Monday, May 20, 2013

'High Sight': A review of The Songbird Riddim

Stand up! I speak so often about watching the career of a particular artist or a particular type of artist develop as they reach different stages, but the idea of development in music certainly is not one which is limited to the vocalist. Wonderfully it also extends so much further and today we're going to look at the next step in the growth and evolution of what has to be considered one of the more fruitful labels in recent years. Of course, I'm referring to the biggest Reggae music label from out of the Virgin Islands, the glowing I Grade Records. Even before we get into their music they are so interesting, especially now, because it isn't very difficult at all to trace back their output and, in doing so, you not only see an expected but also an excellent level of progression up to today. You see what, in my opinion as a fan, has become the major point in just why the label has managed to be successful in recent times and have already achieved a nice piece of longevity: You see VISION. In terms of having an 'eye' for good projects - you can go back almost a decade to their ambitious 'Fire-Earth-Wind' promotion which found the label releasing three albums almost simultaneously. That remains a very interesting spot because, eight years on, we find ourselves in 2013 and while not necessarily being 'household names' in the genre, in the first four and a half months of the year, two of the three artists involved in that event, Ras Army and Ancient King, have released brand new albums and are still going very strong (and I'll tell you about the third a little later) and certainly I Grade saw that level of lasting talent in all three at the time, which is why they chose to place them in such a roll (now if they could just SEE Yahadanai back, everything would be nice!). And more recently… why not take a traditional soul singer and let him sing over Reggae tracks and make an album called "Black Gold"? It'll work out. And it did. That was excellent and over the past few years we've seen a tremendous amount of vision and just common sense coming from I Grade Records in terms of what they do and who they do it with. Arguably the largest bit of sagacious sight exhibited by the label has brought us to the latest, very active and very productive, stretch of their existence which now has been around long enough, on its own, that we can chart its own development as well which now reaches a very interesting next step.  
The fantastically inescapable Zion I Kings. Just recently the collective which features I Grade Records as its "I" along with Zion High Productions and Lustre Kings Productions teamed up to give to the world the very solid "Original Yard Food" release from veteran General Jah Mikey from ZHP, which was the newest addition to an ever-increasing and just as ever-impressing catalog (which included three of the best albums of all of last year in my opinion). Along with focusing, sublimely, on the work of artists and artist albums, the ZIK have also made a large impact with compilations - beginning with what may just be the strongest Roots Reggae compilation that I have EVER heard, "Joyful Noise" from 2009 and extending to last year's finest piece of its kind, "Jah Golden Throne". So in a year which promises to be yet another fine one from the group (more on that later) and has just recently gotten off to a big start, the Zion I Kings continue to develop and evolve their line of compilations which is now getting A LOT more interesting courtesy of the Songbird Riddim.  
Zion I Kings
'Why not make a riddim album series'? Someone from the Zion I Kings likely posed that question sometime earlier this year and it now comes to fruition with its initial volume and it is called the… well, it's called the Riddim Series (keeping it simple). Apparently the plan is a good one as while the Songbird comes officially via I Grade Records, vol. 2 of the series, the Jah Warriah Riddim, will come later this year from Zion High Productions (who, before then, will also deliver a new album from Cornell Campbell) and if future installments are as 'high' as the first, then truly big things are on the way. For the Songbird Riddim in particular - when I first heard this track I thought a pair of things. The first was that I thought that I had heard it from somewhere before -- a notion which I'm now fairly sure was inaccurate -- and I also thought of just how CLASSY the track was. That has long been a staple of I Grade's music. There is almost always this very comfortable quality to their work, even when it is somewhat of a deviation from what they generally do (again, you really need to hear the aforementioned "Black Gold" album from Toussaint as a fine example of that) (you also need to hear it because it was amazing) and it comes through absolutely saturated in class and quality - a trait which is especially true, as you might imagine, on a track which stars no less than sixteen times on its own album. For the occasion, the label has also tapped some find musicians as the Songbird Riddim, which is produced by Laurent 'Tippy' Alfred of I Grade Records and Jah David of ZHP, features a fine batch of players of instruments including both Tippy and Jah David, as well as the venerable Bassie Campbell, Craig Taylor, Steve Katz and one towering individual who wraps up the album. Also present is the work of a Balboa Becker (great name!) and a Daniel Casares, both of whom are a part of a band called Celebrity Hornz and are really the stars on the Songbird Riddim because the horn pieces here absolutely GLOW in the midst of all types of other intoxicating sounds. As for the vocal stars shining on the track, once again it speaks to the level of vision with this project as I'll be wholly shocked if any composition in 2013 registers with such a strong lineup of Roots Reggae artists (although if you want to shock me, please do!). And I'll probably be even more surprised if the remaining seven and a half months of the year offer a single riddim album or any type of compilation which ranks higher than this one. Let me tell you about it! 
"Joyful Noise" [2009] & "Jah Golden Throne" [2012]
The attraction to the roster of vocalists on this riddim, personally, isn't one where I'm overwhelmed because there're so many big names. Instead it is one which I find myself looking at, as a fan specifically of the works of the Zion I Kings, and just being so damn happy that they made the first set and enlisted the work of about three-quarters of the names here and the others also prove to turn in fine efforts as well. Few names made me happier to see here than Lutan Fyah's who gets things started on the Songbird Riddim album from I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings with his moving 'She's Got Soul'. As the title would indicate, this tune is one where Lutan Fyah really gives love and honour to the good women of the world for going through the things they go through and doing so while receiving very little credit many times. Historically the Spanish Town chanter has made good songs of a similar kind (such as the LKP produced 'Woman of Principle' and 'She's Like the Rainbow') and it has been an area in which he has excelled. This tune has to rank as one of his finest on the subject as it sets a brilliantly inspirational course for what is to follow. Also what is to follow is a forthcoming ALBUM from Lutan Fyah for the ZIK, which is candy to my ears and it should be great. Also reportedly working on an album for IGR is Pressure Busspipe who comes up and next and brings with him 'The Rain'.

