Sad Music for Happy People
The most commonly misunderstood and misconceived form of music is reggae. While it has been the conductor on the feel good train for decades, anyone would be hard pressed to pinpoint the decisive reason behind its feel good mantra.
For instance, most people like to believe that it’s the music’s heartfelt lyrics that give the genre it’s reputation. What those people don’t realize is that, when listened to carefully, those lyrics might be a good candidate to sit right next to any early 1980s-era Elvis Costello record written with angst, heartbreak, and depression.
The best examples of melancholy can be found when considering the music’s leader, Bob Marley. Let’s be honest. It wasn’t that you completely believed him when he first told you that everything was “going to be alright”. What drew you to him was that he made you believe everything wasn’t alright for him at the time you first heard him sing those words. That’s what made the music beautiful.
Then, after he made shooting Sheriff John Brown somehow feel like visiting the ocean in July, it shouldn’t have been hard to figure out that it’s the music’s happy, upstroke guitar patterns and infectiously calming grooves that deserve the credit for the music’s constant smile, not the lyrical content.
All things considered, it is clear that Bob’s second son, Stephen, hasn’t lost touch with that formula, combining gloomy words and groovy music on his debut effort, Mind Control. While reminding brothers Damien, Ziggy, and Julian that they aren’t the only living Marleys with musical prowess, Stephen stays true to the music’s logic by filling each song with feel good music and feel bad words to make what turns out to be a pretty good album.
Much like his brother Damien, on Mind Control Stephen certainly pays more attention to hip-hop than he does to what traditionalists would call roots reggae. But though Damien has chartered a great deal of mainstream success recently because of that commingling of genres, Stephen does a much better job of it by embracing traditional reggae more than his brother has ever been willing to do.
On one of the more hip-hop oriented tracks, “You’re Gonna Leave”, Stephen’s delicate voice croons lines such as “The hurt is way too much this time” and “She thinks she knows me more than me” in a way that no other Marley has been able to do since their father sang about those three little birds. While the track certainly isn’t backed by traditional reggae feel, or a live band for that matter, the silky yet gritty hip-hop backdrop proves to be the perfect setting for such a love-torn tail.
Then there is “Juna Di Red”, with the predictable cameo from Ben Harper, and “Let Her Dance”, with two more, lesser-known cameos from rapper Illustr8 and songstress Maya Azucena. Though they are the only two songs on Mind Control that don’t fit under either the reggae or hip-hop categories, Marley does a good job covering up their awkward irrelevance to the feel of the album.
But the album’s best track and first single, “Mind Control”, is where Stephen finds perfection. The album’s opening track combines funk, soul, pop, and reggae over a voice that makes you check to see if the first name on the cover of the album says Stephen and not Bob.
And while “Mind Control” may be Bob’s “Get Up Stand Up”, songs like “Chase Dem”, “Lovely Avenue”, and “The Traffic Jam” refuse to go unnoticed. “Chase Dem” and “Lovely Avenue” are the most roots reggae any of Bob’s kids have ever been, while “The Traffic Jam” features a guest spot from brother Damien and a beat-box track that demands attention.
As with most other contemporary reggae albums, though one can’t expect a roots reggae effort with Mind Control, one can expect a reggae album period, and that’s not bad. Combine that with a better Marley tag than any other brother’s previous efforts, and what you get is a debut album that is more promising than any other reggae artist in today’s current music world. Though not everyone can Catch a Fire with their first release, Stephen’s spark seems to be the most likely to someday blaze.
// Notes from the Road
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