums (and I’m sure that they will).

Overall, it’s another winner from Earl Sixteen and it’s another winner from JahSolidRock & Not Easy At All Productions. Apparently next from that camp is an album from Lloyd De Meza who you may know from having done work with Benaïssa and frequently appearing on sets from the labels, in general and I’m expecting more big things in that case as well and probably a lot more uptempo as well. Here, however, ”The Fittest” is SATURATED in class and is everything you’d expect from a GOOD album from Earl Sixteen at this still very potent stage of his career. Also, going back to the premise of this review, the two previous albums from these two labels both did very well in terms of grabbing the attentions of the masses - they were promoted very well, particularly in the online community and I would imagine that this album is also going to do so and have a great opportunity to not only bring new fans to this wonderful singer, but to bring a new ERA of fans as well, giving his career (and maybe ALL of it, because if this is the very first time you’re hearing Earl Sixteen’s music, you’re likely to go back into his vast catalog as well) another light. Very well done.

Rated: 4/5
JahSolidRock/Not Easy At All Productions
CD [I THINK] + Digital

Earl 16
Earl 16 @ Myspace

No comments:

Post a Comment