Album review: Collie Buddz “Good Life”

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It took Collie Buddz a solid 10 years to drop another LP, although he did offer up two (fairly) dense EPs between. Good Life (Self-released, 2017), slings more from the club crooner, although this album offers a dark side to Collie we haven’t quite seen yet.

While he’s under the reggae label, Collie is sometimes more hip-hop/R&B than roots. For instance, Snoop Dog guest stars post the Snoop Lion saga, but no popular reggae artist is featured. CB flourishes over club-ready beats rich with cracking snares and kicks, plunky synth, and fat basslines. I’m generally not really into this style of reggae, but Collie Buddz has me hooked. This album is tight, but way out of my wheelhouse; Collie Buddz is often singjaying about parties at clubs, rising with the sunrise, and juggling multiple women falling over him. Can I relate? Not quite, but other than a lot of pop music that promotes this lifestyle as a means for street and professional cred., Collie sings about this nightlife instances with humility. His gratitude for his life caresses Good Life through and through.

The title track is a prime example. “Fourth shot fi bring in party season,” he offers; “fifth shot mi take just for no reason.” Rolling out this scene is done over stripped down, slinky reggae riddims; a strange and yet classic-Collie juxtaposition. It’s restrained, and restraint is always something CB’s done well.

Collie seems plagued by some demons he’s never admitted to before. One of the album’s best songs, and the opener, “Control”, offers, “For all my failures/ please don’t judge me/ I’m trying my best,” and on “Part of My Life” he begins, “It’s 3am/ I’m fucked up… Lately, I’ve had no luck.” The chorus reports, “Sometimes that’s how it goes.” Despite the veneer, CB’s ability to get personal on a lot of his songs is a solid strength, something partially done here and I’d recommend more of in the future.

To close out Good Life, Collie offers “Glass House”, far and away the album’s best song, and it’s no wonder: straight reggae rock steady, rich bass, and Collie flowin’ like a river. He’s at his peak when he steps out of the limelight and offers sincere societal criticism from behind the shadowy mic. No synth beats or guest stars needed, (okay, maybe a little Autotune, but whatever): “Mouth runnin’ like a 12-year-old on Snapchat,” he pulses; “You live in a glass house/ no fling pebble.” Hot fire.

Good Life is not Collie Buddz’s masterpiece, but that one’s coming, for sure. This is more refining of his craft, sometimes so spot on, and overall a great listen. At least five of the songs could receive gold medals for catchiness, (especially “Save Me From The Rain”, featuring Kat Dahlia’s infectious chorus). If you like Collie, you’ll love this.

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Album review: Christos DC “Tessera”

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Some reggae musicians have such respect for the roots of the genre that they can’t help but embody the forefathers. Modern reggae, especially the most popular stuff, has deviated in often exciting and creative ways through rock and pop influences. No problem there, but Christos DC is about as old school as the new school can get. Throughout Tessera, the instrumentation is slow, meditative, rich with skank, precision bass, and warm harmonies. Listen back-to-back with the likes of Israel Vibration, Burning Spear, and Kiddus I, and you’ll hear the direct influences.

And in true reggae fashion, the instrumentation is upful, groovy, even sexy; the messages and stories are often pregnant with fear-but-hope for the future, calls to action, and discussions on the Times.

Tessera means “fourth” in Greek, Christos DC’s heritage. He’s blended the values and culture of his ancestors with those of Jamaica and Africa, and has interwoven his current culture- the D.C./Philly area. In fact, Christos DC is responsible for developing the now-thriving reggae scene in that part of our country, as a producer and promoter. I hadn’t been aware that he too was such a prominent musician, but he’s got the vibes, man, and complete control over the sound.

His voice rarely reaches above a gritty whisper, but he doesn’t need the strongest pipes to convey deep emotion, sounding yearningly sorrowful on most tracks. This is not a blast-in-your-car-on-the-way-to-the-beach kind of album; it’s a sit and breathe kind of album, and those are few and far between.

“Life” is a highlight. The rock steady loop and the quiet horns shuffle in. “You want what you wish for,” he begins, “but you take what you’re handed/ Your works will be contested/ if you choose to be progressive.” This is the sort of poetic glue that holds Tessera together, here speaking undoubtedly to Christos DC’s own struggles to bring reggae into the modern ranks. “Yesterday is gone,” he suggests; “tomorrow may never come.”

