Album Review: The Ellameno Beat “Surface”

Surface

Jensen Beach’s Ellameno Beat (get it?) self-released their debut album Surface, and it’s a refreshing dose of laidback roots reggae vibes. Thankfully, the lyrics aren’t lost in the beachy feel and lowkey vocals, a sound so many other bands have harnessed, as if “going reggae” without understanding the messages therein. But Reggie Froom (guitar/vocals), James Rosenblit (drums), Dylon Hixon (bass), Matt Diamond (Trumpet/vocals), and Walker Brantingham (keys) reel in what could otherwise be hokey Florida reggae and show their potential.

On the flip side, none of the songs are overly catchy, but they are easily learnable and fun to groove to. “Bumpy Road” starts off Surface and is a prime example. The plunky key intro leads to a slow tempo groove. “The truth carries us through,” Reggie suggests, “Ready yourself.” It’s a call to action, but couched in the floating instrumentation.

Horns add texture to “One Of Us”, a faster song, which suffers from lyrical droll, but is possessed with funk and energy that outshines the cliché. Reggie is one of those singers who belts with such gusto that he can take a mundane line and fill it with emotion, but that’s not where this song excels. Rather, the production is lo-fi enough to make it sound like this band is all together in one room, utilizing effects pedals to wonderful outcomes. In fact, the dubs and jams throughout Surface help set it apart.

One of Reggie’s best performances is on “Distance”, where he throws his voice around the tight, locked in groove (big ups Walker for the fat bubble on the keys). The vocal harmonies also draw this song together. “Until the end/ still we hold,” Reggie hopes, “So I’m keeping my distance/ from my own.” That warm, organic sound extends into “Take Me Away”, where the horns once again blaze, but it’s the dub interplay that really vibrates. This is meditation music more than dance music.

The key track, however, is “Muse”, mainly because of the synth melody that starts everything off. Most of Surface has restrained tempos, but “Muse” is particularly mellow. “It’s a been a little while since I’ve seen your face/ I’m where I want to be,” Reggie begins. “So come to me/ where the water runs deep/ The sun, the sea/ where the wildlife sleeps.” It’s good!

I hear everything from Tribal Seeds to Van Gordon Martin, and a little Slightly Stoopid wrapped up in Ellameno Beat- yet they have an original sound, too. Blending old-school reggae themes with contemporary sensibility, combining pop-centric savvy while respecting reggae traditions- these are difficult tasks. But The Ellameno Beat work hard at it and the payoff is Surface, an attractive, sensual album that’s equal parts political, spiritual, playful, and romantic. So, maybe it’s not the best reggae album ever, but as far as continuity and balance go, a lot of contemporary reggae bands could learn a lot from these up-and-comers.

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Album Review: New Kingston “A Kingston Story: Come From Far”

ComeFromFar

While Kingston City (Easy Star, 2015) had some flaws, songs like “Protect Me” and “Mystery Babylon” were supreme- enough to get me excited for further development from one of New York, NY’s finest contemporary reggae outfits. But A Kingston Story: Come From Far (Easy Star, 2017) doesn’t deliver. Brothers Tahir, Courtney Jr., and Stephen, along with their dad, Courtney Sr., on bass are so close to making something spectacular: their vocal harmonies, their use of space, their pop-conscious melodies, and oftentimes their hooks, are excellent, but CFF feels half-written.

Take “Stereotypes”, an excellent theme for a song. The bassline thunders, setting a meditative and heavy mood, but then, “Break down every gate/ Break down every barrier/ Righteous is the way/ People, won’t you follow us?” is repeated six times in a row (in a slow tempo) before a bridge kicks in, three-quarters through the song. That’s the whole thing. The melody, instrumentation, and delivery is simply not enough to carry this kind of repetition.

“Meditation” is similar, beginning, “Going straight to the brain/ Come and take me away… Life ain’t no game.” Lyrically, this is not only stereotypical, but also vapid. Following is a reprehensible rhyme: “Don’t want to wait in vain/ I need it in my vein,” (also feeling like more of a heroin reference than collie). The song kind of pulls itself together later, glued with slinky percussion, but after a semi-structured verse, a recording of a woman talking nonsense about breathing-in steals the last minute of the song. I keep thinking, “When’s the song going to begin?”

“Solid As A Rock” wants to flourish, but the flashy electric guitar and synth drums, along with hearing “solid as a rock” repeated over and over, is cliché. “Starlight” is also so very close to packing a punch: the intro is sexy, and the choral melody is tight, but lines like, “Every king needs a queen/ She’s my reason/ She’s the one to give me love in every season” brings it to a screeching halt.

The title track (also the first single) is amazing, however. The groove is precise, and the brothers seem unified, playing off one another with lines like, “So many seeds/ (water them and they will grow).” This feels like a continuation of Kingston City’s excellence, and is what makes New Kingston a force. The song is part spiritual call/part dance n’ grind shuffle. “Honorable and The Beast” is also good, feeling like old school Steel Pulse. Again, the boys are unified and intentional about their interplay. And “Agape”, for being something of a corny love song, flutters with lightness, and is passionate. It’s a very beautiful message, and the lyrics are some of the best, (with the exception of, “You’re my baby boo/ yes, this love is true”).

