Album review: Jesse Royal “Lily of Da Valley”

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Jamaica’s had an influx of talent as of late: Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, and Chronixx name just a few of the next generation of island vibes. And dancing on the outskirts, but not for long, is Jesse Royal. Overall, his talent is irrefutable. Song structure, catchiness, control of the genres, and a sexy voice seemingly pour out of Jesse, whose Lily of Da Valley (Easy Start Records, 2017) offers up an eclectic dance around the genre. He also has a commitment to very 80’s stylings. Loads of synth drums, fetching choruses, and contemporary social consciousness drum up images of Steel Pulse. Comparisons to Peter Tosh also come easily, maybe because both musicians have songs titled “400 Years”, and Jesse’s “Rock It Tonight” parallels Peter’s “Rock With Me”.

Speaking of “400 Years”, it starts the album off, but it’s also unparalleled. The rock-esque intro and laid-on one drops, along with Jesse’s mix of heartfelt singing and rapping feels like Damian Marley’s rootsier tracks: “All the people really want is hands and hearts together,” Jesse offers as horns blister and drum n’ bass enthrall. The clav adds low-end character. Jesse goes on: “Still not getting the respect due.” The rises and falls are quintessential reggae.

Two other tracks are exceptional:

On “Roll Me Something Good”, Jesse provides one of the best ganja anthems written in a decade. The upbeat groove, moderate tempo, and the high hat double-time on the chorus, and maybe the synth drum fills too, create a song designed more for the dance floor than for dorm room. The vibes are nice! “Chalice haffi bubble all night,” Jesse repeats, and adds, “A wiseman said to me/ herb is our destiny.” Message aside, the music alone is supreme.

Also, the finale, “Jah Will See Us Through”, thunders with the album’s best bassline, and sensuous backing vocals. “You must know/ not just believe,” Jesse warns; “Learn from your lessons/ and stop your pouting.” The anthem returns to what the intro had: a mix of vocal styles, instrumentation staying firm to tradition while always building and moving, and a passionate message: “Tell my nieces/ and my nephews/ that Jah will see us through.”

So, yes, traditional lyrics abound across these 14 tracks, but this seems more as a guideline for Jesse. Singles “Modern Day Judas” and “Finally” appear herein trues Rasta form, along with the minor key “Always Be Around” lover’s rock: “This is just an appetizer,” Jesse swings with minimal-but-apparent Autotune. One style I’ve yet to get into is dancehall, and Jesse tries one here: “Full Moon”. And you know what? He slays.

Only “Real Love” fumbles, and not for anything other than being overdone, lacking character, unlike its partner, “Rock It Tonight”, which finds a 70’s reggae vibe. “Hey bartender/ fling a likkle ginseng in the blender,” Jesse muses, adding, “You see that likkle brown thing in the red dress?/ Won’t you send her this bottle of moet?/ Everything is on the Natty tonight.” Oh, that’s smooth, bro… Even if it’s a little questionable when he offers, “The Natty get lucky tonight.”

Despite traversing the sounds, Jesse Royal has a cohesive sound, and so Lily of Da Valley holds together nicely. To get back to Tosh, Jesse has the same urgency in his music, the same pain shines through, the same hope. My ask is that Jesse pursue personal stories in his songs. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who shoot for style over content, Jesse seems eager to bring Jamaican reggae to new places. For a first formal release, though, Jesse Royal lives up to his name. His reign will be long and great.

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Album Reivew: Thunder Body “Solstice”

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Fans have waited four years for Rochester, NY’s Thunder Body to release new material. Solstice (Rootfire Collective, 2017) was intentionally made with a couple year gap between recording sessions. During that time, drummer/singer/bandleader Matthew O’Brian and keyboardist Rachel Orke had a son, their relatives and friends had children, and so parenthood became a focus for the duo. Along the way, Thunder Body gained and lost some core members and added a three-piece horn section. Thunder Body played live shows around the Rochester area this entire time, but rarely toured too far away from home. Therefore, they were able to somehow progress and expand while staying completely the same. The Old West quality of the instrumentation that has followed Thunder Body since conception persists, sometimes with the guitar style, often with Rachel’s organ and melodica.

No mentions of JAH, no mentions of ganja- and yet the deepest messages of reggae are present in Matt’s sparse, poetic lyricism. The words are literary in fashion, if not also simplistic. Themes of one love, connection, admiration for nature, and humility curve through every song, without any cliché reggae rhymes whatsoever. Straight-up: no reggae band on the scene today comes close to what Thunder Body is doing. My biggest criticism of Solstice is how little of it there is, clocking in at 36 minutes and 10 songs.

