Saturday, September 27, 2014

'Slow Burn': A review of "Dangerously Roots" by Duane Stephenson

For I. So tied am I to the music in its current form that I'm damn curious about how, exactly, musicians of the current era will look, in retrospect, to fans and observers of the future. Today we have so many different types of sound and creators of that sound that the very variety of it all, itself, is also interesting but I place it in specific examples, wondering how he and she and them and they might be appreciated years from now. The case I always bring up here is someone like the very curious Ras Batch. In terms of notoriety and popularity (and only in those terms), we can refer to Batch as being "underrated" and with good reason. However, virtually anyone who has taken a minute to listen to his work is surely appreciative of what he is capable of and grows in admiration of his work each and every time his catalogue swells. Yet, I always say that his skill is one which is likely to be even more respected years from now when I fully expect there to be some type of surge for Batch and hopefully You and I are still around to see it. I also look at the likes of Aidonia and Saïk and wonder if, fifteen or twenty years from now, they become platforms for throngs and throngs of Dancehall DJ's. In their particular instances, they may need to grow even further in popularity but maybe not and in a minute we'll see masses emerge who are able to… absolutely toy with the spoken word in similar styles. And I also look at bona fide stars of this generation and wonder (and HOPE) that they someday grow in popularity and are capable of adding their names as genuine PILLARS of Reggae music. I think that's a pretty good bet and though 'Marley' is likely to forever remain an unattainable platform for even his peers and those who came before and after (and that's fine, someone has to be at the top), I do envision a day when names like Tarrus Riley, I-Octane and Etana and maybe one or two others (I'm thinking directly at Chronixx but he has a little further to go now) carry just as much weight as almost anyone else besides the king. Included, sort of, in "maybe one or two others" is someone who has found himself fully linked in the same 'push' as Etana and Riley but has not quite risen to that level of an outward fame - Duane Stephenson who, in my opinion, fans of the future are going to have A LOT of fun listening to. 

…and he isn't doing too bad these days either. Though their may be gifts that music has to give that Stephenson has yet to receive (and maybe he will and maybe he won't at some point), what he's spent the majority of his career doing, particularly while solo, has been very impressive. To date, he's done a pair of very well received albums, the first of which, "From August Town", was very popular and definitely helped to launch, in a major way, what was to follow. What was to follow, literally, was "Black Gold" three years on in 2010. In retrospect, perhaps, that album was a prime example of the theme here. Looking back I do not think that it got the type of attention that it deserved and having now gone back to re-listen to it for the sake of this review for the first time in a long time - "Black Gold" was absolutely immaculate from beginning to end. It was a fantastic project which was not as popular as its predecessor but, at least in my opinion, was every bit as good and probably even better. And while I probably couldn't go as far as to call the eventual third Duane Stephenson album "one of the most anticipated…" it was well on the radars of many fans, You and I included, and here it is - "Dangerously Roots: Journey From August Town".
"From August Town" [2007] & "Black Gold" [2010]
Like the two ahead of it, "Dangerously Roots" once again finds Duane Stephenson working alongside VP Records. It's interesting that this year VP has seemingly lost some of its bigger stars with both I-Octane and Riley releasing albums for different labels but Stephenson (and, in a few weeks' time, Etana) have remained with the label (which has also taken a very healthy re-interest in Soca music). Also intact for album #3 is a very find roster of producers working alongside Stephenson. Some of those included are Donovan Germain, Christopher Birch and, of course, Dean Fraser. And with that, and listening to Stephenson's music over the years, you didn't really expect any divergence on this album from the previous two. Even in reading an interview with Stephenson he, himself, noted that his intentions with it were the same and he wrote in the way he typically does and that is what I was expecting. And while there're some different sounds and the occasional twist, that is what "Dangerously Roots" is. It is a continuation of the singer doing what made fans out of most of us and kept us as such throughout the years. I don't picture the day where Duane Stephenson stops singing songs about spirituality and social concerns and starts… deejaying about how many women he can have and, these days, he kind of sits in a seat occupied by the likes of Luciano and Mikey General where you're almost always capable of predicting what comes next, but it is a matter of how much you're going to like it. In the case of "Dangerously Roots"??? I do think that you'll like it. You may not like it as much as what came before it (but you might), but the album eventually turns out to be yet another solid piece of work from one of Reggae's most dependable stars. 