"The rain, is no different from my tears
When I look at what my people bear
I swear, I'll never give up the fight and show no fear
And the sun, is reflecting my heart and soul
And it's burning beyond control
My goal, is to see to it the truth unfold

For every action there's a reaction
Whatever you do comes around in a fraction
Here comes vanity - the biggest distraction -
That takes away the true values of a Black man
What if life was sweeter than a honeycomb?
And we never had to work and bring money home?
The would you know what life is worth?
Would you know how the earth cycle works?

That's why the rain, is no different from my tears
When I look at what my people bear
I swear, I'll never give up the fight and show no fear
And the sun, is reflecting my heart and soul
And it's burning beyond control
My goal, is to see to it the truth unfold

Watch the things that you do
Jah is watching over
You live and you learn - 
As you grow older
It's a heavy load to carry, I need my shoulder
The people are hungry: The message is food
The children grow without the proper lessons in school
Wicked man is living so cruel

The piece is a HUGE commentary on life and one of the best songs on the riddim. Pressure has this captivating way of writing where he can write in a really broad way about specific things (if that makes any sense at all), which leads to these one of a kind moments in his music where you get the feeling that he's talking about a certain thing, but still it is an entirely relatable and accessible point. 'The Rain' is a song which captures that perfectly and it is not to be missed. How nice is it that so soon we get to hear a new tune from the genius that is Ras Batch, following a 2012 where we saw him release the second best album of the year in my opinion (and do it on the thirty-first anniversary of my birth), "Know Thyself". Batch never seems to be the most active of names which makes his output even more anticipated for me and his cut of the Songbird, 'So Beautiful' does not disappoint at all and lives up to his great standards as he finds beauty in so many different aspects of life (and non-life) throughout the world. The tune has a fascinating quality to it as I've found that every time I've listened to it, it's gotten just a bit better to my ears, so definitely give a little time to grow on you because it will. 
Recent works from some of the artists appearing on the Songbird Riddim
As I alluded to, one of the best things about seeing who appeared on the Songbird was just how familiar some of them were to the work of I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings. Some of those names, including some I've already mentioned obviously, head to the heights of material on the track. Check Glen Washington who also gave us a "Masterpiece" from ZHP just last year and is now back with back with a fitting selection, 'Bumpy Ride'. You know what Washington does, he makes syrupy sweet and golden brown love songs and this is one of them of the highest caliber! 'Bumpy Ride' is outstanding and again I'll tell you to give it a bit of time because it also is a piece which has grown and grown on my tastes as I've gone back more times to hear it. The afore-alluded to NiyoRah (I think he was 'Earth'), who has quietly been having an outstanding 2013 (and is on DJ Frass' new track, the Diamonds & Gold Riddim), returns to I Grade with his striking social commentary 'War Is Not the Answer'. I wasn't completely caught unexpected by it, but it is a nice touch that the well versatile Niyo brings so much passion and BITE to the Songbird and wastes no time in doing it on the dazzlingly heated first verse of the song. 

