Roots-reggae stalwarts dish up an impeccable platter of nostalgia.
10 Ft Ganja Plant is on a mission: to keep reggae rooted in the downtempo, bass-heavy, swampy-reverb sound of the 1970s. This is fine with me, and probably with plenty of other reggae listeners as well -- Does anyone deny that that era was the music's high point? The trick, of course, is to retain the flavor of that era without merely copying the musical tricks of more talented predecessors. Whether Shake Up the Place, the band's seventh full-length album since 2001, accomplishes that is up for debate. To these ears, it's a success.
In part, it succeeds because of the involvement of some of those convincing guests. Reggae stalwarts Prince Jazzbo and Sylford Walker contribute vocals to two songs apiece, and Walker's contributions in particular set the tone. Opening track "My Roots" serves as a declaration of intent, with Walker's elastic voice intertwining with the bass. His other contribution, "Hardtimes," acts as the de facto opening track of side two (if you’re listening on vinyl) and offers a more hummable melody, particularly the chorus.
"Hummability" is a watchword here: This is an eiminently listenable album. Even when the topics turn to social inequity or injustics, the grooves remain bouncy enough to keep your toes tapping and head bobbing. This is something else that was true of golden-era reggae —think Toots & The Maytals' "Time Tough" or Bob Marley's "Trenchtown Rock" — and it's true here of Prince Jazzbo's offerings, the compelling "Africa" and slightly less successful "Recession". Jazzbo offers something close to toasting (reggae rapping) on "Africa", but the slow tempo and heavily reverbed and echo-chambered effects serve to evoke dreaminess rather than, say, rage. "Recession" ends the album on a more energetic note, though the vague commentary about economic hardship is unfortunately watery.
It’s easy to focus on the guest singers, given their street cred, but that would be a disservice to the rest of the band. This unnamed group (unnamed on my review copy of the album anyway) includes members of John Brown's Body, but apart from that, no information is given. No matter; what's important is that the songs are consistently strong throughout, especially "Pharoah's Army", with its apocalyptic Biblical imagery. "Ringer’s Rock" is an upbeat instrumental featuring a wailing horn solo and demonstrates the band’s mastery of their chosen material.
The arrangements are strong overall, with plenty of horns and keyboards as well as that so-deep-you-could-drown-in-it bass, all working together to evoke the classic 1970s vibe without simply parroting it. Maybe the only criticism that could be leveled at the band is that reggae has moved on since then, and this record adheres too closely to the formulaic.
Despite that, Shake Up the Place is highly recommended for anyone who remembers roots reggae with a tinge of nostalgia, or anyone who wonders why today's offerings are so slick and soulless (I'm looking at you, Ky-Mani Marley). It doesn't have the social impact of, say, Bob Marley's Uprising or Peter Tosh's Equal Rights, and it doesn't pretend that it will. That era has passed. Thanks to 10 Ft Ganja Plant, though, the music doesn’t have to.