Space Age Impressionism
We’re all aware of the old saying that, before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in that person’s shoes. It’s an adage of understanding, meant to remind us how easy it is to point out the actual or perceived shortcomings of others when those shortcomings are foreign to us. (The more humorous version of the saying tells us to take the mile hike so that, if the person we’re criticizing gets upset, he or she will be “a mile away and barefoot”.)
The reality, though, is that all the walking in the world won’t alter the ownership of those shoes. You can walk a mile in mine, but at the end of the walk, they’re still my shoes. You know the result (the shoes). What you don’t know is how I got to that result, like Gloria Foster’s Oracle explained to Keanu Reeves’ Neo in The Matrix: Reloaded: “You didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to understand why you made it.” And so, in that spirit, I suggest we approach Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell, not as curious observers seeking to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but rather as lovers of music who’d like to know why these particular shoes are being worn. We have to ask ourselves, “What environment would necessitate the use of these shoes?” Here, the question is, “Why did this band Roots Tonic collaborate with this producer Bill Laswell?”
Let’s start with the “result”. Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell is an eight-song ode to what I’d like to call “audio-impressionism”. That’s “Impressionism” in the artistic sense, as a way of comparing music to art, and to equate an undulating reggae groove (as in “Road to Axum”) with a painting’s shimmering landscape or cityscape, or an ethereal and surreal bassline (as in “Concrete Sunrise”) with a painter’s flittering brushstroke. The album displays an abstract but meditative inventiveness akin to Impressionist artist Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) advice to American painter Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933):
When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you. (Marilyn Stokstad, Art: A Brief History, Third Edition. Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., p.507 )
As if following Monet’s instructions, we find the aural equivalents in Roots Tonic’s effort—a sketch of keyboard here, a chime there, a sliver of guitar elsewhere. It’s an instrumental effort as well, so the song titles also add to the Impressionist vibe, such as “Employees Must Wash Your Hands”, “Healing of the Nations”, “Clean Escape (The Crew is Here)”, and the previously mentioned “Concrete Sunrise”.
Producer Bill Laswell refers to the album as a “futurist space/dub transmission”, which is also applicable since, in general, “dub” music relies heavily on reverb, sound effects, and other studio techniques to inform its compositions. Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell uses plenty of studio wizardry, from ringing phones in “Road to Axum” to radio frequency noises in “Instrument of the Trinity”. Also characteristic of dub music, Roots Tonic primarily cast their spells through reggae rhythms with heavy doses of bass. Put your headphones to the test and you’ll feel the bass-driven pressure on your ears; it’s like attending an underwater block party. It’s real heavy, real spacey, and also real good. I can also understand describing the music as “futurist” because I had to get my mind right to listen and be receptive to the “transmission”. At first, I just wasn’t ready for it. But like many Impressionist works of art, you sometimes see the bigger picture when you step away, reassess, and come back to it with a fresher understanding.
Think of Enigma meeting hardcore fans of Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, and then you’ll understand the “why” behind this album, why this band worked with this producer. The story begins with Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu. Last year, PopMatters writer Steve Horowitz wrote an enlightening review of a Matisyahu concert in Iowa City. Roots Tonic is Matisyahu’s band, consisting of Josh Werner (bass and keyboards), Aaron Dugan (guitars and sounds), and Jonah David (drums and percussion). They have also written and co-written some of Matisyahu’s material. As evidenced by Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell, these guys know how to jam.
The other piece of the story is Bill Laswell who, in this case, might be to the music world what Claude Monet is to art. An extraordinary producer, Laswell has worked with almost everybody—Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Fela Kuti, Motorhead, Yoko Ono, and the Last Poets, to name a few. Without him, whole chunks of our music collections might never have existed. And when it comes to breaking new ground, Laswell leads the pack. He collaborated with Herbie Hancock on the latter’s super-cool ‘80s hit “Rockit”, one the flyest anthems of all time for breakdancers, hip-hoppers, and turntablists the world over. Another Laswell favorite is the Axiom Funk compilation Funkcronomicon, which features some of the best and funkiest musicians ever—try Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, Bernie Worrell, Fred Wesley, and Garry Shider.
Not only has he created original work, his remixes have been equally groundbreaking, even controversial, like his reconstructions of songs by Bob Marley and Miles Davis. That Laswell’s approach parallels that of a visual artist should be no surprise, given his own assessment:
Composition means the make-up, the putting together of elements—sound elements. What I’m dealing with is sound. I don’t pretend to be dealing with music. I’m just dealing with sound elements, textures and sounds. In the collage system, composition means when it’s put together and decorated. You start with the basic skeleton and you decorate that and construct it. Once you call it finished, that’s a composition(from “Extending Energy and Experimentation”, an Interview with Bill Laswell by Anil Prasad, Interview date: April 27, 1999).
The Marley project, his dub mixes, and his artistry made Laswell the perfect choice to produce (that’s right, you guessed it) Matisyahu’s Youth. Laswell later invited Roots Tonic to his studio and the rest is (surprise!) what you hear on Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell.
On this release, producer and band craft some heavy dub transmissions that will definitely get you grooving, if not meditating. Lovers of dub and reggae are likely to eat this up. For dub newcomers, the absence of lyrics or conventional melody might be off-putting, but it’s listener-friendly ear candy and it’s well worth the brief time it takes to get acclimated to it.