Sunday, June 24, 2012

'So Royal': A review of "Mecoustic" by Tarrus Riley

Quality in abundance. We talk a lot about the subject of artist development, progression and a general career trajectory because it's truly one of the most interesting aspects of being a fan of music. To watch someone  go from originally defining their sound, to having a big tune and eventually ending up here with a big picture and a billion words describing their album - it's probably one of the greatest, yet most common, journeys music can take you on. Somewhere in there is also another factor with which we tend to discuss to a large degree and that is how one manages to distinguish themselves from the pack of artists in their particular genre. Just recently we dealt with Perfect Giddimani who is someone we watched and heard go through this same process in the past few years before wonderfully coming in with this style which is so very much his own. Beyond that still (going DEEP today to make this point) is the examination of another quality which Perfect has enjoyed and that's STAR quality. There's something which, in my opinion, differentiates even the GREAT even from the VERY GOOD and that's a quality which comes through in someone's music and literally guides it into the minds of the listener. Call it 'CLASS', which is a term I've used for it in the past. Call it 'PRESENCE'. Call it whatever you like, when certain artists play a tune, it's clear to even the most unseasoned of listeners that whatever the mythical "it" is - THIS person has IT in excess. An example??? Of course you should look at someone like Tarrus Riley who has not only been on the proverbial top of his game, but has been on the top of ANYONE'S in Roots Reggae for the past few years. At the heart of his success has been . . . The fact that he makes wonderful music (just a guess!). And his style is one which is far from the grimy edginess of people like Sizzla, Capleton, Anthony B and others - an older class of heads of the subgenre - Tarrus Riley is a powerhouse of REFINED excellence. At its best, his music, each and every tune, sounds like it was painstakingly crafted by some master orchestral maestro to perfection before being given to the masses. And when you have all of that going for you, when you literally CANNOT take an upward step, because no such direction exists for you, sometimes it can be nice to go in a different direction. 

Such a shift would only occur after what has already been such a STELLAR career. Three full albums and countless big singles in and Tarrus Riley is simply playing a much different game than almost any of his peers. Of course, with such (warranted) acclaim (which has been nearly universal in Riley's case), expectations run high as well and I don't think that I would be incorrect in assuming that the major expectation in 2012 for the vocalist was to do yet another big album. Following "Challenges", "Parables" and his most recent record (and finest to my ears), "Contagious", you would also think Riley capable, at this stage, in pushing a project which has a TIMELESS quality to it. Well maybe he has done that. But he didn't do it in the way we were expecting.  

"Challenges" [2004/2008], "Parables" [2006] & "Contagious" [2009]
 You'd anticipate something in the way of the last album - a STERLINGLY high-powered piece of modern Roots Reggae mastery - but that's not what "Mecoustic" is. Billed as his most personal project to date, this album, as its most wonderful title would suggest, is one featuring songs stripped down and done acoustically. The obvious comparison to be made here goes back a few years to when Stephen Marley followed up his 2007 album, "Mind Control" a couple of years on with an acoustic version of the release (subsequently, effectively, earning himself two Reggae Grammy Awards with the same damn album) (biggup the Grammy's) (not really), but this one is something even more different than THAT. What happened with "Mecoustic" involves Riley and his legendary producer, Dean Fraser, working on an album which would not only include hits given back to the masses in a sublime new method, but new tunes as well. NEW TARRUS RILEY music is a big deal, in any case, and doing that for an album of this variety is really a fantastic addition. Furthermore, more surprises abound when you consider that previously Riley's trio of albums, in one way or another, arrived via VP Records (with the previously all but invisible "Challenges", his actual debut, being re-released by the label after "Parables" caught fire), who're nowhere to be found on this project. "Mecoustic" comes via Soulbeats Records from out of France (although there're about one-thousand label logos on the back of this album). It's pretty hard to imagine VP turning down such an idea, but the fact that it is where it is (and that Riley hasn't had a piece on the label in nearly three years), at least for a moment, gave me some hope that . . . Someway we might get to do this twice in 2012. I'm fairly sure that's not going  to happen, but after sifting through this album, there's probably enough here to keep me happy for another three years (only if I had to wait though), because, as expected, "Mecoustic" is STUNNING! In one of the press pieces I read for the album, Fraser mentioned that one of the driving forces behind doing the album (which he said took an entire year to complete) was to, essentially, give more casual fans the opportunity to REALLY grasp the messages in some of the songs outside of a more stereotypically Reggae approach and sound, by streamlining the sound. But for you people like You and I, it also allows for a captivating quick trip back to some true modern classics and a very different display of one of the genre's bonafide modern greats.  

I wonder if it says more about "Mecoustic" or just "Me" (did you catch that?) when I tell you that I listened to the lion's share of this record with tears STREAMING down the my face. Certain album's, and just tunes in general, really just get me like that at times (biggup Stevy Mahy) for some reason and this is definitely the latest of those . The tap behind my face gets started along with the album on the stirring opener, 'Larger Than Life', from the "Challenges" album (where it was also the opener). This song has always been all kinds of interesting and the biggest reason isn't even the actual SOUND of the tune - actually it's probably one of the least sonically impressive tunes in that area, but it is spectacular! The message here is a story of a man whose head has gotten far too big. What I got here is no matter how big you think you are or how big you may actually be, your knowledge, your power and your ability is still NOTHING when compared to that of The Almighty. Riley is saying to BE HUMBLE and he uses one amazing way to get the story across. Next in is a definite highlight as Tarrus Riley links with his father, Jimmy Riley, on the tear inducing 'Black Mother Pray'. The tune is somewhat of a SAD one (it's been awhile from last I've said that about a song), but it well picks up throughout, still remaining quite said, arguably, but having this golden larger appeal to it simultaneously. There is a spectre of hope behind the vibes, so it isn't full on depressing, but again, this song is really nice. 

