Reggae and Dub

Grace Jones “Warm Leatherette” (Island, 1980)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Grace Jones’ cover of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette.” It must’ve been on a specialized program via Detroit public radio in the early ’80s. I was familiar with the original, by future Mute Records boss Daniel Miller. I loved—and still love—its relentless minimalism and abrasive synth tones going off like a haywire car alarm—apt for a song about the unexpected eroticism of a vehicular accident. (Thanks, J.G. Ballard.) Miller sings the macabre song with all the emotion of an automaton, which was somehow perfect for its lyrical circumstances. Jones, a black Jamaican woman, made “Warm Leatherette” sound even colder and more menacing than the nerdy white Englishman mustered.

How could this happen? The short answer is, Grace Jones is a freak of nature, an enigmatic woman who’s more man than most men will ever be, while also being a legit goddess. Why did this happen? Because, if I may conjecture, Grace Jones loves to take risks and subvert unlikely songs until she overshadows the original versions. The result with the title track of her fourth album is supremely unnerving and riveting.

Jones’ decision to cover “Warm Leatherette” must’ve seemed like a total WTF?! to Island Records’ execs, but in hindsight, it was a genius move. With a band full of session badasses like Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Wally Badarou (keyboards), Barry “White” Reynolds (guitar), Michael “Mao” Chung, and Uziah (Sticky) Thompson (percussion), Jones’ “Warm Leatherette” is bound to sound vastly different from the Normal’s synth ditty. She and the band use a crescendoing power chord to sub for the original’s synthesizer wheeze, while Badarou quotes James Brown’s “Sex Machine” riff. The rhythm is a juggernaut of funky skank, helping to transform this “Warm Leatherette” into a vastly different vehicle, as guitars and keys emulate siren sounds near the end. You could almost party to this rendition, if you were perverse enough.

Whew, it’s exhausting just trying to do justice to that Normal cover. Warm Leatherette has seven other tracks, most of them covers that deviate with almost as much idiosyncratic panache. The Pretenders’ “Private Life” sounds like a Sade tune, but with much more dubwise gravitas. Jones & co. inhabit Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” as if it’s a skintight blue-velvet jumpsuit, slightly skanking up the disco-funk rhythmic chassis and adding staccato guitar-clang punctuation.

The silky Motown soul of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” gets an uptempo revamp with much more robust drums and bass and an extended percussion breakdown. Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” lends itself easily to slouching into a laid-back Jamaican groove, and Jones stretches her usual taut delivery as far as it can go. It can’t surpass the late Mr. Petty’s yowl, but she gives it a valiant try.

The two songs originating from Jones and her band—“A Rolling Stone” and “Bullshit”—are, respectively, rollicking R&B that bubbles with erotic promise and strutting R&B that bumps and throbs with S&M promise. To be honest, though, everything here pales besides “Warm Leatherette.” It is simply one of the greatest covers ever, a radical transformation of such unlikely provenance that it feels and sounds like a cosmic joke. But as a later Grace song put it: cry now, laugh later. -Buckley Mayfield

Woo “Awaawaa” (Palto Flats, 2016)

All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.

Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.

Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.

The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -Buckley Mayfield

Basement 5 “In Dub” (Island, 1980)

 

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I’ve been frequenting record stores a few times a week for decades, and I’ve noticed that after the early ’80s, records by the British avant-dub group Basement 5 have become super-scarce. Which is a pity. (It’s also a pity that I didn’t have the foresight to grab those B5 releases when I had the chance.) Their idiosyncratic fusion of post-punk, dub, and strident political commentary still sounds vital 37 years after the fact. The only Basement 5 vinyl I’ve found in the wild, In Dub, offers a concise slice of the multi-racial band’s idiosyncratic take on a sound that falls somewhere between African Head Charge and PiL (B5 drummer Richard Dudanski played with the latter).

Produced by the band and Factory Records studio wizard Martin Hannett, In Dub includes studio reconstructions of five B5 tracks from their 1965-1980 LP and various singles. The A1 track, “Paranoiaclaustrophobia: Dub,” represents the EP’s peak. It stands out thanks to its psychedelic-as-hell dispersion of the original version of “No Ball Games”’s woozy, hypnotic skank. On top of that,  “Paranoiaclaustrophobia Dub” is threaded with a radiantly crunchy guitar riff that’s mirrored by one of those irrepressible, rubbernecking bass lines. I’ve spun this one out in many a DJ gig, and it always makes heads look pleasantly disoriented. Plus, it sounds killer at 33 or 45. “Work Dub” converts the boisterous ska bruiser “Hard Work” into a peppy stepper with a pneumatic bass figure that’ll get you hoppin’ gleefully.

The jagged, oblongly danceable post-punk of “Games Dub” weirdly evokes a wonkier Liquid Liquid, while “Immigrant Dub” (a reworking of “Immigration”) is a fairly traditional dub, albeit scarred with caustic, Sonny Sharrockian guitar radiation. The EP ends not with a bang, but a winner. There’s nothing horror-streaked about this “Holocaust Dub”; rather, it’s a cyclical wonder that wouldn’t sound out of place on PiL’s Metal Box—right after “Bad Baby,” perhaps.

