The Observer in the Star House
US: 28 Aug 2012
UK: 3 Sep 2012
I had this friend who worked in a home for seniors. One afternoon she asked me to come by and pick her up from work. When I arrived she took me on a mini tour of the facility where she introduced me to one of the residents, “Sady”. The 80-year-old woman sauntered down the hall completely oblivious to our presence until my friend engaged her, raising her voice as she spoke. “Sady! – I’d like you to meet someone!” She introduced me to Sady who seemed to be preoccupied – presumably with growing old.
My friend continued, “Sady can do a little dance – called the ... what is it called, Sady?”
Sady hissed excitedly through her gums, “The shimmy without a shirt-tail!” and then as if on a trigger, proceeded to raise one arm and dance circles slowly through the hallway to a soundtrack that only she could hear. My friend gave me this look that said Isn’t this the greatest thing you’ve ever seen? I, on the other hand, was shocked at what I perceived to be an indignity. I grew up, of course, and realized that no matter how old you get the love of a great groove is something you don’t lose like you apparently do your teeth. Why do I bring up my experience with Sady? Because this lesson becomes exceedingly important as you’re listening to the latest record from the Orb featuring 75-year-old reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry.
From the first bar this record introduces Lee and his unique style of talking in a (notably authentic) Jamaican patois – more MC than performer. The first impression of what he’s actually saying to the casual listener may recall Sublime’s use of Raleigh Theodore Sakers – a rambling mental patient angrily delighting listeners with his confused musings. But Lee is the antithesis of Sakers, and though I can’t speak to his sanity I can tell you that his messages are at the very least positive. He keeps doing his thing for the next 54 minutes with minimal variation. What is perhaps most shocking – and it may not be shocking at all to those who’ve sold Lee Scratch Perry records – is that it works very well.
Rest assured the Orb are not doing anything exploitive here. There’s no inside joke. This is arguably the godfather of dub, the man who produced Bob Marley. There’s an honest reverence for Mr. Perry in every note and beat of this record – it was built around him. And though there’s bound to be disagreement on this, I believe that the fact this works so well can be credited to the balance the Orb are able to strike between their own unique minimal house sound and adapting to accommodate Lee’s dub roots.
In keeping with the Orb’s tendency toward science fiction themes, the album is called The Observer in the Star House. But the sci-fi endeavor is more Cocoon than Star Wars – gentle, romantic and simply delivered rather than epic in scope. According to the original press release, the Orb were well-intentioned with a few base tracks and an idea when they walked into the studio before meeting Mr. Perry – a collaboration which apparently began back in 2004. But Lee had his own creative ideas and they quickly found the limited number of tracks they had previously laid down to be insufficient to record all the ideas Lee inspired.
They proceeded to craft the rest of the record there in the studio in the truest form of collaboration. The Observer, if we’re intended to imagine that’s Lee, appears to be sitting in the Star House calling it out like he sees it, rambling with questionable coherency to anyone who’ll listen down on Earth. “Anyway you want it / I’ll let you have it / Fire, fire fire,” he sings on opening track “Fireball”. “Feel it, feel it, see it / Smell it and taste it! / Hear it,” he sings later, matter-of-factly like we might not have thought of that otherwise. By the time we get to “Golden Clouds”, I found that I had become completely numb to the sound as though he’d become just another instrument in the Orb’s mix. This is the moment it truly struck me how this music could easily stand on its own and Lee Scratch Perry was the icing on the cake.
This Orb record, like Lee Scratch Perry records, is 95 percent dub and five percent house. But what sets it apart of Lee’s own records is that the Orb stay true to what they do well. They don’t go overboard with the signature dub echoes and deep bass – although both are certainly present. I also appreciate that they seem completely oblivious to what’s going on in dubstep. As much as I like that genre myself, I believe it’s become increasingly exploited in recent months as an easy marketing tool for electronic music artists. They sidestepped that trend all together and felt no need to throw in a little wub wub for good measure. None of that here. They allow the mid-tempo minimal house beats to do what they do best – queue head nods – and carry you softly and easily from one track to the next. The finger snaps and ghostly “Oooohhhh” on “Hold Me Upsetter” – as close as we get to a love song – are among the catchiest on the record.
“Golden Clouds” also stands out and will no doubt be of particular interest to many listeners because of its historical significance to the band. If you’re a fan of the Orb at all, then you know that one of their biggest radio hits was a track called “Little Fluffy Clouds”, which featured some catchy cascading synths washing over a chilled house beat with a sample of Ricky Lee Jones talking about a dream she once had. In many ways this song was ahead of its time and they fixed that by re-releasing it periodically over a number of years. It also landed the label Big Life in a little legal trouble when Ricky Lee Jones decided she wanted a piece of the success. They eventually settled for an undisclosed sum with permission to use her voice in the already successful recording.
“Golden Clouds”, is not, as has been reported, a remake of “Little Fluffy Clouds” or even a sequel to it. If you were expecting an updated remix or even a Lee Scratch Perry interview chopped and looped, you will be disappointed. If anything it’s an acknowledgement, a nod to the original. It begins with a light jangly guitar loop overlaid with an inexplicably erotic voice asking Lee Scratch what the skies were like when he was young. Is he being interviewed by Jenna Jameson? He replies with a series of meandering variations on “I funk out the funk / I cast out the punk / I cast out the drunk ... / Funky funk and junky junk.”Jenna angrily dials her manager. The similarities end there until the 3:03 mark where the Orb drop in a series of shorter renderings of the guitar samples from Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint, Movement 3 - Fast”, the same samples used in the original “Little Fluffy Clouds”. They’re not significant enough here to make the track as catchy but it does stand alone as a great dub track. If anything it’s especially enjoyable because it inspires a vague familiarity.
Casual fans of the Orb’s minimalist ambient house (a sub-genre that was at one time unique to them) may find Lee Scratch Perry a little hard to take. But be careful not to pass it over too quickly. This is a fine record and an overall cheery record that would be equally comfortable at a patio BBQ, in a dark post-party Grotto or bubbling pleasantly out of your headphones. Sit it down next to Bob Marley on a playlist and it’ll be right at home, or recall it fondly as you spiral through the hallway doing the shimmy without a shirt-tail.