Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Vault Reviews: "For All" by Midnite

Differentology. Even if you're doing something that you really love, if you do it often enough and consistently enough, eventually you'll want to change up something in terms of how you do it. Of course, this can apply to just about anything and any profession, but when you place it in the context of music, what you do go about changing will often stand out and stand out vividly. In Reggae music, where the focus isn't always about recording for or leading to an album and, instead, we're treated to this constant stream of singles from our artists, this can be just a song or two, but even then people take a notice. People like Sizzla Kalonji, Norris Man and, most recently, Natural Black are fine examples of this, but when it does happen on an album - it gets even more glaring, arguably. When someone does an album which stretches the boundaries what it is they typically do, at least in Reggae music, it doesn't seem to work out very well at all. There is the most 'ordinary' (at least now it is) attempt at a mainstream crossover which almost always alienates a certain group of fans. Most recently Jah Cure showed us this by finally delivering on his much anticipated and even more delayed "World Cry" record. When we did get it to what was most immediately apparent was that this potentially great Reggae album we were waiting for, for two years, was neither great nor Reggae. You'll find similar albums in the holsters of stars like Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and others and it just typically never works out right for someone (again, usually Reggae fans). And then there're the other occasions where a producer, or even the artist themselves, just either has an inherently different sound or makes one for the moment. Two good recent examples of this were "African Be Proud" and "Keep Ya Head Up" by Lutan Fyah and Jah Mason, respectively, both for Rastar Records. They were heavily Hip-Hop inspired albums and, all of these years later, remain one of a kind in each artist's catalog. And the aforementioned Sizzla has also shown a proclivity for doing such things, most memorably perhaps in the hands of Don Corleon for "Soul Deep" and "Rise To The Occasion" and most forgettably on the ghoulish "Addicted" album. Now who else do we know of that has four-hundred albums and maybe could have slipped a changeup in their somewhere as well? Yes, it's even happened with Vaughn Benjamin & Midnite who, by some, will be regarded as the 'something different' of the entire genre, but even when doing the type of work that 'they' do, you can still manage to do something which will innately set itself apart from everything else you've ever done.  
Vaughn Benjamin
So how do you surprise with such STRANGE expectations? You make a different sound. Benjamin and company have been around for quite some time and throughout their nomadic musical journey they've encountered a variety of maestros and styles and, again, when you have so much work that is to be expected. However, when Midnite does do something which is even outside of their own scale of uniqueness (which is, itself, FAR outside of everyone else's) you know it must be something very different and "very different", at least on the surface is a fine descriptor of the "For All" album.  
Youssoupha Sidibe
While the name Youssoupha Sidibe isn't one which should be overly familiar to Reggae fans, the Senegalese born musician is and was certainly no stranger to the genre at all when, back in 2008, he would produce and then release "For All" for his Sacred Sounds imprint. If I comprehend it correctly (and I usually do not), exactly how this link came to form is a remarkable story as Midnite and Sidibe, performing on the same show were just so impressed with one another that they almost immediately decided to do work together which would subsequently eventuate into the album, "For All". So what exactly is so different about Youssoupha Sidibe (who has a FANTASTIC name)? He specializes in the usage of (isn't it interesting how I can easily type "Youssoupha Sidibe", but have to make three attempts to finally get "of"???) (DAMN!) the West Afrikan stringed instrument, the kora. The sound of that is almost like an ancient Asian type of sound and is very unique and very… stringy. I used to be a big fan of Rokia Traore (new album, "Beautiful Africa", in stores now) (IT IS EXCELLENT, there is a song on that album called 'Kouma' - TEARS!), An amazing singer from out of Mali, and I know that a great deal of her music utilized the instrument as well. Traore's style is anything but the straight-forward chanting style that you hear from Vaughn Benjamin -- she does absolutely everything she can on a track all of the time -- and it sounds different carrying her, at least to my experience, than anyone else that I've listened to. But to my experience, it is a very involved instrument and one which requires a bit more attention paid to it in terms of finding things such as melodies and the likes. Often, again in my little experience with hearing the instrument played, it almost sounds like two or three different sounds playing simultaneously when you mix it into a band (because it is so distinct and doesn't kind of blend in with the other instruments). So, you can imagine just how fascinating of a combination that might be, in my ears, when you have an instrument which requires a bit more of a focus from the listener, playing behind an artist in Vaughn Benjamin who you just have to give as much notice to as you possibly can on a track. His 'instrument' and his 'art' are lyrics and no one plays them even remotely similar to the Cruzan word wizard. So, at least on paper, "For All" became somewhat of a challenging proposition to get into, but that's okay, we'll do it anyway and it actually showed itself to be well worth it. Let's examine. 

Though I wouldn't call it one of Midnite's most well known releases and it never was, even its day, this album has aged quite decently in popularity actually. With Midnite having gone onto to… continue to be Midnite and Youssoupha Sidibe not entirely fading away from the genre either - he has actually done work with I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings in appearing on Toussaint's 2010 masterpiece, "Black Gold". So its background presented a reason to keep up with it as along with its most inherent inimitability. "For All" wastes no time at all and puts some of its finest material at its head as the very first two songs on the album, 'Strong Will' and 'Selassie Bring It On' are amongst its very best. The former definitely has a heavy and mystical quality to it and one which comes pouring through as Benjamin suggests that the best way to go through life is by carrying a strong will and utilizing all of the things given to you in order to maintain it. 'Selassie Bring It', on the other hand, is downright masterful and is within a quartet of songs on "For All" which I feel separate themselves from the largely impressive pack. 

