Album review: Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad “Make It Better”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the enemy,” James Searl starts off the title track of Make It Better (2016), and it’s as if he’s owning up to the rebellious persona Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad has adopted for their sixth studio record- their first using the Rootfire Cooperative record label. Rochester, New York’s mainstay decided to remove any hesitation and just say what they were feeling.

In this way, it’s a bit different from 2014’s Steady, which was rich with political cognition (e.g., “Wolf At Your Door”, “World War”, “.45”). Yet nearing two decades in, GPGDS has one of the most distinct sounds in contemporary reggae. Their songs vibe with intensity, without any glitz ever, and all with a tinge of Grateful Dead and The Beatles. Because of that, Make It Better is original and classic, folky and roots. It’s what Panda has always done, but it’s a notably unique record.

So, highlights? Well, it’s hard to choose. They’re all damn good. Dylan Savage’s “Live and Travel” is catchy, rustic, and probably his best song on the record. James Searl’s “Greatest of Days” is one of the sincerest and most emotive songs he’s ever recorded. Each song revolves around layered guitars, but Chris O’Brian has become one of the most distinguishable drummers in reggae, and Tony Gallicchio makes his full album premier. Panda’s greatest asset has always been that they have three songwriters and sometimes four-part harmonies. This pool of vocal nuances often develops into weaving, gorgeous melodies. Dylan fronts four of the ten tracks, James six. The missing member here is multi-instrumentalist Dan Keller. Dan has a great cameo on the bridge of “Signs”, but he’s a stellar songwriter, so I hope he gets some space for a few songs on the next one, even if his horn playing, backing vocals, and guitar work is all over MIB.

While GPGDS has always boasted and maintained deep dub-styles, MIB has tons of horns, adding a layer to the instrumentation, which is simultaneously complex and repetitive, making for both a reggae groove and folk/pop hooks. Dylan and James write vastly different songs, as anyone who has followed them since In These Times (Controlled Substance Sound Labs, 2012) knows.

However, In These Times and 2014’s Steady (Easy Star Records) felt pregnant with music, whereas MIB rolls in under 40 minutes. In other words: Tight! The band is really good at jamming, both on record and especially live, but they decided there was no time for that now. If you like Giant Panda, you’ll love Make It Better, unless what you love is their experimental grooving. This record is honed-in, stylized, focused work. It’s good reggae, but in all honesty, it’s just good music. Their use of rock, pop, dub, jam, and folk is subtle but effective.

“You know, I can’t understand ya,” Dylan offers on “Really True” (with guest backing vocals from Elliot Martin of John Brown’s Body); “This time we have to make a connection/ and we’re going to build it right.” This attitude is both character-driven and the band’s social change modality. On “Trouble Deep” Dylan adds, “Every day we workin’ harder,” and it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him. Giant Panda might not tour as hard as they did behind the now canonized Slow Down (self-released, 2006). Rarely has an album as intentional and studio-focused as Make It Better come off also feeling loose and playful. Rarely has one band found their niche without getting stale.

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Concert review: Ciderstock 2016

After a stream of rainy, cold days, Woodchuck Cider lucked out for their third annual Ciderstock festival, held at their headquarters in Waterbury, Vermont. The event nearly sold out, (I don’t know the exact number, but it caps at 10,000!). No one, including the organizers, predicted such a high turnout. Perhaps the numbers came from it being a large outdoor event after the peak of summer, or because people in Vermont really like cider (they do!), or because the line-up included Sublime With Rome and the Dirty Heads. While Sublime With Rome doesn’t make it northeast too often, they embody a legend about how contemporary reggae mixed with rock. People may have wanted to check out this rare tour stop. On the other hand, SoCal’s Dirty Heads make annual sold out shows at nearby Higher Ground, so fans are now able to count the number of times they’ve caught the sextet.

Indeed, the crowd seemed made up of classic southern Vermonters in Birkenstocks, comfy lawn chairs, and gardener’s hats, as well as young, rowdy, wasted fans. This interesting combination intersected about halfway up the lawn, where the condensed, sweaty “D-Heads” dissipated into those lounging on the grass, (I myself, was a D-Head).

Woodchuck had a great idea: They had a tent where you bought tickets ($5 = 1 ticket). You then brought these tickets to the cider-tent and exchanged a ticket for a cider. Because of this break up in duties, the lines for cider were never long. Woodchuck offered up a Semi-dry, their Gumption brew, and the classic Amber. I, personally, am an Amber fan, and I think they’ve improved their recipe from the early days. It now has very little aftertaste and is less sweet than when it first appeared on the market, which was apparently 25 years ago, (Ciderstock acted as a birthday party this year).