Yet with one track as a dub and another as an interlude, this album tries to stand on three essential New Kingston songs. I don’t really understand how this happened. Listen to the tightly sewn “Reggae Music Playing” and you’ll be able to hear the vast potential of this band. These songs feel like they just needed more time in the incubator, or another ear to listen to them an add some spice. I really love New Kingston. As people, they are humble and very kind. As live musicians, they steal the hearts of the crowd. As songwriters, they are blossoming, but A Kingston Story: Come From Far leaves me wanting. I’m curious what other fans think.

Morgan Heritage at Higher Ground Ballroom Monday, September 11th: an interview with Mr. Mojo

Morgan Heritage 2015 Promo Pic3

Following the success of the Grammy-winning album Strictly Roots (CTBC Records, 2015), the dynastic Morgan Heritage released Avrakedabra, a blend of roots reggae, pop, soul, rock, and hip-hop, loaded with guest stars. Setting out on a massive tour, the group is coming to Higher Ground in South Burlington, VT on Monday, September 11th.

Morgan Heritage has been around long enough to see the music scene shift, and to harken in a new age of reggae music. Their explosive live show is not to be missed. Members have included much of the family, but at its core: Peter “Peetah” (vocals), Una (keyboard/vocals), Roy “Gramps”(keys/vocals), Nakhamyah “Lukes” (guitar), and Memmalatel “Mr. Mojo” (percussion/vocals).

In an attempt to get a few words for a brief promotional post on the concert, I ended up having a marvelous conversation with Mojo. Below is a bit of history, some amazing stories behind the songs, and lots of love and respect from one of reggae’s most influential acts. Mojo called in from Florida.

You’re at home with the kids.

It has been a long time since we’ve had this much time off in the summer. So, we’re enjoying it, because the rest of the year will be a little bit hectic.

Do people in the band live in different places?

Yes. Me and Peter and Lukes is out of Florida. Gramps just set up shop in Nashville.

And you’re all family?

Four brothers. One sister. [Laughs]

What’s the order?

Una is the oldest, followed by Gramps, then Peetah, Lukes, and myself- the baby in the group.

Were you always playing music together?

We started in the 80’s. Our dad had a massive hit called “I’ll Do Anything For You”- top of the Billboard. His name is Denroy Morgan. And then he basically put his career on pause to develop our talent, and as we grew more people, they joined the band! [Laughs] There used to be, like, 10 of us, and now it’s back down to five.

I got into you through Strictly Roots. What was it like winning the Grammy?

It was amazing because it was our first independent release on our own CTBC Records. We’d just left VP Records, so nobody knew what to expect. But we were up for the challenge, and glad to do what we wanted to do for marketing because we’re out there on tour, and hear what our fans complain about when it comes to getting our music. So, we put a plan together that catered to those complaints. And I guess it worked out. [Laughs]

Strictly

Was it scary to go out on your own?

It was a tough decision in terms of the economic burden and responsibility, but as far as freedom was concerned, it was an easy decision. We were blessed to be with VP Records because we always had creative control. In the mid 90’s we were with MCA Records and that album wasn’t really what we wanted it to be, but we gave them what they wanted and our dad was able to get us out of the deal before the demise of MCA, and when they folded, half of their list went to Geffen, and the rest went to Interscope. The president released us, and we moved to Jamaica shortly after that. The rest is history. Being in the position where we are with CTBC, we’re inspiring a whole new generation of reggae artists, simply because, as Josh [Waters Rudge] from The Skints would say, “You guys have done it successfully, and given us the inspiration to know that we can have that same success.” We’re the underdogs that won, so, “If you can do it, we could do it.”

And reggae has always needed extra maneuvering through the haze of the music industry.

We compare our music to rock music because of the message in the music; we’re kindred spirits, like when we did the Warped Tour in 2001/2002, we were the first reggae band to ever do it. We connected with those guys, talking about NOFX, Good Charlette, New Found Glory, Me First and The Gimme Gimmes, and the list goes on and on and on. When I connect with Pepper, they remind me times they were on the Volcom stage, setting it up and breaking it down, seeing us on the main stage. We were their inspiration; to see them doing as well as they are now, to be their inspiration, is encouraging. At the same time, we have these two genres where you don’t need a mainstream hit and artists can tour for 20-30 years successfully.

What a blessing, to connect in that way.

Much love to our godfather, Kevin Lyman, for seeing us perform in the 90’s. He was a production manager, those were the early days of the Warped Tour. We asked him, “Why us?” He said, “I want these kids to get the experience of what I experienced when I saw Peter Tosh and Bob Marley live, and the only band I’ve ever seen that could do this, and make the sacrifice, and to do what it takes to survive on the Warped Tour,” because it’s a grueling tour, “was Morgan Heritage.” And since us, there’s been a few other bands: Passafire, Lionize, and some other fusion bands like Fear Nuttin Band… Who are actually our relatives.