I've mentioned it in the past - how Duane Stephenson has this effect to his voice which places him kind of in a class of someone like Jah Cure and Chezidek whose voices, inherently, makes their work interesting, regardless of what they're actually doing with it. His tones may not be as unusual as Chezidek or as downright halting as the Cure's, but he does possess a very difficult to describe quality which gives much of his work a very dramatic type of sound. The result of that, in my opinion, is that he can sing things and present them in a way that most of his peers cannot and that is a fantastic trait to have mastered when doing an album. For a sterling point of illustration check the second best tune on "Dangerously Roots" which gets us going, 'Rasta For I'. TEARS! This song is kind of a spiritually themed social commentary on which Stephenson calls for The Almighty to wash away the illnesses and negativities of the world. If you're looking for a song which exemplifies what I said in regards to him having a dramatic sound, look no further than the massive first tune on this album. This song is like listening to a movie! It is action-packed and downright wonderfully exhausting by its end. Things take a decidedly different turn on the second selection, 'Good Good Love'. We go from triumphant praises to old school vibed love song. Not my favourite song on the album by a wide margin, 'Good Good Love' isn't bad at all, however, though I do question its placement on the album following such a piece immediately before it. Next up is another unexpected moment in the wholly gripping 'Nah Play'. The anti-violence track is an impressive one - just as it was on the "Black Gold" album. The tune returns in a version which is indistinguishable from the first to my ears (and I may be wrong about that) and though I was surprised, I am not complaining. For what it is, 'Nah Play' is one of the best songs on the whole of "Dangerously Roots" and I wouldn't mind if they brought it back for album #4 either [why not?!]. 

"How long will we go on with this saga?
You no see di place ah run wid no order?
Wi no inna no war, now
But look how much dead so far - and di number getting higher
Let's sing some more songs of inspiration
A dat di people dem want, dat dem ah wait pon
Wi have fi make it work or else wi ahgo find wiself under di dirt

Di youths dem nah play
Wi fraid fi look inna di eyes of di youth dem
Dem nah play
What kinda trend dem ah set for di future
Dem nah play
Now every man seh dem waan fi gun shooter
Dem nah play!
Dem nah play!

Some a dem better thinking bout a better world
Baby-mother hoping for a boy or a girl
While di Ras ah pray - praying that him youth don't stray
Dem seh dem nah tek no talk only hear dem guns ah bark -
Dem no care bout life no more"

BOOM! And at the end of the first few tunes of the album, following an intro from the esteemed Mutabaruka who gives Duane Stephenson his seal of approval, is the best song I hear on "Dangerously Roots", the FLOORING 'Jah Reign'. Here, Stephenson uses stories of people in various walks of life and how they all came to seek the divinity of His Majesty (it almost reminds me of a more specific version of the brilliant 'No Guts, No Glory' by NiyoRah). That wonderful message is bundled within one of the most beautiful composition to be found on this album and it is a full JOY to listen to and, immediately, becomes one of my favourite songs Duane Stephenson has ever done. BOOM AGAIN!
The next group of songs on the album feature the album's first single and a pair of very large named combinations. That first single, 'Cool Runnings' takes the lead. Of course the song is a remake of a piece by the legendary Bunny Wailer and it is a very nice tribute type of piece. You'll find much better material on this album (I just told you about some of that) (I'm about to tell you about some more of it in a second), but Stephenson's cut of 'Cool Runnings' is delightful and I'm glad they did it for the new album. The always flaming Mr. I-Octane lends a hand on "Dangerously Roots" on 'Julene'. This song kind of hit me a bit harder than I expected as I take from it something which may not have even been the intended purpose (because I… just have some problems). For me, Julene is a song about the unexpected nature of love and how it can sidetrack and ruin and also HELP certain people and things. As someone who has done soooooooooooooooo much dumb stuff for love in my lifetime (I could probably write endlessly for about a year on the topic), I related to it immensely and though it isn't a great song in my opinion, it had my full attention. 'Simply Beautiful', on the other hand, is great or pretty close. The title says it all - it is a damn striking love song and probably the best of its kind that I've heard in a few minutes. And I will give it the boost: It is a GREAT song. 'London Bridge' may be even better with its kind of 'veiled joy'. The way the song is sung - its tone - isn't really "happy". It is even solemn at times but this is a joyful and inspirational piece about the eventual toppling of discrimination and corruption and how amazing the moment will be for the world. It does have a very different type of sound to it and one which resonates the more you listen to it - so definitely give it a few spins before moving on. And when you do eventual move on, what you'll find is 'House Of Lies' which teams Stephenson up with Achis Reggae favourite, Lutan Fyah. This song definitely did NOT go in the direction that I thought it would -- as some all-conquering social commentary -- (and hoped it would) which made what it was, a song about a broken relationship, kind of disappointing. But you do not place Lutan Fyah and Duane Stephenson on a song and not have that piece turn out very strong. 'House Of Lies' may not be what I hoped it would be, but for what it is, it is exceptional (with somewhat of a Rock-ish quality to my ears) (not that I know what I'm talking about) (because I don't). 