And then there's the BOOM.

“Now I
Never been someone shy
Until I seen your eyes
Still I had to try”

Those are the opening line of the now DEVASTATING 'She's Royal' which absolutely rules this album to my ears. As I was trying to make the point of the artist in question here having some type of grand quality which sets him apart from just about anyone, this song has it too (it may even have more than Riley does!). This version has a sound of something important about it and it is. It's probably the greatest musical celebration of womankind that exists in any genre of music and in this version it sounds more special. 

I was really interested to see just which tunes "Mecoustic" chose. While the presence of some were totally predictable (like 'She's Royal' and the next one I'm going to tell you about), that of a couple of the others were surprising and, ultimately, some work here which you may not have imagined would or at least not this well. Personally, I immediately gravitated towards a tune which comes with a slight twist, 'Marcus Garvey'. I was sure that this was actually 'Love Created I', which is one of my two favourite Tarrus Riley song's ever (the other being 'King Selassie H.I.M.') (if THAT song were on this album, I would've had some serious problems). Here, despite some lyrical differentiations (which aren't entirely unexpected), it's still an amazingly beautiful song.  Not far behind is another slightly changed tune in 'Eye Sight' which was originally 'I Sight' from "Contagious". This version really made me re-appreciate just how much I loved the initial set (after going back and listening to it several dozens of times, of course), but it just may be better than the original. This track is THUNDEROUS! It's almost overwhelming at times and I'm not complaining - that Riley almost seems to be throwing this song at the listener. 'System Set' also comes with a bit of thunder of its own in the form of extremely gifted Dub poet, Cherry Natural (biggup D'bi Young). It's been awhile from the last time I've listened to any version of this one and it really, once again, reminds you of just how much you used to enjoy and look forward to enjoying it in the future. Check 'One Two Order' which I was really anticipating hearing - to see if they could possibly recapture what has to be one of the most LIVELY Roots sets that you're going to hear in the modern era. They did! "They did" an even more impressive job on the GORGEOUS 'Africa Awaits' which is a real highlight here (and anywhere else you may find it). This track just has so many different facets to it that it becomes such a VAST experience of a song and you have to take notice. The chorus on it, when it reaches its peak, cannot possibly be missed. And there's also a rendition of 'Other Half'. This is probably my least favourite selection on "Mecoustic", but I wasn't terribly fond of the original either. Still, I will say that this is the better of the two, to my opinion. And you should also recognize 'Pick Up The Pieces' and . . . Okay I'm tired of saying "beautiful tune" or something like that so . . . Yeah. Another one. 

'If It's Jah Will'

Still, the most expected move here has to be 'If It's Jah Will' which seems to be a more enthused version of the original on"Challenges", but that's it. The first form was also acoustic and it develops into a standout here, so much so in fact, that I believe it was the first official single for this album. It's another flawless moment on an album which really doesn't need any help in that spectrum. It gets even more of an arsenal in the wicked 'Devil's Appetite'.

“Devil’s appetite - open wider
Belly of the beast - getting larger 
So many things to distract you from Jah
How many souls yeah, will fall short?
Shots all around, hope you know that my friend
And in HIM, you can depend

Devil’s appetite - open wider
And the belly of the beast is getting larger
Don’t be careless now, he’ll devour you
And chances are, you won’t recover”

Riley wages his own personal holy war against evil and attempts to sway those who are lead to nastiness. There's a whole heap of attractive things here and the biggest is probably the pacing of the song. It's subtly very upful to my ears, but in a way which 'persuades' the audience to listen more intently - something which is EXTREMELY rare. I saw 'Paradise', but it wasn't what I though it was going to be, but it is still a nice tune. This is a changeup because it really is not an acoustic offering. There're horns and big drums and a group of backing singers and every thing, so it stands out. I don't find myself, however, complaining that Riley broke form in including it. And finally, after a spiritual 'break' of sorts (where we get the DRUMS!), the . . . beautiful 'Whispers' wraps up "Mecoustic". If you track down the first vibe of this tune, you'll quickly notice how powerful that song is and here, once again, we have a step up from even that level. At its core, it is a social commentary, which 'unveils' itself as we go along and it is one MIGHTY way to end an album!

Tarrus Riley
Overall, the first thing on my mind right now in regards to this album is just how OBVIOUSLY important it was to Tarrus Riley to do (and Dean Fraser). We look at things in terms of being in the moment, and we'll also do that here, but in doing that you can't ignore what's behind it. He's been working on this album, indirectly, for his entire career - with all of the older material on it and I look at "Mecoustic" as not being a LANDMARK for him, but definitely a 'checkpoint' of a kind. Next, what can we start to expect from Riley in the future? One can only assume that at some point we'll get the inevitable Greatest Hits release, but until then, can we maybe have a live album? Is this album he sign of a grander deviation from the norm for the singer? Or maybe he'll just give us another studio album. Also on my mind is just how much this sound opens up a few of these tunes, especially the opener, and it may prove to give some of them a second wind. Regardless of all of that, however, what we have in "Mecoustic" is an absolutely dazzling release from an artist in Tarrus Riley who has shown himself to have a little something extra and at this point, whatever he does is almost guaranteed to be amazing. Now excuse me as I wipe my face. Superb. 

Rated: 4.85/5
Soulbeats Records
CD + Digital
{Note: Releases worldwide on June 26}

Review #370


  1. I'm so happy; thanks Tarrus & Achis for shedding more light today.

  2. this is an excellent album to relax to