Even the most ardent reggae cynic has surely noticed the mainstream explosion of dancehall reggae over the past few years. They may not know what to call the music, and they may refer the DJs as “rappers”, but it’s been hard for anyone who even hesitates at MTV or BET to avoid the likes of Sean Paul, Shaggy, Elephant Man, Wayne Wonder, and soca/dancehall-er Kevin Lyttle.
But beneath this tide of crossover success, a persistent undercurrent has been gaining momentum since the mid- to late ‘90s: roots reggae. Roots is the sound that most people think of when they think of reggae. It’s the style that Bob Marley rode to international stardom, with its hiccupping, offbeat, “one drop” rhythm and full-band, live-instrument sound.
Since 1985, though, dancehall’s emphasis on digital drum and bass lines (not unlike hip-hop) has dominated the genre, especially in reggae’s motherland, Jamaica. Largely because of dancehall’s homeland sovereignty, many classic Jamaican roots acts have emigrated overseas to release and promote their music. Foreign roots fan bases have swelled since Marley’s time, from South America, Europe, and Africa to Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Notoriously slow in its acceptance has been the United States, but in recent years, the US has become one of the most prolific breeding grounds for roots reggae acts. A groundswell of underground, homegrown reggae bands has emerged, from the East Coast’s Ten Foot Ganja Plant and Soldiers of Jah Army to the West Coast’s Groundation and Shocks of Mighty to Hawaii’s Ooklah the Moc and Natural Vibrations.
At the forefront of the American roots movement is the Boston-based band John Brown’s Body, which has come the closest of any US roots act (aside from pop outfit Big Mountain, who will forever be deemed a one-hit wonder for their cover of “Baby, I Love Your Way”) to breaking into the mainstream.
Pressure Points, the group’s fifth album, is their first since switching labels from Shanachie to relative newcomer Easy Star, but the full-blooded roots sound that carried their earlier efforts remains intact on tracks like “Heart and Soul”, “Full Control”, “Not Enough” (featuring the legendary harmony trio the Meditations), and the title track. That said, this is nonetheless the JBB album most likely of any thus far to cross over. Mild pop rock overtones waft through several tunes, including the bouncy “New Blood”, the funky electric rock of “Make It Easy”, and the soulful, early UB40 sound of “Picking Up”.
This new sound is likely indicative of the increased creative input from co-vocalist Elliot Martin. Martin, whose 2002 solo release Black Castle incorporated a range of rock, drum ‘n bass, and dub influences, wrote/co-wrote all but two tracks on Pressure Points. Traditional lead singer and founding member Kevin Kinsella thus takes on more of a supporting role, but JBB fans are in good hands with Martin, who wrote perhaps the two best cuts on the group’s previous album, Spirits All Around Us, in “Original Man” and “Ambrosia”.
Martin’s writing and vocal influence actually lends a refreshing quality to the JBB sound. There’s a slight old school DJ lilt in his style that harkens back to ‘80s New York City dancehall icon Shinehead and provides a likeable street edge to “Resonate”, “What We Gonna Do?”, and “Follow into Shadow”.
It’s hard to say if America is ready to embrace reggae (JBB probably suffers from being an actual reggae band performing reggae as opposed to a rock band like 311 or No Doubt who occasionally dabble in reggae.), but this is one of those precious few reggae albums that could find (relatively) universal acceptance. It’s accessible enough for the mainstream, and only the most elitist of reggae fans will find that the subtle, occasional pop inclination negates the album’s rich roots base. Pressure Points is a remarkable statement of arrival by John Brown’s Body. It’s their strongest, most consistent effort to date, with “Heart and Soul”, “Blazing Love”, “Full Control”, and the title cut immediately standing alongside the group’s best material so far.