Album review: The Expanders “Old Time Something Come Back Again Vol. 2”

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From the get-go, California’s The Expanders set out as architects of old school, truly roots reggae. Immediately, their mastery of the genre swept up fans and critics alike. The first volume of Old Time Something Come Back Again!! was an opportunity for the band to share their favorite classic reggae songs. For OTSCBA Vol. 2 (Easy Star Records, 2017), they harvested gems from an expansive collection and went from there. More than anything, their mad respect for the originators shines through. In an almost ironic sense, in a time when reggae is flooded with originals that are cliché and rehashed, The Expanders took covers and made them fresh.

And in doing so, The Expanders didn’t reinterpret these oldies, nor did they even try adding any fresh twists. All fourteen tracks sound impressively like their originals. Yet for the sole reason that The Expanders are their own singers and players, the songs are simultaneously immediately recognizable as this quintet.

Because this is a covers album, combing through the content of each song doesn’t really work here, although this collection includes many songs that- in great reggae fashion- remain timeless. Their political, spiritual, and social justice themes hold sufficient weight in 2017. On “Brutal” (originally by The Itals), lines like, “Mon, I say it’s brutal out there… I’d rather be down with my brothers and sisters,” and on “Freedom Train” (originally by The Gladiators), lines like, “I had a vision the other night/These words I heard… Freedom train is coming soon,” resonate decades later.

Burning Spear is represented here on two tracks, “Walla Walla” and “We Are Free”. He’s always been one of my favorite reggae artists. The Ethiopians, and Little Roy and Ian Rock are also represented in kind fashion. But I hadn’t experienced Carlton & The Shoes’ “Love Is All” before, and I must say, it might take the cake on the album. The keys sound straight oughtta Kingston. I’d also never heard of Kenty Spence & His Stars before either, so the album closer, “I Have a Party”, charmed and enthralled me with its laidback bassline, “Oohs”, and “I want to tell you, it put me in trouble, man,” intro.

The Expanders could easily have covered Marley, Tosh, The Maytals, and other super-famous historical icons, but instead they peeled into the deep cuts. One of my favorite songs, by Yabby You and The Prophets, is “Anti-Christ”, and The Expanders do such a great job with it.

This is the kind of reggae that’s so smooth and pretty-sounding that it could be played for just about any audience with accolades. The production is loose and on the quiet side- none of these songs were recorded to wreck your subwoofer or shatter your windows.

Common practice amongst musicians, for ages, was to learn the standards and replay them for new audiences. Eventually, an era of originals commenced. Having a band preserve some great old songs through Old Time Something Come Back Again!! Vol. 2 is really fun, magical, and inspiring. This is a wonderful album.

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New Kingston northeast preview: An interview with Tahir Panton

To celebrate A Kingston Story: Come From Far (Easy Star Records, 2017), Brooklyn’s New Kingston is hitting the road with The Movement, and coming through the northeast in early November. The brothers Panton make up New Kingston: Tahir (keys), Courtney Jr. (drums), Stephen (guitar), and their father, Courtney Sr., sort of manages everything, and plays bass. The three brothers also sing, and it’s their differentiated vocal stylings mixed with lovely harmonies that give their music a dynamic texture. A Kingston Story: Come From Far covers a lot of territory, and the quartet continues to expand their fanbase and opportunities to be heard.

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Tahir calls me from across the Atlantic to talk about the upcoming tour and their latest record.

JM: What’s going on in England?

TP: We had about ten shows this past couple weeks. We did a run with The Skints, and we got a couple shows coming up with Collie Buddz.

JM: I saw the Skints once, at Cali Roots.

TP: Nice, nice. That was the first time we saw them too, in 2015.

JM: Have you toured Europe before?

TP: We came last year in July and did a run with Easy Star All-Stars. It feels good. Everyone is very accepting of what we bring to the scene. People love our reggae.

JM: Any contemporaries who are inspiring to you?

TP: I fully respect art, in any fashion. I try my best to see what the artist is going for in their product and like it for what it is. You can learn from anybody, from people on the street, from the professor, from anything. Art can pull from wherever.

JM: How’s it been touring behind the A Kingston Story: Come From Far?

TP: It’s good. Music is a beautiful thing, especially reggae- I don’t know about other genres- but music is forever. There’s still people discovering our first album, so every time we tour it reinforces everything we’ve done. This album adds to the collection, another piece of the puzzle.

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JM: It’s called A Kingston Story. Are there going to be sequential albums?

TP: Definitely. Different installments of the journey. Our story is so wide. Our father’s story alone is wide. We felt that if we were going to call this album A Kingston Story, we couldn’t try and cram everything into one! We’re making a trilogy. [Laughs]

JM: You’re now a reggae dynasty.

TP: Oh! Thank you.

JM: Have you played with The Movement before?

TP: We probably have! I used to ask artists questions like that and they weren’t sure and I’d be like, “How do you not remember that?” But I can’t remember! [Laughs]

JM: In terms of making music together, did everyone grow up playing what they play in New Kingston?