As record high summer temperatures struck, as the clouds parted, Burlington’s own Villanelles started the show off. “I can’t even believe how many people came out!” notes singer/guitarist Tristan Baribeau. “I just hope everybody keeps up on the water. I see people passing out at these things.” The Villanelles play serious punk/emo rock, not anything like the headliners, but they work a crowd in a similar fashion. Their set was exceptional.

The real pleasure for me was Wild Adriatic. I had never previously heard anything by them, (The Villanelles are on my radar and I recommend them). Saratoga’s Wild Adriatic mixes Black Keys-like blues rock with jamming ala Widespread Panic. Again, they sound nothing like Sublime, but they were no less a wicked opener. “We didn’t know what we were getting into when we came out here,” drummer Mateo Vosganian told me after their set. “Opening for bands like Dirty Heads and Sublime With Rome, it’s hard to do the right thing. We wanted to make sure everyone was well-taken care of and the party was started. It was a lot of pressure, and I think it went very well.”

They did! And following, Dirty Heads killed it, as usual. Their blend of rap, reggae, rock, punk, and pop is so well sutured that they’re almost impossible not to like, (i.e, if you don’t like their hardcore rapping, wait a song and get a dose of bass n’ drums). They played songs off all of their records, each a hit, (I now realize how many Dirty Heads songs are hit songs). They also tackled tracks off their recently released self-titled album, including a beautiful performance of “Red Lights”. Rome joined them for “Lay Me Down”. This marked the final day of their tour, and singer Dirty J seemed both relieved that he could go home after this and floored by the intensity of the crowd.

Sublime With Rome whipped through a set, playing everything from classics like “Wrong Way” to my favorite track off of their latest record (Sirens, BMG, 2015), “Wherever You Go”. Dustin and Jared joined the trio for a rendition of “Sirens”. The SoCal staple seemed a bit off their game, but Rome had gone through a recent loss in his family and was no doubt recovering from some grief. Still, he seemed impressed by Vermont’s ability to throw a party.

While food truck vendors numbered 12, this simply wasn’t enough to support the huge, thirsty, drunk crowd. Lines were excruciatingly long and all the vendors appeared overheated and exhausted. Thankfully, the stage sat at the bottom of a hill, so bands could be seen from nearly everywhere on the lawn, but if you were waiting at a vendor you were missing the music. Also, it was awfully loud. I stepped back from the mosh pits just as Rome launched into “Pawn Shop” and compatriots agreed that, at a distance, Eric Wilson’s bass reverberated so loudly that it hurt your ears.

Many cans of cider were served, but the recycling bins weren’t numerous enough, and I found trashcans laden with recyclables. Woodchuck easily could have presented a better sustainable culture. I’m surprised they aren’t on the bandwagon, being a Vermont company. Outside the gates, parking was a disaster. There was no immediate lot to support the volume of vehicles, so post-show meant a flurry of tipsy, ear-blasted attendees having to remember which small lot around town they were parked in.

However, as press I was treated very well, and the band members I spoke with agreed that the hospitality was excellent. And, despite it being too large of a crowd for a small venue, three years in, Woodchuck is a bit over their head but working diligently to tweak the issues. This year happened to be reggae/rock juggernauts (last year was Cage The Elephant), so who knows what next year will bring. Woodchuck doesn’t seem bent on sticking to one particular anything at the moment. I think we’re all willing to find out what they come up with next.

Album review: Fluid Foundation

Some bands have the cohesion, the charisma, that easily makes them irresistible. Oceanside, CA’s Fluid Foundation, on their premier, self-titled release (17th Street Records) reaches a sound that’s infectious and spirited, even it’s not too groundbreaking. On one hand, here’s another California band writing songs with choruses like, “Roll with me, baby/Stay with me, girl… We’ll make our own world” (“Roll With Me”). On the other hand, the song has the same production value and groove-rich compositions that homeboys like Slightly Stoopid have mastered. So, to sum up, Fluid Foundation writes really awesome average songs.
Nathan Arriola’s deadpan voice sounds like he’s smiling, in the same way Micah Pueschel (Iration) pulls off. Similarly, this band is tight. Shaun Dubick and Tony Saenz make one heck of a drum n’ bass duo, often sticking to taught, punchy rhythms. Yet these guys are totally new school. Each track glistens like a minted Cadillac. Every song, despite sounding really good, rides on predictable lyricism, and it’s up to this happy-go-lucky team to set it off like fireworks, which they do.