Following, “The Desperate Ones” is one of the most upbeat songs on the list. “They hold each other’s hands/ Walk without a sound,” Christos paints the scene. The snare flare of the drums and the vibrant horns move this love song along beautifully. “They watch their dreams go down/behind the setting sun/ They walk without a sound.”

This perfect blend of classic reggae verbiage and modern creativity isn’t lost on this critic’s ear; the art of doing so is subtle enough on Tessera that I almost missed it, and of course it’s not omnipresent. Sometimes Christos drops the push for the same traditional lyricisms of those greats listed above.

He also takes on a traditional Greek song, “Ρολόι κομπολόι (Watch Rosary)”, which he performs in such a way that makes you think the song was always meant to be roots reggae laced with flute. (You can look up the original and hear how Christos made the correct assumption that this transcription could be done seamlessly.)

Tessera also features a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. Once again, it’s a wonder this song didn’t start as reggae. “Say What You Want” and “Pressure” are other standout tracks, but a true joy is “Communion”, featuring Kenyatta Hill and Harrison Stafford- two other musicians I’d add to the roots/contemporary pantheon. These heroes of sound have damn-near mastered the use of strict reggae song construction. All three also have unique and pretty voices; (even Kenyatta’s rusty grit infatuates). “Communion of the mind,” Christos strikes in the chorus, “is the union of the heart.” Kenyatta adds, “Mr. Jacket-and-tie/Why you keep telling us lies?” and Harrison’s voice, always welcome and rarely heard outside of Groundation, offers, “Selassie I made a speech to the nation/ rejecting segregation… All JAH people/ throw out the evil.” With singers like this, even when the lyrics aren’t too original, their soulfulness spellbinds.

Tessera is not overly mind-melting, but it’s also not pretentious, ugly, or passive. It’s just a very pretty-sounding album with nicely developed songs. Amen.

 

Album review: Tubby Love “Waves”

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Ask Nahko, Trevor Hall, Mike Love, (or pretty much any other contemporary artist blending reggae, folk, and hip-hop) who they have mad respect for- and one name will invariably turn up continuously: Tubby Love. He may not yet be headlining music festivals and young yoga-loving college girls may not be broadcasting his name on their tank tops- but I’m not sure Tubby cares that much anyway. He’s probably off in the Hawaiian mountains planting fruit seeds. But the man is truly one of the best musicians out there today, with a deep appreciation for reggae music without losing any of the folk and pop influences he grew up on. His vocals seamlessly progress from rapping to yodeling, chanting to balladeering.

On Waves (self-released, 2017), the message is simple: love all and walk lightly. At times throughout the album, Tubby seems possessed by ancestral spirits; at times, he’s political, speaking globally, while at others he shares deep insight into his own journey from a 90’s kid into someone conscious of his actions and words. Waves excels at being both danceable and meditative; it is both organically timeless and potently timely.

Waves is not flawless, though. Sadly, the album peaks at the start and continues to become less original and dynamic as it progresses, but that’s okay. Even the somewhat passive final track, “Go”, is beautiful. “I’m off on my great adventure,” he offers; “Well, I’ll take a piece of you with me/ so when I go I never really leave.” The lushness of his poetry can easily get lost in the simplicity of the guitar pattern.

“Chant Up Zion” features Tubby’s good friend Trevor Hall. Tubby often interweaves beatboxing with instrumentation, and does so here, creating a hip-hop song that someone could recreate easily over a campfire. The song articulates Tubby’s personality, (if you’ve ever met him in person you’d know he IS his music): “No more chanting down Babylon,” he pleads, claiming this is too much like complaining; “I’m going to chant up Zion,” he suggests an optimistic alternative. Trevor’s appearance is always welcome, although next to Tubby it becomes clear just how varied Love’s melodies and word choices are.

Yet “Everything Is Music” takes home grand prize for the sing-along anthem of the summer, a magical use of pop and hip-hop but holding on to the message in the way Michael Franti perfected a decade ago. Similarly, “Keep the Oil in The Ground” doesn’t subtly call out the Man. Featuring life partner Amber Lily, the song unites two voices where the pain and fear shines through the recording. “This land is not for sale,” Tubby argues. “Standing Rock is not for sale.”

Waves starts with the quintessential Tubby track. “You Are More Than Enough” is rich with his impressive vocal harmonies, roots reggae riddims, and Tubby suggesting, “Nobody is watching you/ so go and be yourself,” adding, “Even if they’re watching you/ go and be yourself.” Sometimes the songs on the album sound like they’re echoing too many influences at once, but “You Are More Than Enough” is unmistakably Tubby Love.

