[13 February 2007]
There should be no such thing as Caribbean blues. Not in the emotional sense, at least. In the undulating rhythms of reggae, roots, and dub, every somber note seems to transgress the melancholy and sadness of bad times to reach redemption, acceptance, and an urging recovery and rejoicing.
Technically, though, the hill-rolling bass and reverb drops on Paul St. Hilaire’s sophomore solo album A Divine State of Mind belie the echoing guitar phrasings and a disjointed 12-bar da capo structure of blues. Slow and syncopated roots, with a mix of electronics and organics as seamless as can be found. With an appropriate helping of gospel on “Jah Won’t Let Us Down”. But blues nevertheless. Which is not miles from that heard on St. Hilaire’s first album, Unspecified, but very distant from his earliest work. His entrancing voice, in the ballpark of a Horace Andy with less vibrato on the back end, has been a feature of the most stellar deep and dragging dub tracks of Berlin’s Basic Channel/Burial Mix imprints. The high points, a few of which featured him under his Tikiman name: his “Faith” 12” collaboration with Rene Lowe and Main Street’s Round Five tune “Na Fe Throw It”, although many will also put in Rhythm & Sound’s “Jah Rule”. All of these were liable to pleasantly ease the listener into comfortable sleep and were dangerous if you did not really want that afternoon midsummer nap.
But a little further away from the bass-droned depths and featherlight hisses of Berlin’s electronica, Dominican-born St. Hilaire focuses more on home sounds, and A Divine State of Mind, although deeply dubby, is more upbeat and conventional. “Black Moses” and “Jah Won’t Let Us Down” are a full-out sunny reggae songs with popular appeal. “Peculiar” is straight-up blues but blunted at half speed. “Humble” comes closest to emulating the Rhythm & Sound electronica slant, crawling along to spoken words.
What is remarkable, although hardly surprising, is the way St. Hilaire stretches the genres with his very personal touches, much in the way that Mad Professor was an innovator in the early 1990s, but always leaves room for the listener to venture into discovery among the many sounds that make up his tapestry. “Fortunate” is shaped like a standard roots song, but has children’s charmingly understated background vocals lingering in the back before coming to the fore on the chorus. “Praise” is also linear, but the guitar drops cavernously and faint drums echo into the distance. A Divine State of Mind is also decidedly more intelligible.
Although St. Hilaire’s dragging tones and accompanying slow speech was perfect for his more electronica-oriented work, it is nice to hear the religious poetry and socio-political commentary that is often a keystone of most good roots and dub music. And St. Hilaire’s voice seems that of a more authoritative, self-assured man, with a dry, semi-dark baritone and crisp sound reminiscent of a well-aged saxophone.
A Divine State of Mind goes in quite a few different directions and makes something of them all, from straight reggae to drones of roots dub with reverberating electronics sprinkled around. Even in straighter-than-usual blues-based songwriting, Paul St. Hilaire manages to pull at the strings of the genre and a most endearing idiosyncrasy shines through. Although one can dream of the prospect of more Basic Channel collaborations, St. Hilaire’s solo vein of dubby Carribean post-blues and roots is also a very beautiful thing. Jah Love, indeed.