TP: My father made New Kingston. He’s been a musician for thirty-plus years. He says, “If a Chinese man had a Chinese store in New York City, and he had a kid, it’s more than likely that the kid is going to work in the Chinese store at a young age. You got to learn the business. At first, the vision wasn’t “One day we’re going to tour the U.K.” It was more like, “Let’s play music so you don’t have to be on the street.” It turned into what it is from that.

JM: He’s a great bass player.

TP: He’s the foundation. That’s where the reggae lies, in the bass.

JM: What’s it like to be in a band and tour with your brothers and dad?

TP: I don’t know anything else, so it’s hard to compare, but I can say the vibes are great because family is forever, automatically, so to be in a band with my family is best because we get to work and bond simultaneously. All the arguments are for a better cause. It’s not like we’re strangers trying to do business together. I don’t know how people do that, honestly! [Laughs] But with family the tolerance is higher because we’re working together.

JM: Like, “Remember when I was eight and you did this to thing to me?”

TP: Uh-hunh. Exactly.

JM: Y’all sing and write songs. How are you writing music?

TP: We always create music. Every day is a day to create music. When we get into the studio we’re in there with ideas already. Everywhere we go the vibes affects us. Music is a natural thing. People ask how we write music and it’s hard to answer. It’s what’s literally inside us, it’s what we can put out. People we meet, food we eat, all experiences, find our way into our music.

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JM: I’m excited for your show at Higher Ground.

TP: Nice! I like Vermont. I hope it won’t be too cold, but more than likely it will be!

Album review: The Green “Marching Orders”

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After Hawai’i ’13 hooked me for the islanders The Green, I was crossing my fingers that their next album would keep up the momentum. After their first two solid LPs, their last release felt like the culmination of hard touring and growing pains. So, what would Marching Orders (Easy Star Records, 2017) encompass? Surprisingly, it takes a magical shift in tone, opting for darker melodies and chord progressions. Of course, many of the songs keep up with what The Green holds close: lover’s rock and fastidious mingling of roots reggae with R&B-saturated pop. Going this route is tricky, and getting too smarmy, gooshy, or polished in post-production could undo the meatiness of what makes The Green so good. Marching Orders balances delicately on this line, yet thankfully, each risk, especially on the pop-ier tracks, succeeds.

The first single, “Mama Roots”, is something of a tease. Nowhere else on Marching Orders does The Green maintain this upbeat, party vibe. Featuring guest J Boog, this flawless song harkens back to the boys’ growing up on reggae music (an oft-integrated part of Hawaiian living). I’m always pressing The Green to get more personal, and they meet that challenge here. The sexy horns and plunky keys keep the energy high, and the breakdown with the bridge, “I got big doobs coming outta my garage,” is just so freakin’ fun. Having Caleb Keolanui and J Boog trading lines, is also a highlight.

“Land of Love”, with its multi-layered acoustic guitar introduction, is vital to the album, “Maybe we could all learn to do our part/ from the heart,” Caleb ponders. “We’re all equal/ even though we’re not the same.” This meditative song pulses, and the harmonized backing vocals brings forth part of what makes The Green so charming. This is also one of the songs where lead vocals are shared amongst the group. With a political/spiritual message like this one, trading verses helps The Green sound even more like a band.

A few songs stray far from this very island-reggae quality. “Foolish Love” could, in all honesty, be a Backstreet Boys outtake (maybe that dates my knowledge of pop music)- or some other radio-ready star. The synth drums and heartfelt, goopy chorus that ends, “I’m just another fool in love,” could easily be too much for this critic, but the album isn’t flush with these, this is just one song among many, and that’s important to mention. The Green will try out different styles without ever abandoning their core sound. In fact, “Foolish Love” is one of my favorite songs on the album! However, it’s a far cry from Hawai’i ‘13’s “Hold Me Tight” or “Striking Up A Love”. I miss that energy on Marching Orders.

The same pop aura is on “All I Need”, which doesn’t have the same glory. The lyrics are trite. “You’re all I want/ in my life, girl,” the chorus flutters. “You’re my everything/ The sunshine in my world.” I can’t get behind this, even though The Green is all about this. It’s just that sometimes they obtain more uniqueness. “So Cool” is an example. “We can cruise around the island in my ’69 Chavelle,” JP Kennedy coos. I can picture this! This is real.

But I’m really more interested in the more spiritual, political songs. I think The Green downplays how good they are at these. As a very tight-knit group with deep heritage to draw from, the band possesses a spiritual vibration that, on songs like “My Rights”, combines playfulness, meditation, and collectiveness. A cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” proves the band’s ability to harness a message when it feels appropriate. They totally reimagine the song and, oh wow- how reggae it is!

In many ways, I still prefer Hawaii ’13, but not every album a great band makes needs to be the best. Marching Orders is certainly no letdown. I think the last album embraces that spiritual virality that I’m interested in. The Green puts too much focus on love songs, and they don’t need to. Maybe that’s what make the album’s title so fitting. This album is about learning what The Green’s calling truly is. Definitely worth checking out.