Yes, the album is fairly hippie-dippy, but let’s get real: we need more of this in the world these days. How refreshing to have an artist wearing no masks, taking little and giving so much. How wonderful to have an artist unforgivingly call out the politicians and forgivingly call everyone together.

Waves is good, man. Really, really good- the kind of album where you find yourself stopping whatever it is you’re doing, just to listen with complete attention.

 

 

Album review: Passafire “Longshot”

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Prolific quartet Passafire has somehow come very far while sticking with the basics. Longshot (Easy Star, 2017) marks their sixth album, and the maturity is subtle but valuable. Passafire’s members have moved from living mostly in the same place to being scattered across the states. Music-making has become a focused endeavor; intentionality is needed. Similarly, Passafire and its members have entered adulthood with grace. This album is not any better than anything previous, but it feels different in its maturity and intentionality.

Passafire has always interwoven their love of pop, hip-hop, and interestingly, near-metal into their reggae fabric. The result has usually been a complex circuitry of genres, but this never came off impractical or indigestible. For Longshot, the band keeps up with the blending, but less so each song. Instead, the 12 tracks traverse the band’s influences one at a time. This is the intentional part: making it as a reggae/rock band is certainly a longshot, but Passafire never seemed okay with giving up their creativity to suit the needs of the industry. That being said, they’ve gotten progressively more fine-tuned. Longshot’s material could easily be pop-radio friendly, and it’s amazed me that Passafire hasn’t yet broken into a wider, larger listener market alongside artists like The Dirty Heads and Matisyahu. This album proves that capacity.

I’ve always considered Ted Bowne to be one of the best lyricists on the scene, and he continues to mix narratives into poetic metaphor and dreamy wonderances. Bassist Will Kubley provides lead vocals on two tracks, “Bright” and “Tacoma”, and offers his spin on the Passafire-approach, setting up detailed scenes and multifaceted emotions. His songs are markedly more rock and emo, but nonetheless worthy.

“Growing Up”, the album’s starter, is a gorgeous, upbeat pop song harkening back to the angsty alt. rock the group (just like me) probably grew up on in the 90’s. “Young and dumb forever,” Ted suggests as the instrumentation builds in Coldplay-esque fluidity.

“Drifter” is classic Passafire, with ferocious, metal-tinged verses and a roots reggae chorus. “We can sail this ship together/ Could you navigate through the night?” Ted roars, offering another spin on the troubles that come with growing up. Here, the lyrics are more cryptic and the message lies more in the guitar riffs than in the words.

But the band is at their best on the softer, rootsier tracks. “Rapunzel” is a serene, light-hearted reflection on moving to a new place to start a new life. “The time has come to hit reset again,” Ted explains at the end of the chorus. Later he adds, “I don’t know what happened to the rest of it… I will go wherever you call home.” Then he provides one of the most laidback and island-y guitar solos he’s ever written.

“Gone Yesterday” is a bit louder, but just as restrained and melody-driven. The band tries cloaking dancehall and hip-hop influences into their usual soulful singing. It works. “Less time to take/ more time to borrow,” the chorus meditates on a loss of innocence but at the gain of wisdom. “Hard to Find” follows, sipping from the same cup: “It’s not possible/ as I wanted it to be,” Ted starts; “so many obstacles… Whatever you do to make it by/ remember that truth may not be kind.”

But the album’s keynote track is “Fireside”, an acoustic reggae song about death. It marks the band’s musicianship and Ted’s poetics. “Don’t put my body in the ground/ Don’t want my bones to hang around,” Ted asks, and then, “Don’t need to buy a wooden box/ Don’t dress me up in expensive socks/ Just blaze me up.”

As per usual, Passafire’s hidden weapon is Will. His bass creates the distinct Passafire sound and may be the needle that threads the band’s influences together. Yet Longshot, perhaps more than any record so far, showcases Nick Kubley’s ability to hold the sounds together with his drums and the attention Mike DeGuzman pays to how his keys can highlight the melodies.

Despite the chaos described thematically (growing pains, torn relationships, complicated love, and death), Passafire continues to provide healthy doses of introspection, anger, and joy. I’ll slide it on the shelf next to the other five and spend some time being thankful bands like this persevere and accept the risks of making music for life, because, for them, music is life.

Album review: Jah Sun “Between the Lines”

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Despite my knowing about many reggae artists out there today, I had never previously heard Jah Sun until his album Between the Lines (2017, Sugar Cane Records) arrived in my mailbox. Glancing over the album I cautiously believed I might be listening to yet another wannabe using one drops and easy skanks in a trivial attempt to make resurged reggae music.