Here’s a great example: “Livin’ Carefree” is actually a song about dog adoption, (a noble cause, no doubt), but here are some of the lyrics: “Being around you is all I need/ When I’m with you/ you make me feel carefree.” The song comes off sounding like any other love song, save for a few hidden lines like, “You’re my best friend,” and, “I can’t tell who rescued who.” Fluid Foundation could take notes from the best example I can think of for a song about canines: Passafire’s “Black Dog” (Vines, Easy Star Records 2013).

But songs like “Cruizin’” are wrenchingly catchy, as is “Rolle With Me”. Perhaps the album’s most influential track is “Take The Lead”, which, although lighthearted instrumentally, offers a higher message. “You can follow/or take control,” Nathan beckons. “Give yourself some room to grow.” I mentioned Iration earlier. Their guitarist, Micah Brown, guests, and the two bands share similar knack for writing three-and-a-half-minute pop/reggae, radio-ready summer crushes. This is by no means a bad skill to have, I just believe Fluid Foundation has enormous potential that their first record only hints at.

For a first attempt, Fluid Foundation is already off to a great start. I worry for their longterm freshness, but then again, pop is pop for a reason, and if you’re into songs that make you want to ride the coast on a sunny afternoon, let Fluid Foundation be your soundtrack.

Album review: John Brown’s Body “Fireflies”

Twenty years ago, John Brown’s Body redefined music by playing reggae that sounded something like what was coming out of Jamaica circa 1977 and something like what was coming out of the U.K. circa 1987, and something like the kind of neo-folk that began permeating the U.S. in the early millennium. Since then, the band has seen its unfair share of line-up changes, but frontman Elliot Martin and drummer Tommy Benedetti have never once let that stop them. In fact, while they could have made this The Elliot and Tommy show, they have understood the importance of cohesiveness. Thus, whoever is playing with them has always been JBB- meaning that at this point the band is more of a family of musicians. Needless to say, JBB has (mind you inadvertently) continued to reshape reggae. And at this point, no one album can truly be compared to its predecessors. Invariably, different musicians make different music.

So here come Fireflies (Easy Star Records, 2016), a tight, 10-track album the likes of which JBB has never previously produced. While 2013’s Kings and Queens (Easy Star Records) was expansive and rich, Fireflies is much more fun. Simultaneously, Elliot appears to have a heavier political agenda than ever before. In fact, the album begins with “Who Paid Them Off?”, a somewhat surprising introduction. “Corrupted fools/ Threatening Aggressor/ Better you keep flying/ It’s a war/ confess your dishonesty,” Elliot roars in the first verse. Fireflies is replete with disjointed lyrics such as these, a parallel to the singer’s impression of the state of the country.

Fireflies is also the first record since 2005’s Pressure Points (Easy Star Records) where Elliot shares the mic. Longtime JBB collaborator Jay Spaker sings three songs himself and shares duties with Elliot on two. Jay has been in the band since before the Kings and Queens tour, but Fireflies marks his inauguration into the records. Jay’s songs might be ridiculously catchy, (try out “Pure Fire” if you don’t believe me), but they lack the lyrical ingenuity Elliot has honored in himself since Amplify (Easy Star, 2008). Still, Elliot has learned to relax from Jay, and Jay has learned how to intensify from Elliot. Both deliver tasty songs that sound little like the rest of the band’s catalogue. I’m truly curious if this is a momentary departure, or just the natural progression of twenty years playing JAH music.

Indeed, these songs come off effortlessly, while at the same time they follow more traditional song structures, (Martin notoriously strays from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge way of doing things). This may be Jay’s influence. His songs are the club-thumpers, the audience shakers, and while they’ve been performed live for many years now, producer Craig “Dubfadder” Welsch expertly accents the band’s capabilities.

On the band front, this record marks Sam Dechenne’s stance as resounding horn leader (trumpet). While Fireflies includes past collaborators Drew Sayers (sax), Scott Flynn (trombone), Alex Asher (trombone), Nate Edgar (bass), and Mike Keenan (guitar), newcomers Mikey Vitale and TJ Schaper work nicely with Sam, while keyboardist Jon Petronzio and bassist Dan Africano have established an electrifying connection elevated by Welsch, who is notorious for making new school sound old school.

A prime example? “Hard Man Fe Dead”. It pops and attends to classic rub-a-dub vibes. Also, the title track is an underdog I hope they play live often. “Fireflies/ they bring light to see/They a gather round magnificently/ Where they going?” Elliot cogitates, adding, “Love of my heart, never know what have you got.” Lyrics like this don’t come around reggae too often! Conversely, Spaker’s “Like A Queen” is a bit more fundamental, if not sincere and scorching. “You bring the fire of a million suns, girl,” he growls; “And the light of a million rays.” These songs might be some of the best reggae to come out this year.