The aforementioned Tarrus Riley joins "Dangerously Roots" and highlights in its final run of songs. Just before that, however, is a very nice selection in the downright hypnotic 'Come Right In'. There is something about this song which I like immensely and though I allow that I may be overrating it, I thoroughly enjoyed it - and its peculiar 'presence'. Riley lends a hand on the shining sufferer's track, 'Ghetto Religion'. The song is a very strong one about how one's culture and surroundings slowly but steadily becomes a very large part of who they are and, as you would predict, Stephenson and Riley make for a powerful pair on easily one the finest songs on this album. 

"I said children cry no more
No, cause heaven is in store
Please put down your guns
And let us all overcome
Though your load may be heavy
Take my life as an example - 
While I sing my song

The ghetto is a part of my religion
The only thing my eyes can see
Ain't no man can stop the vision
The ghetto is a part of me"

Like 'Good Good Love' before it, the song which follows 'Ghetto Religion', 'Dance For Me' also seems to be out of place (they could have placed them in succession in the middle of the album and I wouldn't have said a word) and it is just pretty average as well, though you certainly won't mind listening to it because of Stephenson's vocal performance, as I said before. The proverbial ship is righted when 'Sorry Babylon' pulls in after that. 

"My words may concern you
Oh, my spirit may be bored
You say you're sympathetic to our cause
Now you're changing your legislation or your laws
You say you won't stand to fight us no more

I'mma gonna tear you down
Sorry Babylon, Rastaman come fi take this over
Your system's flawed, your people are frauds
I'mma gonna tear you down!

I sense there's a little anger in you, true
Children been living all these lies
You led I Black brothers to believe
White gods will come falling from the sky
Persecute I for I Blackness
For I revolution, you call I heartless
But I will not live in the shadows no more
Africans will be turning the hands of time!


BOOM! A song like 'London Bridge', but a full step ahead, 'Sorry Babylon' is a magical piece for the latter stages of the album and I really hope that people fully take in that record and it isn't a decade before the masses realize just how wicked it is. And lastly, before Mutabaruka returns to sends us out, check 'Run For Your Life', which may prove to be another song which goes overlooked. That would also be unfortunate as it is another very good offering. The sonics on this striking social commentary are top notch and the message which they carry is imposing as well and a fine way to end an album like this.  
Overall, I kind of pointed this review in a particular direction because, although I do really like this album, I get the feeling that it, like its most immediate predecessor, is somewhat destined to not be giving the respect that it is due. I've already seen some rather lukewarm reactions to it and, if you place it in direct comparison to the "Black Gold" and "From August Town", then I can see that (although I do not think it is very far, at all, behind the latter) but on its own merits, "Dangerously Roots" is a good album. Initially, one of the main points in the buzz surrounding Duane Stephenson were his song-writing credits and it is something which has well remained one of his strengths. That is apparent throughout this album and, again, that may be the type of quality which, at least for some, takes a while to be most illuminated. Yet, You and I don't have the gift of time now in regards to "Dangerously Roots", we have to judge it for what it is right now, and what it is, is a solid next step in a career which I HOPE (and think) will only get better with time. Probably better for more experienced listeners but not bad for anyone.

Rated: 4/5
VP Records
CD + Digiital

Review #526

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