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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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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

Perhaps it is misleading that I am writing this under the banner of Pop Past, given that the band in question released their sole album less than one year ago, but it has nevertheless come to be sadly appropriate in the case of Georgie James. Principle members John Davis and Laura Burhenn quietly announced the band’s breakup on their website yesterday:


After three years, Georgie James is calling it a day. We’re proud of the album we made and everything else that we were able to do during our time together. We are both working on our respective solo projects (John’s can be found at www.myspace.com/titletracksdc and Laura’s at www.myspace.com/lauraburhenn) and hope to have albums out early next year. Thanks to everyone that helped our band over these past few years. And thanks to those who’ve listened to the music and come out to the shows. It is greatly appreciated. See you around soon.
—John and Laura/Georgie James


Their album, Places, was, to my ears, one of last year’s very best, a collection of infectious, gimmick-free pop songs that was astonishing, largely, for just how unassuming it was. Indie rock never seems to be at a loss for bands looking to evoke the virtues of classic rock and pop, but most of these acts are quick to reveal one particular musical fetish or another, whether it is for the iconic songwriting of Brian Wilson or Lennon/McCartney, or for the un-self-conscious maximalism of ‘70s glam pop. While recognizing the greatness of such celebrated retro-poppers as Sloan or the New Pornographers, or the playful Smiley Smile-esque innovations of the Elephant 6 collective, there is a level on which their music is as much about it’s very retro-ness as it is about the band’s own explorations of their craft.


Georgie James were instead much closer in spirit to such pop true believers as Aimee Mann and Matthew Sweet, crafting songs that sounded instantly timeless simply by virtue of never feeling the need to sound married to any particular era, past or present (the closest the band may have come to indulging in retro-ness was with their wispy cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, the b-side to single “Need Your Needs”). It was only when listening to this album the first few times through, trying to mentally contextualize it alongside what I assumed to be it’s contemporaries (Burhenn’s voice is not unlike Jenny Lewis’ and it would be all too easy to mistake Davis’ nasal rasp for A.C. Newman, and Places was released within a month of Rilo Kiley and New Pornographer’s 2007 offerings), that I realized that while I had heard countless albums in recent years that I had wanted to sound like this, I had heard very few that actually did sound like this this. Perhaps it was the casual nature of a project born out the experience of its players—most of whom are veterans of numerous other bands, with Davis having drummed in the spastic post-punk outfit Q and Not U—but Places had an assured ease that was rare for a debut album, fully capturing the spirit of falling in love with great pop music (how many albums contain an ode to the perfect pair of headphones?) while never seeking to be anything more than perfect melodic pop music itself. 


I was looking forward to hearing the next five or ten Georgie James albums, but whether it had any relevance to their dissolution or not, Places had the misfortune of debuting amid one of the more dazzlingly eclectic years for music in recent memory, only to become predictably lost in the shuffle. 2007 was a year in which even the most celebrated guitar-based indie bands—Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, the New Pornographers again—found their latest albums being met with a relatively muted critical response as the music press found sustenance in the rich genre-bending sounds of Justice, M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead’s groundbreaking distribution methods, the Kanye vs. Fiddy hullaballoo and the inescapable gravitational pull of a certain “Umbrella-ella-ella”. If Georgie James were admittedly too unflashy to gain even minor critical attention in such a dynamic year, Places will remain a would-be pop classic ripe for eventual rediscovery. Give it a belated listen today on your own pair of comfortable headphones.


Tagged as: georgie james
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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

In American culture, when we think of classic soul, chances are the names that pop into our heads are among the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, and many others from Motown, Stax, and various labels around the country. In Brazil, the two names you are most likely to hear when talking about soul music are the recently popularized in America, Jorge Ben (thanks to the likes of Dusty Groove and the Tropicalia resurgence) and the virtually unrecognized Tim Maia.


If any were to be compared to the westernized soul sound, it would be Tim Maia. Although don’t get me wrong, his recordings were undeniably Brazilian. Unlike Jorge Ben though, Maia was able to mix these westernized elements into his brand of crooning soul that later developed into some of the funkiest sounds in the Western Hemisphere (much like Marvin Gaye’s development, in fact).


It’s important to look at Brazilian music not only as a melting pot of Bossa Nova, Samba, and its many traditional elements, but also as a nation that was able to take elements from African traditional music and put their own spin on it. Maia is one of the masters of Brazilian soul music, and if I spend my entire life dragging his presence to America, then so be it. It’s a worthy cause.


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