Wrong. So wrong. With the first listen of BTL I was enchanted not only by Jah Sun’s compositions- an uncanny ability to integrate folk, West African vibes, roots reggae, and hip-hop seamlessly into reggae- but by his creative lyricism, an incredibly difficult task for artists keeping to the Rastafari tradition. Each song shines, beautifully, often with luscious horns, thick bass, catchy choruses, and thoughtful verses. BTL could be in the running for best reggae album this year.

Although Jah Sun hails from the Bay area, his reggae vibes are more Jamaican than SoCal. In the past, Jah Sun has been mostly hip-hop/dancehall (think Collie Buddz or Alborosie), and while elements of this remain for his latest release, he’s pushed himself into new waters. In fact, if James Taylor and Paul Simon somehow birthed a child who fell in love with reggae and had a child with it- that would be Between the Lines.

The opener, “Only Human”, has something of a Simon-meets-Michael Franti vibe. The West African-style backing vocals blended with poetry lead to: “I’m been the prey/ I’ve been the predator/ I’ve been the simile and the metaphor/ I’ve been the paper/ and I have been the pen.” Later Jah Sun adds, “In the midst of a moment I caught a glimpse of forever.” Humble is the name of the game, and his message is clear, yet delivered with poise and honesty.

On “1997” he weaves his childhood into a poetic narrative on a soundscape reminiscent of Ziggy Marley. For the first verse, he sings soulfully, and for the second he returns to his hip-hop roots: “I got some things I’d never do again… You did your best (woah!)/ You did your best (yeah!)… Every mistake is a blessin’.” In truest reggae fashion, Jah Sun is able to portray hardships enveloped in upbeat melodies.

Yet literally every song on Between the Lines is excellent, and it would be difficult to pick a key track. “Guess Who” feels like it could have come out of Alborosie’s playbook- a flawless meditation with slickest of flows. “Tables Turn” once again integrates West African traditions into pop sensibility, detailing the issue of White Privilege- yet without any cliché or finger pointing.

Even the title track, which begins with soft acoustic guitar strumming and an ample string section, veers away from corny. “Some standing in the welfare line/ while others dine and drink red wine/ Some will fall and some will climb,” he croons in the chorus. It’s close to mush but the integrity is so great that he manages to hold his ground. Besides, the song is followed by “Ghetto Ballad”, beautifully and logically composed. I encourage Jah Sun to pay attention to his poetic side and continue to push his lyrics. He has the ability to write far beyond the typical reggae vocabulary. He’s headed in the right direction.

In fact, this album is so palatable I’m confident I could play it for people who hate reggae and they’d love his message and precision. Albums as touching and congruent as this are rare, especially those with the production and mixing grace that Jah Sun pulls off here. The songs are timeless, the melodies ear candy, the message positive, and overall, Between the Lines should be anything but that- it should be listened to with care and mindfulness.

Album review: Jerry Falzone “Chasing Ghosts”

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With each record Rochester, New York’s Jerry Falzone offers beautiful melodies over cascading, subtle folk/rock music. Despite this sensibility, I simply can’t call him a singer/songwriter. Instead, I’d classify him as old school, synthesizing influences from the rise of the late 60’s: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, The Eagles, and Bob Seger. Jerry has somehow maintained a mentor role for like-minded musicians in the Western New York area while continuously engaging as one of the emerging artists. This shows his passion for music, and Chasing Ghosts (Self-released, 2017), carried by backing band Liar’s Moon, is his best work to date.

He throws in strings, horns, lush vocal harmonies, and restrained guitar solos throughout the album, while lyrically he offers some of his most personal stuff. Most tracks are love songs, but Jerry (who’s been married for a while and has offspring), sheds gooey lust pop for meaningful messages about longstanding love, and I believe this travels beyond his romantic life and speaks to his community, something he’s closely tied to. This vision for his music sprawls across the album, and the intensity pauses only momentarily for “Message to Millennials”, a brief transition halfway through the album when a voice hearkens, “That concludes side one of Chasing Ghosts.”

This tongue-in-cheek addition also speaks to Jerry’s focus on producing an album, not just a series of songs. The album swims high and low, soft and hard, deep and danceable. “Built To Last” leaps out as a key track. “In a world that’s changing fast/ nothing ever seems to last/ You turn around/ something new has passed,” Jerry begins, followed by the elegant chorus (that warms like CSNY’s best), “Like a mountain reaching into the past/ baby, you and me/ we were built to last.” Piano plays a big role for the instrumentation here, along with lead guitar reminiscent of early Dire Straits.

