Saturday, January 11, 2014

'Before Midnite': A review of "Life" by Ronnie Benjamin

The source. Reggae music, in just about every sense and in every form, has always been a genre which has focused on family. On one hand is the actual music which is often geared towards promoting the familial structure and, more broadly, unity amongst all people, but definitely this extends behind the scenes where so many different artists have musical origins which exist beyond themselves. There is, certainly, the first family of Reggae music which is headed by its still most dominant figure, Bob Marley, which includes himself, his Wife and a seemingly endless line of progeny and we've already seen it move into a next generation with his grandson, Daniel Marley. Similarly, Reggae's second family, the Morgans, have also entered into that third tier of hitmakers with Jemere Morgan, son of Gramps Morgan, showing a penchant for being a hitmaker early in his career. And we could also go into the twistingly captivating lines of following individuals such as Protégé and Don Corleon and countless others, but today we take a look at a very rare set of circumstances which, at least in my opinion, even further cements the family focused arrangement within Reggae music. The Rileys would be the closest point of comparison in this instance as you have the elder Riley, Jimmy, having already had a fine career, being given a greater level of the spotlight because of the work of his offspring, Tarrus Riley. It is this ultra-fascinating discussion and thought of taking greater notice of the work of the father (particularly for younger listeners), because the son is so… ridiculously talented. I'd also, on a different scale, point to the example of Vicky Edimo, father of the almost overly-gifted Tiwony, who, at least from me, received a closer look after I really began to get into the works of his son. And in our case now, we expand in a similar direction as we take a look at the work of one Ronnie Benjamin. If you hang around long enough, the surname BENJAMIN becomes as familiar as any, due to our CONSTANT voyages through the catalogue of Midnite (the next one is probably "Full Cup" or "He Is Jah") and while we don't take that route, directly, today, we kind of leap back and forward simultaneously for a new release from yet another Benjamin. 

Of course, Ronnie Benjamin is the father of Midnite masterminds, Vaughn & Ronnie Benjamin Jr. which is really just a remarkable set of circumstances. There is Ronnie Jr.  whose musical acumen, although perhaps somewhat underrated, is off the proverbial charts -- producing/playing not only for Midnite but for various other artists as well -- and then the… otherworldly wordiness of Vaughn who can, right now, lay claim to being one of the most prolific writers Reggae music has ever seen and Ronnie Benjamin Sr. surely played a giant part, and probably the biggest part, in introducing them to the music. So, while we spent a whole heap of 2013 becoming formally introduced to the younger Benjamins, the elder also gave us an opportunity to take a look at what he has done as well by way of delivering a brand new album of his own, "Life"

To my knowledge, Ronnie Benjamin's origins are the same as those of his offspring and he was born on St. Croix, though I believe he now calls Antigua home. Benjamin's was a name that I was vaguely familiar with even before I fully knew what a Midnite was but it was YEARS after that when I made the connection between him and the group and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that. I was… probably too young to appreciate his music for the most part, but I knew him as someone who you would more put into the category of a more broad spectrum of music and someone who routinely mixed in elements of more traditional R&B and Pop and Calypso, so I never really got around to experiencing the work of Benjamin. Also, it had been a considerably long time from his last album. As far as I know, "Second Chance" remains his last official set and that album (which was produced by Ronnie Benjamin Jr. and came via the Afrikan Roots Lab imprint) reached wayyyyyyyy back in 2000 [by my count, by the end of 2000, there were three Midnite albums, meaning that there had been a truly ridiculous FORTY-FIVE or so from the last time their father did an album] and although I know he had been busy performing with them through the years, I had actually figured that, as a recording artist, Ronnie Benjamin was retired and he'd had a fine career to say goodbye to. But, as is generally the case, I was wrong. In late-2013 or so, "Life" appeared and I made a note to go back and have a listen and really use it as a point to, hopefully, check out what I had missed over the years and use it as an educational piece. So what did I learn. The first thing that I learned is that Benjamin has EXCELLENT choice in musical selections, the album, from beginning to end really, is brimming with fine musicianship and instrumentals and while I do not know it for sure, I would assume that, once again, Ronnie Jr. had a great deal to do with the production on this set and the press material here actually mentions that Vaughn Benjamin sings backup for his father on "Life" as well. Something else which really sticks out is the delightful straightforwardness Benjamin exudes in his music and, briefly going back to some of his other work, I can definitely see that this hasn't been a change for this album. It is a quality which he just possesses as a writer (which, I know, seems damn odd from someone who is the father of Vaughn Benjamin) and is a wonderfully intoxicating trait coming from someone who has probably been making music for longer than the billion years that I have been on the planet. "Life" proves to be a very solid and pleasant piece by its end and, if you have a loooooooong minute, I'd like to tell you about it - and even if you don't, I'm just going to keep writing anyway.  
Ronnie Benjamin Jr. & Vaughn Benjamin
As its very broad title would suggest, this is an album which goes in so many different directions and naming it "Life" was a very, very good idea in my opinion. Because of that, the one immediate critique that you might have in this case -- the album's length (ten tracks totaling less than forty-five minutes) -- is not much of a problem. Also not at all troubling is the LUSH 'Give Thanks' which opens Ronnie Benjamin's "Life" album. 