Many of the songs are about the nuclear family of Matt and Rachel. “Jasper Sage” is named after their son, on which Matt offers, “Always be sweet to women/ especially your mom/ She keeps giving and giving.” He wears his heart out on his sleeve, addressing his son directly. “You were born in the thunder/ born in the lightning/ and then you and your mom were all right.” “Elliot’s Song” ends the album, and Elliot is their nephew, son of Chris O’Brian, drummer for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. This is more of a prayer, trickling out in a timeless manner: “Angel of joy/ Heavenly father/ watch over this boy,” Matt asks.

“Moonlight Over Mendecino” is one of the rare reggae love songs that includes zero clichés and zero cheese. “I wanna go where I don’t need no/ telephone or computer connection,” Matt sings as if perpetually on the West Coast; “When I get home/ you’ll get my best affection.” The song’s bridge helps showcase the rest of the band’s character.

All the songs, especially “What’s Sweet About Lemons”, “Solstice”, and “Trainyards” hold onto mystical, theological, theoretical, and insightful musings. The instrumentation always fits the lyrics effectively. The production and style of the music is such that non-reggae fans will probably enjoy Solstice anyway. Thunder Body remains very indie, very set in their ways, and even though the songs have a consistent weightless feel, it’s clear they take their work seriously. Each album, Wind Blows Harder¸ Radioactive, and now Solstice tackle different angles of the same themes.

As a work of art, Solstice is spot on: dosing creativity with tradition. This is exactly what we’ve all been waiting these years for. A great addition to this Thunder Body of work.

Album Review: The Simpkin Project “Beam of Light”

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“I gotta keep my pace/ so I can’t slow down,” Phil Simpkin offers at the start of Beam of Light (Dub Rockers, 2017). “I keep hustling, hustling, hustling/ daily.” No doubt, The Simpkin Project- hailing from Huntington Beach, CA- have put their time in and continue to push their music forward. This is because a) they’re an independent contemporary reggae band, and b) their mix of Southern blues-rock and reggae is unconventional. But no one is quite able to pull off this sound like SP. As for Beam of Light, it’s wonderful.

Many of these songs have a timeless quality to them, and to share their influences they provide a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”, which they make wholly their own, probably because this lyrical style and song construction is similar to their own catalogue. In fact, if you didn’t know it was a cover, you’d probably never guess. Part of the awesomeness is the ripping guitar solo towards the end. Guitar, after all, is where Simpkin makes his mark. The band makes pop-focused, catchy anthems (ala Blues Traveler, I’d say), but where John Popper has his harmonica, SP has Phil’s guitar.

Many of the tracks have the timeless essence Cliff pulled off decades ago. Notably, “Passion” just thunders through with gorgeous-yet-simple lyrics: “Write with pain/ Write with loving… You will never know/unless you try.” The cascading builds and falls match some of reggae’s most important songs. “I’ll Be There” keeps that vibe going, and instrumentally it’s dynamite (horns aplenty), but the words are less than original: “I’ll be there/ rain or shine.” The pit is ripe but the fruit isn’t quite as edible.

Needless to say, Simpkin’s bluesy, loud voice can take mediocre words and fill them like a balloon taught with emotional helium. Yet at other times, the lyrics hold their own; “The World’s On Your Shoulders” comes to mind. Not only do the rhythm and lead guitars work fondly together, but: “Children…Land of your fathers/ and yours to take over… There’s so much that’s been set in place/ before I came to be.” It’s a call to youth, a meditation of past errors, and a humbling acceptance of how much one person can do.

The key track is “Some Things Don’t Change”. This song has already worn out my speakers. The ferocious guitar, fluid horns, and lines like, “Exotic tastes in/ far off places/ don’t suit me at all” just sum up what SP is all about. And props to Sean Kennedy on the drums; he is the not-so-secret weapon. The persistent kicks on “Some Things” is probably where I got that Blues Traveler reference earlier. This song zings and spirals up into a guitar solo and backing “oohs” that are highly replay-able.

A fan favorite from live shows, and where the album gets its name, finally appears in studio version here. This is another excellent song. “Lo and behold,” it begins; “In everyone there is a beam of light.” The simple progression and lyrics, the call-and-response, and the harmonies make for a damn-near perfect reggae song.