“Cold Cold World” follows, basking in keys again. The funky up-tempo is a newer and welcome pace for Jerry. Later, “Gray Day Dawning” has a similar pulse to it, on which Jerry yearns, “I wish this rain would lift/ I’m so tired of it.” The title track appears last, and is a haunting, ethereal scene: “I left here many years ago,” Jerry offers; “never said goodbye.”

Much of Jerry’s music is existential in nature, exploring death and love in a simultaneously solemn and grateful manner. Throughout Chasing Ghosts the harmonies hold onto that haunted quality, speaking to a complex man who is very in touch with his darker sides. In fact, Jerry’s good friend, Carl Lang, who appears on the record, passed away mid-recording, and Jerry kept his ashes in the studio. This sentimentality and respect for spirit is evident in each song.

These days, I’m not listening to much folk/rock, but Jerry remains one of my favored songwriters. Even after a full lifetime of music, he’s not done growing, and Chasing Ghosts is catchy, witty, emotional, courageous, and endearing. Sure, it’s not pushing the limits of music, but sometimes that’s not necessary, and when someone does their thing as well as Jerry does, it can be good to sit back and just enjoy an artist sharing his voice.

Album Review: Double Tiger “Sharp & Ready”

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Jay Spaker may best be known for his work in John Brown’s Body, but he’s been on the scene for over two decades: guitarist, singer, singjay, DJ, frontman, and sideman. Over the years, Jay’s taken on reggae in all its forms, and now, under the moniker Double Tiger, he releases Sharp & Ready (2017) on Easy Star Records. The album was recorded in Brooklyn, where Jay lives and soaks in numerous influences. He plays most of the instruments and had his hands in nearly every element of the album’s inception, development, and production. His style is fast, upbeat, powerful, and in your face- even in the most danceable and rootsiest of songs. Overall, Sharp & Ready is a homerun. Double Tiger just knows his stuff too well to flop.

The opening track and first single is actually one of the album’s least impressive; however, “Rocking Time” introduces Double Tiger’s flow, complete with backing vocals from JBB’s Elliot Martin, (we already know the two work wonders together). “When you’re hot like a pepper/ and you’re bad like a stepper,” he offers in the second verse. Behind him, extra-tight percussion, extra-fat bass, and extra-heady keys pull this song in like a deep inhale. This attunement to structure persists throughout the 12 tracks.

Double Tiger takes on several love/lover’s rock songs. Now, Jay has always been able to develop infectious melodies, even when his creativity stumbles. On “Crème de la Crème” he’ll steal the airwaves with cool, dogged flow with instrumentation that sounds like Black Uhuru in their epoch. Still, the song offers little new in the way of messaging: “Let me know now/ will I ever see your lovely face again/ Will I feel your embrace again?” but it hardly matters; the song is constructed too well to really care.

“A Feelin’” is another love song, with a slower tempo without losing the intensity. “I love the way you smile when I kiss you,” Double Tiger offers. “A Feelin’” is the album’s least original, and even lacks the emotion Jay pulled off on JBB’s “Like a Queen”. Conversely, “Falling” is one of the album’s key tracks. It’s gushy, ripe, sexy, and funky. Tiger seems lost in a lustfully poetic place as he swoons over his lady. “Like honey to a bee/ a natural blend, yes,” he offers up; “I know our love is growing stronger every day.”
Ultimately, though, “Time Has Come” has been on replay for me. It’s fresh and robust and Tiger is at his best when he singjays through crushing verses. The topic at hand is not new to reggae: Babylon sucks and the time has come to stand up. But even during political moments, Tiger holds onto a sexiness in his song construction. You’ll grind to this song as much as you’ll raise a fist.

Double Tiger is both a product of his influences and a revolutionary of his own sounds; proof of the bi-directional relationship artists can have in a lush musical scene. Over the past two decades, the independent reggae scene has become saturated- a good thing because reggae is awesome, and also a difficult thing to navigate because there’s almost too much to choose from, so I’ll offer this: Double Tiger sounds east coast and respectful of the Jamaican roots. His knowledge of reggae music propels this album, over any desire to write a good hook. Fans of everyone from Eek-A-Mouse to Peter Tosh, from The Green to The Expanders, will like this underdog album. Check it out and vibe.