My one critique is that the album sounds a little short. While each song is long, Kings And Queens felt like a story, whereas Fireflies feels like a bunch of songs grouped together. That being said, this band has reached a new decade and a new era. They’re still innovators and they’re still making future roots a real thing. Fireflies is as good as anything else they’ve attempted. Maybe even better.

Album review: Hirie “Wandering Soul”

With the release of her self-titled debut (Roots Musician Records, 2013), Hawaii-residing Hirie became as much a figurehead of contemporary reggae as she was known for being a singer. She’s not only physically beautiful; she’s confident, kind, and always seems to be popping up at different festivals and events. Hirie is just so stinkin’ likable.

In doing so, she’s since sung alongside several legendary musical acts such as Tribal Seeds and Trevor Hall. On the surface, she seems like a pop princess using reggae as a platform, and this was, honestly, my first impression of Hirie, especially with her first major single, “Sensi Boy”, being a bubblegummy snap, crackle, and pop of a tune. But Wandering Soul really tears down any of those preconceptions, and caused me, actually, to go back to her first release for a deeper listen. Hirie’s integrity is not only sewn into every aspect of the songs themselves, but she released Wandering Soul through the Rootfire Rootfire Cooperative, which is reggae’s newest response to the collapsing record industry, and shows, more than anything, that Hirie is here to stay.

Above all, the production of WS is excellent. Undoubtedly, Hirie is going for a pop feel, but instead of making island-y pop songs, Hirie is so deeply reggae that the pop gloss is merely her indulging in contemporary production possibilities, so mad props to Danny Kalb (look him up if you haven’t heard of him) and Gavin Lurssen for really making this record sound like it should. Hirie’s band is exceptional, so as much as I love her voice, I can’t help but bounce to the incredible horn section. In fact, it’s the horns that give the album an old-school vibe. Peppered use of ukulele, lots of bass, and really exciting guitar work, WS is as much Marley as it is Aguilera, (who I love). From start to finish, WS rolls with quality.

To the songs specifically, Hirie teams up with likeminded juggernauts, first with Trevor Hall on “Good Vibration”. Hirie offers, “I know that everybody wishes to be born again… Speak it to the Earth and put it into rotation/ Receive the good vibration.” It’s a mystical set-up for Trevor to add, “All at once I’m feeling raised from the ashes… Listen to the voices in your head/ Sing along for once/ Do not run instead.” The song is a call to spiritual arms (the embracing kind). Trevor’s good friend, Nahko, appears on “Renegade”, a paunchier one drop that sounds like something concocted from Medicine For The People directly. Hirie swears, “These are poison times,” with another call, this one a bit more formal, even if her solution is to dance your cares away. Nahko is right at home here, offering, “I’m calling on the warrior dancer in me… I’m searching for a higher love.” See what I mean? These are well-written songs!

One of Hirie’s most original pieces is “Woman Comes First”, a glorious meditation on the power of femininity. “Do you believe that a woman comes from the rib of man?/ Do you understand/ we are more than that?” It’s somehow accusatory and forgiving within the same breath. Astutely, Hirie called on Nattali Rize for a verse. Nattali is arguably the most badass female in the reggae revolution, so here, tempered by Hirie’s subtle, slinky reggae backdrop (soooooo good), Nattali brings da fyah! “Give it for the women and the sisters/ they were there at your birth!” This song is a great expression of reggae’s influx of quality female musicians.

Hirie can be poetic. “I tell the man in uniform, loot the jewels from the master/ You can take anything you want/ but don’t take my ganja,” (“Don’t Take My Ganja”). Likewise, on “Boom Fire” she quips, “We can grind and pack and rip a cherry whole/ Lovin’ you is like toking the seed.”

But the key track is “Queen”. The groove is infectious and Hirie’s voice is on point (sexy, sultry, and stubborn). In this break-up/love song- (it’s a complicated love)- she bellows, “I’ve been giving my all/ when I only get half of you.” She’s mad, but she’s capable, so she adds, “I wish you well and goodbye/ to the man I thought I knew.” Later she believes, “I will love again.” It’s hard to imagine anyone doing wrong by Hirie- she’s kind of the whole package, but love can be convoluted and Hirie speaks it truly. I’ve nearly fried my speakers cranking this song.

The nitpicky critic in me doesn’t love that she uses the word “Okay” at the end of a line, and I’m not sure another song needs the line “You know you can count on me”- but come on! These songs balance old school reggae with contemporary flare. I encourage Hirie to work with her friends Nahko and Trevor on developing increasingly personal songs that will do her good in the long run, but regardless, Wandering Soul will go down as one of my favorite records, definitely of the year, if not of all time.