[20 July 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There are at least two undisputable truths about Lee “Scratch / Upsetter” Perry. One is that he is among the most groundbreaking and influential Jamaican producers and record-makers of all time. The other is that he’s crazy. For at least the past 20 years or so, he’s turned into a sort of loveable self-parody, getting away with it because of his past and, well, who can help being crazy?
During this time, Perry has relied on high-profile collaborators to maintain his musical relevance. These have included British producers Adrian Sherwood and Mad Professor, as well as Dieter Meier of Swiss electropop band Yello. Now, Return From Planet Dub, pairs Perry with veteran Austrian dub act Dubblestandart. For good measure, Ari Up, former member of the British punk band the Slits and a longtime dub enthusiast, is along for the ride as well. In true Upsetter style, it all amounts to a mish-mash of new tracks, revisited Perry standards, remixes, and David Lynch. One of those records that was probably much more thrilling to make than it is to listen to, Return From Planet Dub is nonetheless an engaging, moody, more-than-competent dub platter.
In an ironic twist, Perry may be the weakest link here. His stream-of-consciousness, semi-gibberish ramblings have become increasingly tedious and unnecessarily profane. “Blackboard Jungle” is one of the classic dub tracks of all time. Perry’s ranting about “Mister Rich and Mistress Bitch”, not to mention his order to “respect my piss”, hardly add to the rhythm’s legacy. Worse is “Fungus Rock”, which is about as palatable as its title suggests. Perry’s threat to “turn you into ashes and dust / While you’re sucking de pus” is about the least disgusting imagery on offer. This sort of bile, uttered in Perry’s by now paper-thin rasp, are more reminiscent of an oblivious, senile grandfather than the grandfather of dub. True, Perry does always ensure character and distinction, but it’s tough to imagine this is the kind of distinction Dubblestandart was looking for.
And, when he’s restrained, Perry does actually add something to a couple tracks. A run through of “I Chase the Devil”, originally recorded with Max Romeo, updates the rhythm with modern space-dub effects, while Perry, thankfully, embellishes the lyrics with nothing more than some rhymes about “the music war”. “Let ‘Em Take It” is this two-disc collection’s most successful collaboration. Dubblestandart lay down a truly haunting track, with ethereal keyboards weaving through the purposefully lumbering bassline and off-beat accents. Here, Perry’s indifferent recitation of the title phrase adds authenticity and power. You just wish for more of those moments, when Perry is more ghost than goof.
Also, though Perry is clearly the main attraction here, he appears on only about half Return From Planet Dub‘s tracks. That leaves Ari Up to lend her sassy attitude to some decidedly more aggressive, electronic-flavored material. While they certainly up the energy level, tracks like “Idiots Dub” are at odds with the more traditionally cavernous, easy-rolling Perry tracks.
Oh, yes! And David Lynch. He appears in the form of a sampled interview on “Chrome Optimism”, the lead track from the set’s second disc. In keeping with tradition, this disc consists mostly of alternate dub versions and remixes. Lynch is always dependable to weird things up a little, and phrases like “the ideas tell you how you wanna be” have a lot more mood-altering impact than most of Perry’s ramblings. The other half-dozen dub versions, created by Dubblestandart, basically just add more dub to already dubby material. Not much lost, but not a lot gained, either. Finally, the selection of DJ mixes that closes out the set definitely takes things into more trend-conscious, “dubstep” territory. In other words, there are more rumbling, throbbing, whirling low-frequency synthesizers. Another dub luminary, Prince Far I, even makes a welcome appearance on “Wadada - Means Love”.
Return From Planet Dub is less a proper album than a respectable grab-bag of where dub has been and what it’s up to now. The liner notes include a pretty comprehensive, reverent history of the dub form. It’s more evidence the Austrian combo is interested in carrying on a tradition whose impact on modern music can not be understated. Lee Perry is responsible for a huge amount of that impact. Let’s hope he’s remembered as the pioneering Upsetter, rather than the muttering caricature.