New York’s Victor Rice began his career in the late 80’s, when third wave reggae struck the U.S. He also spent significant time in Brazil. Starting as a bass player and venturing into sound engineering, Victor was primed to have a profoundly robust knowledge about recording analog, old school-sounding Jamaican and Latin flavors. Therefore, everything about Smoke (Easy Star Records, 2017), including the cover art (which looks like it came from some faded 70’s LP), is classic and understated. His first release in 15 years, these songs meld Brazilian Samba and roots rock steady, a series of instrumentals that are beautiful in approach and execution.
Because of this particular fusion, Samba, a kind of music ripe for exploration and bending, and rock steady, a kind of music focused and rule-bound- Victor is able to make the old sound new. The album is short; most songs hovering around three minutes long, and this makes for a really entertaining album that has no chance of getting boring on a listen-through.
“Lou” is a horn-focused song contingent upon the keys, who hold the rhythm together and give the song its rolling, punctuated vibe. The keys and horn melody make up the reggae, the loose drums and flow of the song are Samba-oriented.
“Tema” follows. This is strictly ska at departure. Anyone who’s curious in the roots of ska should listen in: the keys and guitar are incredibly focused. Again, the horns take on the melody and soloing duty, and it’s super fun as it happens. The horns hand off lines to one another, feeling more like a jam than a fully constructed song, which is totally okay because once the horns come back together in the end, the song is like a Christmas present, wrapped up in a subtle bow.
None of these songs are bad. Not remotely. Part of the power here is that the songs aren’t too grandiose in composition, not trying to be anything more than something pretty you listen and maybe dance to. They aren’t deep and they aren’t cliché. “Bermuda Triangle” and “Mr. Brooks” are highlights because of their ability to integrate playfulness and seriousness. “Party Line” is a slower track, deep rock steady, and is also a hit.
But “The Dream” is the loveliest. The upbeat rhythm, the rise and fall of the horns, and the overall sexiness of the song re-tune your ears in if you’ve had this album on while doing the dishes or folding laundry. This song makes you pause. It’s like the first day of Summer.
All 10 tracks sound organic, meaning the horns sound together and apart, the drum kit is warm and light. Nothing is overly produced. Going back to the roots of recording is something modern reggae musicians are really getting into, yet it takes someone as well-versed in Samba and reggae, two genres whose production play a massive role in the feel of the records- to craft something so open and true to form.
There’s something for everyone on Smoke.