It’s not unusual for a reggae act to emerge from Kingston. Except this time, it’s Kingston University. Outside of Toronto. In Canada. Eh, mon?
Bedouin Soundclash’s mere existence defies the rules, so it should come as no surprise that its music should break the mold as well. This genre-bending trio has been together (forming at the aforementioned university) for only a few years, but has caused enough of a stir that its second album (after 2002’s Root Fire) was picked up and re-released by Los Angeles-based SideOne Dummy Records — seemingly positioning the group to conquer America.
The U.S. may not be ready for a second wave of the Canadian reggae invasion (the first being, sigh, Snow), but by cleverly disguising itself as a rock band — including its affiliation with punk-leaning SideOne Dummy and its participation in the 2005 Warped Tour — Bedouin Soundclash just may sneak across the border and into cult status amongst the coolest and most grimy of the American populace.
Listening to Sounding a Mosaic, however, it’s clear that the album’s heart lies not in rock ‘n’ roll, but in reggae. While a slew of other über-hip rock and pop acts dabble in reggae (mostly a bastardized version of ska, which has long since died in its Jamaican homeland), Bedouin Soundclash sounds more like a reggae act dabbling in rock. Not only do they maintain a traditional reggae “stylee” for about 10 of the 15 tracks here, but they also imbue their music with a genuine soulful edge that’s lacking in many modern ska hipsters.
From the opening track, the band’s vibrant sound reveals a deep appreciation for reggae’s roots. “When the Night Feels My Song” is a rollicking good time with a joyous melody that evokes early Jimmy Cliff as performed by Paul Simon. You simply don’t hear this type of music much anymore: a frisky, strumming ska anthem that’s reason alone to celebrate this album. Not stopping there, though, Bedouin Soundclash manages to follow it up with another ska-rific tune, “Shelter”, which melds the Jamaican flavor with a bold ’70s funk/rock attitude.
From there, the album diverges from ska into a variety of styles, none of which contain the raw power of the first two tracks, but which may draw in fans of other genres. Besides the Jamaican influence — showcasing not only ska, but also roots reggae (including a cover of the Maytones’ sufferers’ classic “Money Worries”, featuring the legendary group’s front man Vern Buckley) and dancehall — there’s an Afro-pop vibe on “Gyasi Went Home” and “Nothing to Say”, culled no doubt from bassist Eon Sinclair’s Guyanese upbringing. Additionally, electronic elements — jungle, trip-hop, whatever you wanna call it — pepper “Rude Boy Don’t Cry” and “Living in Jungles”. “Murder on the Midnight Wire” and “Immigrant Workforce” meanwhile boast a British pop/rock feel that harkens back to the reggae-inspired works of the Police and the Clash.
The ease with which the band moves through these sounds is indicative not only of the members’ varied upbringings, but also the production of Darryl Jenifer, who had years of experience melding reggae with rock as bassist for the groundbreaking Bad Brains. (Even the group’s name — derived from the title of a 1996 dub offering from Israeli DJ Badawi — reflects its global influences. It’s unclear if the band has any ties to Badawi or if they just really, really love the album.)
Of course, not every style on Sounding a Mosaic works. The jungle/dancehall cut “Living in Jungles” feels stilted; the edgy music is unsuited to lead singer Jay Malinowski’s thin vocals. Plus, the two ending remixes throw in too many of the group’s repertoire of sounds at the same time, crafting a hectic mess.
The most evocative cuts play it close to the reggae vest. Beyond the first two tracks, the rootsy acoustic guitar ballad “Jeb Rand”, the dubby “Criminal”, and lively pop reggae of “Music My Rock” propel this top-heavy album. The last five tunes, by comparison, falter.
With such a rainbow of musical styles, you wonder if Bedouin Soundclash will struggle to find a market in America (even if they stick to reggae, the success of the straightforward, “classic” reggae sound will always be limited in the U.S.). As it stands, Sounding a Mosaic will mostly please many listeners but may completely satisfy only a few.