On the more critical side, “Perfect Harmony” is very cheesy, as is “It’s Only Nothing” (although, once again, the band could give soul to the most lifeless songs). And that’s really it. The CD version of the album is beautifully designed, complete with a lyrics booklet (few and far between these days).

The Simpkin Project pulls off another set of songs that sounds unique and familiar all at once.

 

Album review: The National Parks “Places”

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I rarely get to review pop/rock these days, so I was stoked on Provo, Utah’s The National Parks. But I was also worried that this would be another polished band delivering shiny songs made from the detritus left over from the last alt./neo/folk project to try this out (can you tell I’m biased?). But Places [RECORD LABEL NEEDED] is exceptional, taking the anthemic, female-backed choruses from The Arcade Fire, to some of the lyrical grit of Fun., to the rousing hoopla of bands like Third Eye Blind (without the grim outlook). Yes, Places is enthusiastically supported.

On the title track, “Oh-oh’s” start things off. Then Brady Parks kicks in: “In the corner of my mind/ I’ve been thinking of some times/ I took streets, trails, and old, back roads.” The reeling guitar fills in every gap, and Sydney Macfarlane’s backing vocals add texture, but whereas female/male vocal duos is a common trope these days, it’s done here very subtly. “From salty skies/ when I was young,” Brady adds, “to foreign days/ under the sun.” And the bridge goes, “It’s all passing me by.” The never-grow-up angst is couched in wanderlust.

From that moment on, Places never wanes. Every song is good. “At The Heart” stands out because of its pop melody and synth goo reminiscent of TSwift’s Red, an album I find quintessential. Love songs cascade through Places, but they’re not cliché one iota. “We were close/ but grew tired… Driving along to the city lights/ because moving on/ takes so long,” the verse envelopes. Violin sweeps it all together. The synth drums and peppy melodies that normally rub me wrong fit here organically.

Two songs, back-to-back, are amazing. On “Costa Rica”, the Mumford and Sons speed-guitar-to-slow-verse is achieved flawlessly. “When you moved to Costa Rica,” Brady wonders; “did you speak/ or did you hablar?/ Letters to and from Brazil/ they proved we still heart-to-heart.” It’s witty and emotional.  Most of the lyrics hold this quality: poetics without too much symbolism, complete images without verbosity.

“Esperanza” follows, and one can’t help but ponder if the two Latin-themed songs are coupled intentionally. But here we have a duet. “For some things, you just gotta fight,” she sings. “I’ve been in the ring too many times,” he replies. Later, she says, “Spin in circles/ let’s be dancers,” and he replies, “When I dance/ it’s with disaster.” For anyone wondering how to properly write a pop love song, here’s your example.

On “Currents”, this cool persists: “Sometimes you are a desert… and I’m an old man, lost/ chasing your mirage.” This band is stuck staring at a summer night from their window; young free-thinkers in a small town dreaming of something bigger. They do this with humility.

Basically, I don’t think they know how good their songs are, and I hope all the accolades this album is sure to generate only encourages The National Parks to keep doing what they do, no need to spill into Top 40. This indie scene needs more of this sensibility.

We need more Places, but for now, let’s just enjoy what we got: a pretty, gracious album from one of my new favorite bands.

 

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Although they hail from San Francisco, Baraka Moon’s mix of percussive styles and instrumentation leads to a Sufi-Indian-African-Aboriginal hybrid that’s both mystical and grounding. In critiquing this album, I ran into a language barrier; Sukhawat Ali Khan turns to his Pakistani roots for the vocals, so, that being said, I had to draw on the album’s vibe, production, and structure to form an educated opinion about Wind Horse (self-produced, 2017). Despite that challenge, I must say that this is a great album.

Throughout Wind Horse, the tone is meditative; sparse and robust simultaneously. In other words, the musicianship is tight and the songs find grooves to riff on without veering too far away, but the swings of slide guitar, tabla, didjeridu, and harmonium, on top of guitar, drums, and bass, create noticeable intensity- vibrations that hit you in the center of your chest, especially at loud volumes.

Take, “Allah Hoo” for example. It starts off at a gallop, the didjeridu taking a rhythmic stance (you won’t believe what Steven Kent can pull off). The vocals and melody sound like old-time European folk ballads, while the guitar is jamband-esque. With all this going on, one might think that the song would be drawing from too many sources, but Baraka Moon have mastered their integrations, and instead, the result is pretty, danceable music.

