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Monday, Sep 8, 2008
Beyond World War III is not a lost classic so much as one that was never found—and hopefully that can change.

Party Music for the Apocalypse: Mikey Dread’s Beyond World War III


If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts. Notably, many music fans have heard Mikey Dread even if they own zero reggae albums. As the ‘70’s came to a close, two things were difficult to deny: reggae’s golden era was over, and The Clash were, as many people acknowledged, the only band that mattered. Of course, The Clash’s kitchen-sink approach (which reached its apotheosis—for better or worse still a ceaseless debate amongst fans—on their fourth album Sandinista!) included the embrace of reggae, first evidenced in their cover of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves” from their first album. It made all the sense in the world for Mikey Dread to enter their world, which he did when he became the opening act on their tour. Shortly after, they hit the studio and collaborated on the single “Bankrobber”. Mikey Dread’s fingerprints (and vocals) were all over the aforementioned Sandinista and at this point, it’s fair to conclude that his street-cred, both in reggae and rock circles, was beyond reproof.


With this experience, and bubbling with confidence, he returned to the studio to work on Beyond World War III. All of the albums in this series have featured vocal trios, and one duo, who represent the highest level of harmonizing skills. Finally, here is a record that features one singer—but not one voice. Mikey Dread, the dub master, multi-tracks himself to create a constant chorus that manages to sound fresh and clean. Unlike the glorious murkiness of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s productions, Dread’s sound is crystalline and unencumbered. Each sound from every instrument, each word (sung, chanted, spoken) is precise and perfect. And that voice! Regrettably, Mikey Dread rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great reggae singers, at least in part because he’s appropriately celebrated for his production skills. Allow me to make a case that his name should enter that conversation, with the most convincing testimonial being Beyond World War III.


This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. Words won’t be minced here: this is an outright masterpiece, as close to sublime in its way as any of the other albums discussed so far. Importantly, like the other albums, this one can, and should, easily appeal to casual fans of reggae music. Indeed, like the others, this one truly is recommended to anyone who listens to music, period.


The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive (“Break Down The Walls”) and at times jovial (“The Jumping Master” which features Dread giving approbatory shout-outs to his bandmates and his young apprentice, Scientist, and even name-dropping original “jumping master” Spiderman). The ebullient “Rocker’s Delight” dates back to the Sandinista! sessions, and the spoken word title track anticipates the concerns about nuclear confrontation that dominated the next decade. The most arresting, and timeless track is “Mental Slavery”, which catalogs some of the societal inhumanity that was about to fester in the ‘80s—and beyond:


How can we survive in times like these
When prices rise and wages freeze?


Mikey was around to see things get worse, and the more things remain the same, the more compelling his message becomes. He left us, way too soon, this past year. His legacy is not in dispute, but his legend is still underappreciated. Beyond World War III is his greatest gift, and it’s one that keeps giving.


Tagged as: dub, mikey dread, reggae
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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008
With art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

Eighteen years ago today.


First day of classes, junior year. Standing in the bathroom with too much shaving cream and not enough whiskers, getting geared up for another semester of partying too much and studying too little. No e-mails to check, no cell phone messages to return, just listening to the clock radio on the counter, because that’s how we rolled. Not that we had much choice in the matter.


Roommate walks into the bathroom with a look on his face like someone told him that Milwaukee’s Best raised the price of six packs.


“Dude, Eric Clapton is dead.”
God is dead? I thought, reflexively.
“His helicopter crashed.”


Not that again. You get used to the overdoses, no matter how pointless or accidental or idiotic. It doesn’t make them easier to accept, or justify, but there is some semblance of accountability. But these random acts of mechanical destruction? Intolerable. Unacceptable on any level.


Of course, as we shortly found out, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who had actually died (part of the confusion came from the fact that he was on tour with Clapton, and had just played on the same stage the night before). Same principle applies: shocking, inexplicable, unacceptable.


And even worse, in a way. To put it in as respectful and delicate fashion as possible, this one hit home a lot harder. Eric Clapton was another, earlier generation’s Genius. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my generation’s guitar god, the one whose albums coincided with those crucial high school years, the formative times in your life when each album is a revelation. And, with an artist like Vaughan, a living chain connecting the past to present. This is the dude who, not to put too fine a point on it, had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and take it places even the best guitar player who ever strapped on a Stratocaster didn’t go.


Plus, I knew Stevie. Not personally, of course. But the summer before, I worked at the local record store just as Stevie’s new album In Step dropped. We used to spin that baby a few times per day, and it wasn’t even personal, it was strictly business. The album sold well, as it should have. The back-story elevated its import: after years of struggle with drugs and drink, Vaughan had cleaned up and was enjoying sobriety (indeed, the album’s title refers directly to his recovery process, which he was understandably proud of). The album remains top notch, but—as last albums from artists taken entirely too soon tend to do—it has an almost eerily elegiac feel that is difficult to deny. That the last song on the last album released in his lifetime is the sublime “Riviera Paradise” seems, at once fitting and devastating. It teases and cajoles with its promises of what should have been—all the great music this man undoubtedly would make. It also, being a near perfect song to end any album (much less a final album), feels entirely fitting. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for our loss, but it helps. And, as always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.


God is dead, again.
I can’t say for sure that I thought this, but maybe I did.
And speaking of God:
The 20 year old kid couldn’t help but wonder: “What kind of God would take a man like this from us?”
The 38 year old kid thinks: “The same one who gave him to us?”
That, of course, is not good enough. It’s never enough.
But it will have to do.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, Israel Vibration's vision -- and sound -- was fully formed when they entered the studio.

Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song


The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.


The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).


Israel Vibration

Israel Vibration


And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).


Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.


They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.


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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

When the Old Grey Whistle Test DVD Set came out, for some reason I wasn’t surprised that the Replacements performance wouldn’t make the cut. Although I never got to see the band during their days of performance, countless hours have been spent on YouTube seeking out their performances—and “Kiss Me on the Bus” has been one of the most consistent, exceptional pop songs that the Replacements ever produced.


This performance, circa 1986—shows the Replacements in their prime. Although not quite as memorable as their famed Saturday Night Live performance, this highlights Paul Westerberg’s raw vocals at their best, and Bob Stinson whips up a solo variation that has the guitar sounding massively out-of-tune, and massively wonderful. Every time you watch the Replacements play, there’s something different to be offered, and that’s part of the glory of the Replacements. They never tried to be something they weren’t and the songs were never perfect. They were more focused on a valued performance and a songwriting that left an impression—a lesson a plethora of bands that spend entirely too much on their image and exact reproductions of the studio sound can learn from.


Tagged as: the replacements
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Thursday, Aug 7, 2008
This is the reggae album for people who do not know, or claim not to like, reggae music.

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time


Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.


Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.


The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.


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