"We got the victory torch
Upon it the fyah ah scorch
Mi hotta mentality dropping insanity upon di government porch
How come you neva abort
Di shipping of guns in di port?
And making economy pushing di sodomy up in di jail and di court
Manufacturing arms, to market the killing of man
Dem seh 'be all you can be' in di military physiological plan
But when back up a dog -
Inna corner di dog will bite
An infection induced by power-abuse bring truth to light"

BOOM! Chanter Jahdan Blakkamoore who (needs to make a new album and needs to do it on LKP) has been very visible recently is also here with a nice tune, 'Best In Life'. Perhaps a bit more laidback than I was anticipating, we still find Blakkamoore demonstrating his finest quality to the masses - he is and has been for some time now, lyrically dominant and though it may not stand out as far as several other of the more immediately sonically pleasing songs on the Songbird, 'Best In Life' lays a mighty claim to being one of its strongest written compositions altogether. Speaking of those with heavy-handed penmanship we also have the heaviest of them all, Vaughn Benjamin on 'A New Overstanding'. If I recall correctly, Benjamin and Midnite are also set to do another new album for I Grade soon, making it their first one from the MASSIVE "Kings Bell". Until then check (one of their other eight-hundred albums) Benjamin's fine tune on the Songbird, 'A New Overstanding'. As someone now well into Midnite's music (and as someone who has to write a Midnite review, "Be Strong", right after I finish this one), this tune was very welcomed and I don't even need to tell you that I'm looking forward to a new album from Midnite and I Grade, whenever it may arrive. There's also Duane Stephenson who checks in with the gorgeous praising piece, 'Call On JAH Name'. Stephenson appeared on the "Joyful Noise" album where he had a highlighting tune ["Baby I'm sitting in the corner but I'm fine!"] and he does it again here and… I know VP Records does his albums, but one for IGR and ZIK, someday, would be magnificent. Stephenson will likely never get enough credit for it, but his voice has to be one of the best in the genre and he conveys EMOTION nearly without equal when he sings. I was also very pleased to see veteran Junior P back on a I Grade release (he was also on "Joyful Noise, with 'The Reason' which , unfortunately, may've been the last new song I heard from Junior P) and he does just fine with his big social commentary, 'Times Ah Get Hard'. And if you really pay a good attention, then the solid 'Holding Onto Freedom' won't be your introduction to the talented Dushane. Meanwhile, you could have been born and grown beneath the proverbial rock and still know the "towering" artist who closes out the Songbird Riddim, Tuff Lion. I would have complained loudly if I Grade didn't include a clean version of the riddim, so I'll be their biggest of cheerleaders because they take an instrumental to the next level and beyond by placing it in the legendary paws of the lion who gives us the MASSIVE 'Birds of Praise'. A full instrumental experience with one of the greatest on the guitar that the genre has ever heard and HOPEFULLY Tuff Lion is someone else who receives the ZIK treatment at some point in the future (I'll even name the album for you! Call it "Ten More Strings!). HOWEVER [!] with all of that being said and with more to be said still, taking top honours on the Songbird Riddim to my ears is someone else very familiar to I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings, Danny I, who tells us that 'I Know'. I knew that I was about to hear a classic when I heard the opening lines of the song:

"When I hear the songbirds I think of you"

And Danny I goes on to put on a master class of a praising song with this completely unforgettable selection.

"When I hear the songbirds I think of you
When I see the flowers filled with dew
When I see the rain clouds on the hills
I know my Father wills
When I know my prayers are overdue
I can see your image on the moon
When I know your trust I have misused
I still feel my vows being renewed

And I know!
I never ever walk alone!
In Your presence Rasta build his home!
And mi know from mi little and mi grow!"

TEARS! DAMN! BOOM! A couple of years back, the singer turned in his latest set, the beautiful "To Your Majesty" (which featured the aforementioned Dushane) (like I said, you'd know him if you were really paying attention), and as far as I know he has either already or will shortly deliver his next album, his first Spanish release - whatever he does is worth your time. This is one of the best tunes that I've ever heard from him and that's saying a great deal (particularly considering that Danny I was behind one of the best songs I've ever heard from anyone, 'Lion As A Ruler') and it is also saying a bit that I do not hear its equal on this album. The song, like a few others here, is really about appreciating beauty and positivity wherever you may find it - no matter how big or small. 'I Know' is HUGE!
Jah9 & Reemah
As for the remaining quartet of tunes, IGR and ZIK continues to turn in something spectacular in terms of who they got to voice the Songbird. While I do know of Misael, his music isn't something with which I am terribly familiar, but after his strong effort here, 'The Power of Love',  perhaps it's time that I got around to doing something about that because it is splendid. There's also Shay with 'Don't Let Go'. I was confident that I had no idea who Shay was until a bit of research showed that this was the same easy-on-the-eyes Shay who had a popular sweet piece of tune from last year by the name of 'Back In The Groove'. While Shay may very well need to consider a bit more unique name, her music is already at a very high level and I'm expecting big things in the future from her and her crystal clear vocals (that woman could sing an insomniac pure into a coma because her voice is so damn soothing). And Shay is not the sole female vocalist appearing on the Songbird Riddim as she is joined by a glowing pair of lyricists who offer some of their own magic to the track (as if it needed it) (it didn't). Reemah (new album, "Check Your Words", in stores now) steps forth so soon with another gem of a tune in 'JAH Preserve'