For “Sabir”, Baraka Moon lands into a flawless reggae groove. Interlaced harmonium creates a unique sound and the near-chanted vocals are excellence. It’s hard to believe that “Rasa Divine” is on the same album. It conversely has a dessert blues sound with pulsing didjeridu and percussion, as well as banjo. The mighty “Julay Julay” is as vastly different; punctuating the Australian Aboriginal influence. And yet the album flows.

And Wind Horses best song is “Mankuntu”, with a delicate West African-style groove, including a slurred bassline. “Mankuntu” slowly builds until the repeated and seducing bridge and instrumental breakdown afterwards, like a well-traveled Toubab Krewe.

Wind Horses weakness is that most of the songs are too long. Four of the nine songs break six minutes, and none of the songs have enough movement to be substantial for that length. In fact, during some listens, these longer get boring. Part of this stems from the influences, musical styles that generally have long songs, but my hope is that they get more experimental, more jammy, in the future.

Also, perhaps this album is less for listening intently to on headphones, and is better suited loud on a stereo for dancing purposes. Many of the songs evoke trance-like dance moves and meditative head bobs. In that case, bravo!

Overall, Baraka Moon make interesting music with integrity, and Wind Horse has many moments of exceptionalism, if at other points it could use a bit of revamping. No songs are throwaways. For that, Baraka Moon has found a niche and made basecamp. This is where they really begin to explore the territory they dared enter.

Album Review: The Black Seeds “Fabric”

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One thing that can be said about Wellington, New Zealand’s The Black Seeds: their sound is unmistakable. Seconds into Fabric (Easy Star Records, 2017)- between the clipped lead guitar, the organ bubble, and the snare pounces, The Black Seeds arrive in full force. Amid myriad bands integrating reggae or living it fully, this sextet makes something wholly their own (no SoCal vibes whatsoever). Mostly, this means two-parts reggae, one-part 70’s soul, and one-part funk. But for Fabric, reggae comes through more than anything, both in the instrumentation and the messages.

Another great thing about this band is their consistency. While I couldn’t say that any of their five albums are canonical, they are all steadily above average. Fabric continues this trend with all good songs and several superb songs. But this also means they haven’t grown too much- not necessarily a bad decision, since many bands end up abandoning their earlier sounds, the very elements that made them special. B.S. stays true to their course, even if that course takes them in circles sometimes. I certainly don’t mind because it’s a fun circle to listen to.

“It won’t be long/ before something good happens for ya,” Barnaby Weir sings on “Better Days”. The roots riddim vibes hard. Thick bass and stratospheric background guitar blitz the speakers as Weir presses on about positive changes he’s sure are coming. This uplift cascades through the album. “Ride On” even has a similar groove to “Better Days”, but that’s okay. It’s more restrained and packed in and the sing-a-long style of the melody is infectious. “My little island paradise/ It feels so nice/ We play it twice,” Barnaby offers. “You know, I’d love to stay/ I’m sad to say/ I can’t stay long,” he adds. Minimal lyrics like this can rarely be pulled off, but B.S. nails it.

Two songs steal the show:

“Back To You” starts off kind of weak. The lyrics aren’t too impressive and the rhythm is too synthy for my taste, but as soon as the chorus hits, along with a subtle-but-effective drum fill, then the song takes off. “I always seem to come right back to you now,” Daniel Weetman sings. “I wrote these words for you, now/ You stand as one under the sun and moon.” Hmm. Cryptic and poetic. But the song doesn’t win because of its lyrical accountability; it’s mere rise and fall, chorus to verse, is so sexy.

“Beleza” begins with a voiceover (uncredited) that talks about global climate change in a very unrelenting manner, as the instrumentation builds slowly below it. Clearly, this message sets up the song’s theme, and on a personal note, I’m thrilled to hear a reggae band take on contemporary worldly struggles, such as climate change. The groove is addictive as, “She is your mother/ like the Earth is your protector… We are together/ We are part of something special… Time and money/ All it brings you is trouble,” hits home. Midway through, dub style takes over and the groove amplifies.

That groove has a particular quality, unique to The Black Seeds. Even the weaker songs, like the funky but cliché “Freakin’” and the listless “Lightning Stikes”, aren’t all-bad because the band can always rely on their cohesion.

Props to Lee Prebble, who mixed the album, for cranking up Francis Harawira’s bass throughout Fabric, as it pulls all the forces together and makes for a danceable, play-it-loud record end to end. This is indeed more from a solid band. Fans won’t be disappointed. Nubes will say, “Woah. Who is this? I like them!”

Definitely recommended.