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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dub Review - October 2005




Although not the origin of the term, ‘dubstep’ can mostly be applied to tunes that literally took a step away from dub. On this 12 Coki of the Digital Mystikz steers directly back into a dubwise essence building this bass-soaked half-stepper with an archaic synth chop that mutates into a weird carnival theme. The conversational ambience captured in the tune’s opening reflects back on Sonny Knight’s apologetic ‘But Officer’ from 1956 but now what was once dialogue has turned to monologue and the street setting could be Kingston or Camberwell. The feel of the flip is starker and the bass more genre conformant. Fascinating to discover where these new dub venturers will arrive next.




Probably as a result of the title track’s appearance on the recent Soul Jazz Studio One Dub set the original vinyl now benefits from an overdue repress. ‘Bionic Dub’, a version to Vin Gordon’s ‘Red Blood’, receives the wildest mix of the set, its one of the rarer rhythms amongst a bunch of classics including the irresistibly named ‘Theme from Steve’, a dub to the Cables’ ‘Baby Why’ later to be re-versioned by the Mighty Diamonds as the aching roots classic ‘Have Mercy’. Also here is a take on Jackie Mittoo’s ‘Harder Shade of Black’ – one of the top ten most versioned rhythms of all time and not a million miles away from the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ – that emerges as ‘Oscar’. Other pressings of vintage Studio One albums are around at the moment, mainly in their U.K. Bamboo pressings, including ‘Freedom Sounds’ with Ernest Ranglin at his funkiest on ‘Lee Arab’ and Im & David’s ‘Mun Dun Gu’ and also the ‘Funky Reggae’ set with Sound Dimension’s ‘Upsetter’s Dream’, a dub tribute to Scratch (?) utilising Carlton and the Shoes’ immortal ‘Love Me Forever’.




In a clever little design conceit the surround card cover of the artwork comes in a flip open matchbook pastiche of the Wailers Zippo ‘Catch a Fire’ album sleeve. Unfortunately that’s about the limit of the originality on display here as Katchafire largely go for the pastiche approach in the music too laying somewhere between Matumbi and UB40 in their lazy skank bubbling under sweet harmonies and reclining horns. It’s all competent stuff and perfect fodder for horizontal summer festival crowds but travel outside their New Zealand island home maybe problematic as Joe Dukie from Fat Freddy’s Drop seems to have cornered the market with his super soulful vocals.




This debut release on the Thundertone label, presented as the new ‘reggae-tronica’ imprint, is a wild dancer and a joyful, unashamedly self-referential paean to riddim. Production team the Mere Mortalz are reggae buff and label owner Casey together with breakbeat DJ Kevin Beber who engineer the meeting of reggae with electronica, but there’s nuff old school sounds in the mix with a jabbing trombone and vintage Hammond squiggling around the fast-paced rhythm. No problem for U Brown though as he digs out a string of quotes from the sound system handbook of guaranteed DJ exhortations, but there is surprise ending with some short payback acapellas for use on a later occasion. Fascinating to check what might be delivered with the next release due from these boys - ‘Haul & Pull’ a shot with Earl 16.




Others may have been hipper, rootsier or more experimental but the only other outfit to be compared to Neil Fraser is Sherwood’s On U Sound, certainly both maintain a long-standing and consistent contribution to reggae’s connection to other musics, as well as the championing of dub as a genre. With an output split between conscious roots, lovers, wacky dubwise excursions and sprawling remixes in the leftfield of pop the Mad Professor has been either at best the target for unjustified criticism (celebrated here with the Robotiks ‘Echoes of Deaf Journalists’) or at worst studiously ignored by much of the press and radio. That was in the past, over the past few years, especially courtesy of championing by many of the nu dub acts (step forward Zion Train!), the rep of the Prof is now rightly revised. This set, compiled in association with Dave Katz who also pens the notes, gathers a fair representation of the scope of his productions since the late seventies from his ‘Dub Me Crazy’ series to his latest incarnation as the Crazy Caribs. In the Eighties he championed a resurgence of Lovers Rock with Sandra Cross and John McLean, supported the biting political and social observations of Macka B and Pato Banton, gave succour to a ‘lost and lonely’ Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and inspired the Orb into new spaces – all at the same time as rolling out roots and dub from legends such as Horace Andy, Johnnie Clarke and Max Romeo when few others cared. A British institution that has done enough to ensure its own preservation.







EMI cautiously edged open the door in 2001 with ‘Empire Road’ a Matumbi ‘best of’ collection that neither by selection nor promotion addressed the shameful gap in the reggae reissue programme for rightful occupation by this influential foundation UK reggae band. On the scene before Aswad, Misty and Steel Pulse Bovell & Co may not have provided enough exotica content for contemporary leftfield audiences and were a little ‘too reggaefied’ to crossover in those pre-Marley days, but the easy flow of their lovers and roots mix is uniquely British and as such needs to be cherished. Proving its always a mistake to allow a band to select the tracks for its own anthology "Blackman", the nyabinghi driven chant "War" and the still sublime ‘Empire Road’ are all missing but ‘Wishing on a Star’ is included, still there’s enough material of quality to claim this as a representative retrospective.