"Since they've lost their way inna di trenches
How they quickly run to babylon's defense
Seems like a overnight dem lost dem senses
How it no matta that dem willingly be sheep inna pen
Well I have never fought their praises, no-no
I don't want none a dem accolades then, don't want none a dem change me
Cause, til dem get caught up inna babylon slavery -
Surrender to the beast whoa

Jah Jah preserve!
Jah Jah preserve!
Preserve I and I to stand
When they get inna strange land
Dem steady inna plain-sight illusion

Dem neva walk inna dem favour
Lost inna dem ignorance and nah go si di danger
How they blindly go and now give in to all dem wager
Tell you it's a hard sight to -
To si how they behave
Seh dem neva satisfy and it's so strange

Reemah just rips right into every song. Hold on: 

"Go down - go down
Go down - go down
Wi no waan no more corruption deh around now
And a more time dem illusions haffi drown out
Come mek wi find love and then mek wi surround now
Well inna di struggle lion haffi mek a loud sound
No time to sleep, yow a time to wear yuh crown
Well I seh raise up and then stand up your ground
No trepidation, now walk and tell di town
Si dem ah look, ah look already fi go bow down
Well I seh no surrender - a Zion bound!
I seh di righteous ahgo rebound
And watch how babylon ah frown!"

Something like that and I continued to be amazed and impressed each time I hear from her. And lastly who else do we have? The best album I've heard this year remains "New Name" from the same Jah9 who gives the Songbird riddim one of its biggest moments, 'Tension'

"There is tension building inside I 
And I'm trusting I spirit to guide I
Even if no one else overstands -
I have got to do what it demands
I eyes and ears might deceive I
Friends and family might leave I
But is a righteous tension ah brew
So I must prepare for what I might have to do 

I don't have a problem in the world
Solution oriented, simple island girl
Passionate, compassionate, with patience as a science 
And also love and unity promoting self-reliance
Balancing I emotion, tempering I temperament 
Maintaining I composure and learning when to vent
But as injustice grips the masses more and more
The pressure makes them numb, but instead makes me sure -

That there is tension building inside I 
And I'm trusting I spirit to guide I
Even if no one else overstands
I have got to do what it demands
I eyes and ears might deceive I
Friends and family might leave I
But is a righteous tension ah brew
So I must prepare for what I might have to do

Misleaders use semantics to manipulate us
Meaning less promises to keep us inna state of -
Catatonic apprehension, empty hands up to di sky
The art of misdirection is to disguise the lie
Telling us decisions made are for our good
By those who we elect -
When in actuality they merely reflect -
An ulterior agenda to profiting their terms
So dem corrupt system get burn"

That's why there's tension building inside I 
And I'm trusting I spirit to guide I
Even if no one else overstands
I have got to do what it demands
I eyes and ears might deceive I
Friends and family might leave I
But is a righteous tension ah brew
So I must prepare for what I might have to do
But I'm never gonna give Jah up
No matter what

Imagine di morning you awake to find the soldiers on your street
Tanks on every boulevard, police on every beat
Choppers hovering but a stillness in the air
How will you be feeling?
Relieved or filled with fear?
Then the radio announces that the leader's gonna speak 
Adrenaline explodes as your attention speaks
He says, 'you may already notice the plans for your protection
Put in place to neutralize potential insurrection
But have no fear, the force is here, with teargas, bombs and guns
So no undesirables will compromise the flow of funds
Tell me where will you be standing?
What will you plan to do?…
Which side of the law are you?
Are you with the masses or are you the protected one?
Tell me which side of the law holds your place
Do they defend you or can they stick that gun in your face?
Tell me where does your allegiance lie
Is it clear where your conscience will reside

Jah9 is special and this is a special song which, along with everything else she's done just makes you think about how lucky we are that we're going to get to listen to someone like her for the next few decades! Clearly the label was as impressed by her skills as much as the rest of us and wanted to make Jah9 a part of the project and out of all the wise decision-making that went on in regards to this project, that had to be one of the most prudent.
Overall, this is the best riddim album that I've heard in a loooooooong time and, as I said, it becomes the immediate favourite for being the best type of any compilation this year. The Songbird Riddim has a very unique quality to it which really promotes strong efforts and so many times you'll hear a big riddim backing rubbish, but this is one which manages to bring out the best in just about everyone who touches it. Looking backwards, it stands in a fine way when compared to its predecessors in "Joyful Noise" and "Jah Golden Throne". This total idea, of the Zion I Kings making a riddim series is just a solid one and hopefully they run it a few times a year, in between artist albums, and people like You and I will benefit greatly from such refined work. The ZIK and I Grade Records continue their winning ways with the Songbird Riddim and based on what they've done in recent times - you knew they would. A giant bar of gold disguised as an album. 

Rated: 4.90/5
I Grade Records
CD + Digital

Review #440

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