"Sun is shining, birds is singing - up in the trees
Rain is falling, cool breeze blowing - off the open seas
What more could you ask for?
What more could you want?
Such a wonderful feeling -
Makes me feel like singing

Give thanks and praises for the morning sun
Give thanks and praises when the day is done
Give thanks and praises just to be alive today
Give thanks and praises in each and every way

Blue skies up above, with patches of gray clouds
Oh what a beautiful day
Dogs barking in the distance, people laughing
And the kids come out to play
Makes me feel so good inside
Gives me a sense of pride
Such a wonderful feeling
Makes me feel like singing"

The tune is a lovely one which finds Benjamin telling all to give thanks for EVERYTHING. No matter how big or how small something may seem, if you did not have it, you would miss it, so be thankful for it because it will not last forever. The track supporting 'Down But Not Out' is GOLD! It is so nice and it was the first one which fully told me that I was possibly listening to a superior set in that regard. Benjamin doesn't waste it at all and instead he talks about taking an eight-count in life but rising to one's feet before the referee tolls TEN. This is the type of piece which always gets me so finely. I love when people acknowledge just how flawed they are, or how flawed we all are, and accept that everyone REALLY makes mistakes, but just because you do that, it doesn't mean that you can't work it out and get up if [WHEN] you get knocked down. The riddim on 'Old Man Trouble' is also very impressive and while this particular tune is not amongst my favourites on "Life", the song isn't a bad one and has a nice message off someone whose bad past and demons are, literally, chasing him. And I'm still working with this one as well. 

Rounding out the first half of the album is a pair of nearly stellar social commentaries in 'Life in the Ghetto' and 'War Is Not the Answer'. The former doesn't fall too far away from the two tunes preceding it on the album in terms of dealing with overcoming bad aspects of life, but the former is even better. 'War Is Not the Answer' is a triumphant selection to the world leaders that, ultimately, violence is the answer to absolutely nothing. I link these two songs together because they both represent some of the more edgy pieces on "Life". Typically Ronnie Benjamin goes about his work in a more laidback type of style, but here he definitely brings just a bit more spice to his delivery which is well received. 

Going into the second half of life, Benjamin deals with an unfortunate topic, but one sans presence "Life" is really incomplete. 'She's Gone' is a song about being brokenhearted and losing love and though, again, I don't really enjoy this song, I do definitely enjoy the SWEETNESS which backs it. It's somewhat somber and melancholy, but the music here is downright masterful. 'Working Class Man', on the other hand, is one of the best songs on this album altogether.

"Working class man - how come you can't see
The joke is one you, the joke is on me
Working class man, look around and behold
How the elite has taken control

You work all day, sun up to sun down
And come payday, you wearing a frown
Cause what you've earned, just can't take care of you
And if you get no help -
Don't know what to do 

Politicians tell  you  they're gonna make your life good
But after you vote,  you can't even by food
While they eat the best and dress to kill
And for you, you're struggling still"

This piece I really did enjoy and it comes ahead of another of the biggest offerings from "Life", 'Vampiah'. The final song on the album is my favourite, but if it weren't for the fact that the later song just does strange  things to my emotions, that honour would belong to 'Vampiah' which is huge. What I like so much about this one is just how well Benjamin personalizes it. It's one thing to kind of cast a big distinction to a group of individuals as he does on earlier songs such as 'War Is Not the Answer' and 'Life in the Ghetto', but it is another entirely to speak to ONE person which is what happens in this instance. It is a song, but it comes off as a conversation, almost between two people who have love for each other and instead of throwing fire and flames, Benjamin seems to say that you're doing bad and you may not even know it, but it is time to correct your ways and to do better. And while 'Love Is the Answer' does not do much for me, the song chasing it, 'The World Won't Stop for You', as I alluded to, is the biggest gem to be found during this "Life" time. 

"If you sit back and you wonder, what you gonna do
And you keep looking over your shoulder -
YOUR ACTIONS WILL BE FEW
If let life pass you by, one day you'll regret
But if you reach for the sky, you could be happy yet

I say the world won't stop for you
So get up and get moving
The world won't stop for you
The world won't stop for you
The world won't stop for you
You just can't keep waiting

If you don't ever try to stand up on your own
No one will hear your cry and help when you're down
If you think you're owed something -
Entitled to the best
You can't get anywhere without striving
you've got to pass the test"

TEARS! 

The song is an intellectual and mature kick in the ass of procrastinators everywhere and I'm am most certainly such an individual, so I thank Ronnie Benjamin Sr. for it and for his new album as well.

Overall, definitely check Ronnie Benjamin's "Life". I would say that if you are a fan of Midnite who, like me, had never really listened to his music, that background isn't the greatest 'lead' into listening to music like this. Outside of the tracks here, this album isn't very similar to what we've heard from Midnite in recent years - so I cannot confidently say that if you like Midnite that you will, inherently, enjoy this album. What I can say with assurance, however, is that if you like GOOD MUSIC, you're likely to be pleased by "Life". Vaughn Benjamin, Ronnie Benjamin Jr. and Midnite are definitely one of a kind, but going back, it is obvious by this album that they had very good musical origins and genetics because not only has Ronnie Benjamin Sr. had a very good career to this point, it is apparent by "Life", that he's still doing quite well. 

Rated: 3.5/5
Ronnie Benjamin
2013
CD + Digital 

Review #486

1 comment:

  1. I was hoping you'd pick this one for some reason.

    ReplyDelete