"Even make believe is a manifestation
Accept or runaway dem thing outta di mental pedal
Every sound is put yah to form formation
Bring inspiration
Jah bring more compassion
So much hard speech over criminalizing pattern - over one
Embedding inna sufferation 
Hail Jah Jah - guide up over woman, over man
Sene-Gambia a Gambia and Senegal
Music declaration to the population

This tune is one of a couple on which Sidibe actually joins in on the vocals and it gives it a very fascinating new dimension - one which shines in this case. Finally from the opening batch of songs from "For All" is a song that I don't recall at all by the name of 'Know'. This one has a slight R&B element to it and while I wouldn't at all call it a favourite of mine from the album, or a tune nearly as good as its two predecessors here, I did very much listening to it several times over and hearing it progress more and more. 

Speaking of progressing, throughout "For All" it almost seems like the song arrangement was kind of a real-time situation. It's like they recorded the songs in the same order of how they are numbered on the album because the chemistry, at least in terms of sound, seems to get better throughout (there're some TRULY excellent presentations near the end of this album). Still, to my opinion, the album does pinnacle within its first half, via the MAMMOTH 'Living Drum'. On this track Vaughn Benjamin makes the lasting connection of life and music, with the backbone of the 'song' being the drum and I'm sure you can imagine exactly who he says is the Drummer. BOOM! A very interesting song follows that winning track and it is a song which, perhaps above all here, will require a great deal of attention, 'Lamb That Lion For All'. What I would eventually take from this tune was that it was a composition about unity and, specifically, a sprouting type of unity. He addresses many things that people have in common with one another, both good and bad things ["There's frailty in I-manity. As well secrecy, arrogancy and cruelty"] and how these things are what should be dealt with and not the very few things which actually differentiate us. It is a very compelling song and when you specify that in Midnite's work, you know how much it must be so. With one or two exceptions, "For All" really takes the sonic turn for the best, as I alluded to, which it goes on to maintain. While I may not enjoy 'Babe Suckling' as much as I once did (had I wrote this review maybe some time last year, I would have called it my favourite song on the entire record), you have to admit that it is delightful! I'd be very interesting in hearing a clean version of the riddim behind this one because it's all kinds of colourful and really a fantastic DISPLAY of the music and, as he never does, Vaughn Benjamin does not let it go to waste either. When you contrast that with the sound of the song that 'Babe Suckling' precedes, the medicinally powerful 'Jali', it's very obvious, but I may even make the case that, very subtly, 'Jali' is just as sonically charming as the tune it chases. 

"Dem send a delegation, a committee -
Fi enlighten how ganja usefully
Dem have a world-resource, make-sense strategy"

Of course the very laid back nature of the song compliments its topic excellently and makes for a song which isn't included in my top four, but is, nevertheless, outstanding. And Sidibe also returns on the vocals as well. 'Keep Your Pride' is a piece in a similar situation and it's a very good quality for an album (more on that in a minute), that it can have so many nice songs in such a short amount of time, but have songs which are better. This song is exactly what you think it is, from a lyrical point-of-view. It does have a bit of awkwardness in merging riddim and vocals, but its VOCALS -- meaning lyrics -- are not to be missed. 

As it was in the beginning, "For All" is in the end, with two of the final three selections being absolutely glorious and the third one is very close to that level as well. First of all, check the album's closer, 'If They Want' which will certainly take you a few spins to really grasp, but when you do what happens is that the tune begins to blossom. It's incredibly straightforward track gets a bit wider and its sound becomes more dexterous as well. So REALLY pay attention to that one. The two songs before it, however, are absolutely golden. 'Jesse David' is a musical intoxicant and a dazzling chant which goes in directions of history and giving an Imperial praising to His Majesty and life and so many other things. This is case where the kora becomes more 'social' and though you well hear it and know that you hear it, it blends in wonderfully and sonically this is about as impressive as the album gets. And then there is the 'Mercy Seat'

"For the journey
For the reality trod, be safe -
Call forth fate
Sometimes a lapse may cause a one to wait
Sometimes dem make you say it, because you have to say it -
Interaction that can make you lose, you contemplate
As long as the earth is an everyday blaze
Misinterpretation make another mis-communicate
Different polarity, hole in space
Walking pon embattlement, the city inna di human race far I

Pray Jah inna di mercy seat
Pray Jah inna di mercy seat

There is a rural country and a rustic place
The pride of the earth hail Mount Zion I set 

Pray Jah inna di mercy -
Pray Jah inna di mercy set"

TEARS! This song is one about how fucked up humankind, or parts of us, has been to the world and how we need hope that, when the time comes, His Majesty is seated in the mind of forgiveness and mercy for what we've done to HIS planet. It may be one of the most clever compositions that I've ever heard and that fact that it can only be found on this album definitely makes it something worth hearing, as a whole.  
Overall, as I find myself saying quite often in regards to older Midnite albums , "For All" is CONSIDERABLY better than I ever thought it was. I'd even go further and say that if it had an extra couple of songs or so (I'm now of the idea that between twelve and fourteen is the PERFECT number of songs for an album to have), that it may rank as one of the best Midnite albums ever for me. As I said, because of its style, I would predominately recommend  "For All" for more experienced listeners, but after digging into it, I don't think that newer fans should be wholly terrified of it. Despite its sound, it isn't too labourious and, perhaps, being so short even helps that. Vaughn Benjamin and Youssoupha Sidibe make a fine pairing and while I don't think that this album was a grand commercial success, if somehow they ever did a sequel, I would well look forward to hearing it also. "For All" stands as, easily, one of the most unique projects Midnite has ever been involved in and, musically in my opinion, it reigns supreme there. It is also an album which makes it clear that despite the more experimental work of others, "different" is not always a bad word, at least not when spoken at Midnite. A big album. 

Rated: 4.35/5
Sacred Sounds Records

Review #460

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