Kickin’s second volume dedicated to charting the history of UK Lovers Rock is compiled by the man himself, Dennis Bovell, and many of the productions are collaborations between Dennis and guitarist/arranger John Kpiaye – both now members of the LKJ touring dub band. The cheese factor really rings the bell on this more sumptuously lightweight set of the series splitting focus on both original productions and cover versions of previous soul, pop and reggae hits – Paul Dawkins on the Abyssinians ‘Sweet Feeling’, Relant G on Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, whilst Marie Pierre does over the Young Rascals ‘Groovin’ – but the tracks always work best with the female vocals and its Janet Kay who comes out as the natural voice of the genre especially on ‘Rock the Rhythm’.




Pablo Moses is best known for his classic ‘Revolutionary Dream’ album from 1975, featuring the Black Ark produced single ‘I Man A Grasshopper’. Much of the fuss over that set was in retrospect as excepting the rarefied climes of the specialist reggae market his name is relatively unknown. A second album, ‘A Song’ was followed by this album for Island Records in 1981. Engineered and masterminded by his long term producer Geoffrey Chung at Dynamic Studios in Jamaica the album stands out not for the quality of the material itself but for the excellent horn arrangements from Clive ‘Azul’ Hunt and the CD of dubs that comes as a bonus to the reissue. The sound is very similar to the mid 80’s Wailers on Tuff Gong through Island, slick and shiny compared to the rougher-edged reggae of the previous decade and a little too styled to the emerging requirements of ‘West Coast’ consumers than back a yard.




Hot Pot is now in full stride with the well-overdue release of this big dubhead favourite, in the main sourced from the rhythm tracks for Greg Isaacs’ ‘Mr.Isaacs’ album. Originally released on the singer’s Cash & Carry label this refurbished set comes with the addition of six b-sides from various Ossie Sound and Earthquake 7" 45s – most notably Earth & Stone’s ‘Wicked a fe Dress Back’ and ‘Take a Dip’ Dillinger’s take on Gregory’s ‘Slavemaster’ where the voices of both singer and DJ are dropped in and out the mix bathed in swathes of echo and reverb in triumphant style. At the time of its original release perhaps the approach taken by Ossie Hibbert in the mix was interpreted as a little too gimmicky by serious dub fans, dogs, cats, babies, racing cars, alarms, gongs, orchestral samples, cuckoo clocks are all thrown in there – ‘Doberman Skank’ and ‘Dub Down Babylon’ tell the full story – but the propulsive skank of Sly Dunbar’s’ drums against the tensions invoked by the countering percussion and horn section in full cry puts this set in the same league as best of Joe Gibbs and the Professionals from the same era.




Although Willi Williams started recording in the late sixties and served an apprenticeship with mentor Jackie Mittoo, prime arranger and artist at Studio One, his best work has almost stood outside of time as always retaining a modern edge and possessing an immediately recognisable warm and languorous sound. Following on from the truly epochal ‘Real Rock’ version ‘Armagideon Time’ Williams bypassed the influences of emerging dancehall styles and went on to forge that signature sound represented so admirably on this excellent reissue, Augmented by a complementary set of unissued dubs mixed by Soljie, Scientist and Errol T. in Kingston and Jerry Lion in Toronto. The title track betrays it early eighties genesis with the customary studio sounds of the era and also a lyrical reference to the ever-popular (in Jamaica) Bee Gees’ tune ("I’ve got to Get a Message to You"), ‘Armagideon Time’ is revisited in the jazzier style of ‘Rocking Universally’ with emphasis on the rolling piano riff reminiscent of the Tamlins’ epic treatment of ‘Baltimore’. But it’s the luxurious dubs that make this absolutely essential as there is little to match them sonically from the era.




Something of a key document in the evolution of the UK nu dub scene, this is a re-release for Zion Train’s debut album from back in the early nineties when this kind of electro steppers stuff not only seemed exotic but also commercial suicide in the marketplace. Although the nu roots scene has grown since then its basically an enclosed community and self-sufficient on a day to day basis with bands like Zion Train having to extend their festival and gig coverage within and beyond Europe. Formed by the unlikely trio of Perch, Tench and Cod in 1990 the band picked up studio skills as they went along, and with the help of the redoubtable Dougie ‘Conscious Sounds’ Wardrop. This ‘learn as you go’ approach shows up on this set with serendipitous highs and quirky noodlings mixed up with standard reggae chops and breaks, sampleable now in many places – maybe its been done already? Although seemingly less ‘chilled’ than on its first appearance it must remembered that back in the day Zion Train supplied us with mellow moments surrounded by a sea of rave.




The vocal styles of the first waves of great Jamaican vocalists owed not a little to song stylists Nat King Cole, Brook Benton and later Sam Cooke, Thurston Harris, Jackie Wilson, not forgetting all those great doo-wop groups from New Jersey to LA. So it’s no surprise that the singers supported by Studio One tend to ooze class. This selection from Dub Vendor’s Oxman, himself an MC and selector of repute, retrofits a sweet selection into what was strictly a UK sub-genre of reggae that now extends as a useful marketing definition if it means we can have access to material such as this. Although eternal favourites are there such as Ernest Wilson’s always aching ‘Undying Love’, The Mad Lads’ enthusiastic reading of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Ten To One’ and Larry and Alvin’s ‘Your Love’ its some of the lesser know tracks that pull, for instance the Shark’s are mournful but magisterial on ‘How Could I Live’, recently redistributed on a clean seven inch pressing, and the cover versions - Doreen Schaefer’s adaptation of Boz Scagg’s ‘We’re All Alone’ and Myrna Hague’s version of Johnny Bristol’s ‘Touch Me Baby’ – all of which may seduce roots fans into the deeper worlds of reggae.