I know those guys! Roosta or Prowla?

Roosta! He’s our boy! Prowla is a childhood friend. We went to school all the way from middle school to high school with Prowla.

That’s awesome! I hear they’re not playing together anymore…

Yeah… I mean, I’ve been encouraging them to get it back together because, one thing about a unit that we discovered through our solo projects: We’re strong individually, but we’re even stronger together. You know, [laughs] I think Guns n’ Roses realized that. Time is the master.

I do hope they get back together. They have a really unique sound.

I actually wrote their first single [“Vibes”] and co-produced their album [Yardcore]. I recorded the demo that was rerecorded later, identical to what I did, in a studio in Seattle, but they still had to bring me in to get back the magic I captured in a small room in Brooklyn where we broke it down. [Laughs]

You do a lot, then.

The thing about winning the Grammy was, in previous years we would’ve received different awards: one for the label, one as producer, and one as songwriter, and one as an artist. So, that’s, what, four different awards- but they’re giving a lot of certificates now for these other things, and they combined our artist and producer award into one. [Laughs] We’ve been doing this for years. If you look at the production that we did with Capleton, Toots, Buju Banton, Anthony B… I mean, there probably isn’t anyone coming out of the Jamaican reggae scene that we’ve not done production with or collaborated with in one form or another. Gramps, as a great example, was introduced to J Boog by Fiji. That whole first album, Backyard Boogie [Washhouse Hawaii], was produced by Gramps. A lot of the songs were co-written by Peetah, who does a lot of songwriting outside Morgan Heritage.

That’s what’s of gleaned as I researched you.

We’re very humble. Now we’re allowing our team to tell our story. One of the great stories, is Marley [Williams] from Rebelution looked at us, like, “When we were in high school, Eric [Rachmany] and I met, and our favorite song at the time was ‘Down By The River’.” And that’s how they got together! Because they both liked a Morgan Heritage song. That’s how Rebelution was formed.

I’ve been loving Avrakedabra. Was it hard, after a Grammy win, to go back in and make something new?

It was difficult to get the time, so what we did, because the tour was so crazy, we traveled with a mobile studio, to capture moments. This album was recorded across four continents, from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Reunion Island… To Tokyo, Paris, London, Nashville, Los Angeles, Miami, and Jamaica, of course.

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So, you made the time.

For instance, we were in a hotel room on Reunion Island and Peetah had an idea and melody, and he told me, “Set up the lab.” We brought everybody in, and every instrument you hear on “One Family” was cut in that hotel room, except for the drums. We flew back to Paris, did a layover, and the drummer, Peetah, and myself, did the live drums in the studio. And then, when we got to Miami, we recorded Stephen [Marley], and in L.A. we recorded Ziggy. [Laughs]

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted the Marley brothers on that song?

When we finished writing it we said, “One family: What family are we closest with in this industry?” There’s no other family than the Marleys. They’re brothers from another mother. So, the message in the song spoke to what we represent as two reggae dynasties, and that we shine when we’re together.

The other song I love is “Pineapple Wine”.

A gentleman by the name of Drew Davis came into our lives through a mutual friend and he said, “I got this song. I wrote it when I was in Hawaii, riding the waves.” We heard it, [and] based on the melody we added some lyrics to it, but the core of it was his. And we haven’t recorded songs that weren’t written by us since MCA. So, we created this amazing sound to match this country thing; he’s from Nashville. He wrote this amazing song! It’s got a country feel, so we brought country and reggae together. That’s how you got “Pineapple Wine”.

Kabaka Pyramid is one of my favorite reggae artists out there. What was it like to work with him?

Refreshing. First of all, when we reached out to him and Dre Island, in less than 48 hours we received vocal files back. Normally, you send somebody something and they want you to come into the studio, collaborate, and that’s where the magic is. But these guys were able to tap into it because it’s a new, technological era, where, you know, “I got the music, I know the concept; I’m going to do a Skype call, a Facetime call… Here it is.” People like Chronixx, Protoje, Tarrus Riley, and Kabaka Pyramid and Dre Island are right up there. The future of reggae music is secure. I mean, Jamaican reggae music, because right now reggae is global. Reggae music is not only created on that small island where it started anymore. I love the energy, the growth.

Well, this was supposed to be a quick promotional interview for your show at Higher Ground in Vermont. [Laughs] Have you ever played Vermont before?

Being educated in Springfield, Massachusetts I remember going skydiving with my carpentry teacher. He brought us up for a fieldtrip, and before he ran off the mountain in what looked like a sleeping bag, (we thought he was crazy, by the way), he pointed out one of the only places you could stand in Massachusetts and see Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut- all from that mountain. It was a sight to behold. I dig moments like that; they live with me. Vermont is a beautiful place, especially in Autumn. It’s beautiful country. We’re going to make sure we’re regular visitors from now on. Get ready for a reggae night!