Given our era’s love of most things post-punk and dub, it’s mystifying why no label’s done a reissue of Basement 5’s small but perfectly proportioned catalog. Let’s hope this review spurs some action on that front. (Hey, a humble blogger can dream…) -Buckley Mayfield

 

Pere Ubu “Datapanik In The Year Zero” (Radar, 1978)

 

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This five-track EP is a neat, efficient way to experience epochal Cleveland rock band Pere Ubu’s early material, derived from four singles released before the classic debut LP The Modern Dance exploded in the underground scene. Datapanik In The Year Zero contains some of the group’s greatest songs, plus “Heaven,” a rare descent into mawkish sentimentality. I know some of you dig it, but it strikes me as a misguided attempt at radio airplay, albeit through the unconventional backdoor of American white-boy reggae (that Tim Wright bass line is no joke, Jah bless). Anyway, let’s get to the all-time classics, which appear here in slightly altered form.

Heart Of Darkness” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” of course, stand as canonical slabs of rock existentialism rarely matched in the four decades since their release. The former’s lines “I don’t see anything that I want” and “Maybe I’m nothing but a shadow on the wall” compose some of the most shattering lyrics in rock. They remind me of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in their poignant estrangement from societal norms. The whole song’s so fucking ominous and full of unimaginable portent; too bad Joseph Conrad never had the chance to hear this. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” is one of the most chilling pieces of music of the last 41 years. It recalls early Black Sabbath’s churning doom, but ruptured by an instrumental section full of noisy urgency and chaos, depicting the nervous system of a World War II pilot carrying the atomic bomb. By the end, the song appears to be splintering and tearing apart at the seams, which is an ideal way to finish such a harrowing composition. It’s a perfect convergence of the heaviest of subject matter with utterly gut-wrenching sonic abstract expressionism.

Relief comes from “Cloud 149,” one of Ubu’s most frantic and debauched pieces; it’s like a splenetic, sped-up version of ska, albeit sidetracked by a strain of garage-rock rave-up à la the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Yet another peak in Ubu’s bulging catalog. “Untitled” is a rougher, earlier version of “The Modern Dance,” which, of course, appeared on the 1978 LP of the same name. Undulating and angular, the song moves with implacable, subliminal swiftness, until it pauses for a combustible jazz-fusion interlude. Tom Herman’s needling guitar origami nudges this track into a higher echelon of post-punk. And while I badmouthed “Heaven” above, it actually has too much understated weirdness—especially from Allen Ravenstine’s ill synth emissions—to attain hit status. It’s just that compared to everything else on Datapanik, it sounds rather conventional. -Buckley Mayfield

 

A.R. Kane “Up Home!” (Rough Trade, 1988)

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Heads still ain’t ready for A.R. Kane. The British duo emerged in 1986 on One Little Indian, sounding like the black Jesus And Mary Chain on their debut single, “When You’re Sad.” Maybe too much. It was a nice homage, but it reflected little of A.R. Kane’s unique personality. That would soon come with 1987’s Lollita EP on 4AD and the Up Home! EP in 1988, followed closely by their debut full-length, 69 and the Love-Sick EP. These records revealed a group commingling dream pop, soul, ambient dub, and electric-era Miles Davis in a wholly distinctive manner. (Major footnote: A.R. Kane also contributed to M/A/R/R/S’s 1987 smash hit “Pump Up The Volume,” which you can still find in bargain bins with some regularity.)

Opener “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the track that became the highlight of 69, slowly arises from slumber into recumbent, refracted dub bliss. It revolves around irradiated guitar grind, cyclical bass pressure, and Rudy Tambala’s tranquilized soul croon. The chorus of “baby, so serene/slow slow slow slow/baby, suck my seed” summarizes the mood of casual, lush eroticism pervading the song. “W.O.G.S.” features lyrics about being sold down and floating down the river, which aptly mirrors the music’s aquatic, solemn dubgaze haze.

“One Way Mirror” is the EP’s zenith, a fractured, shimmering specimen of radiant psychedelic-rock/dub fusion that reifies your disorientation. Tambala sings in surrealistic puzzles, but the line “I’m going up till I lose my skin” sums up the general feeling of self-abnegating transcendence. The record concludes with “Up,” which is some kind of peak of weightless, amorphous rock. It’s about ascending a stairway to heaven on the Black Star Liner (the shipping line that Jamaican politician Marcus Garvey instituted in 1919 to transport goods and people to Africa), and it’s unbearably poignant.

A.R. Kane would go on to record the housier, astral-jazzier, and more accessible “i” double LP and the not-so-great New Clear Child, but Up Home! remains their most concentrated blast of brothers-from-another-planet rock sorcery. You can also find these tracks on the 2012 double-CD compilation Complete Singles Collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Cymande “Cymande” (Janus, 1972)

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Here’s a stone-classic album that’s still not widely known enough—even with its uplifting funk track “Bra” being sampled by De La Soul on “Change In Speak” from 3 Feet High & Rising and appearing in Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn. (Hip-hop and electronic-music producers have sampled Cymande at least 77 times, according to who-sampled.com.) Cymande put out three strong albums (I’ve not heard their fourth, Arrival), but their debut is the best, if only judging by how often I play tracks from it in DJ sets. It’s one of those rare funk full-lengths that you can play from start to finish without lifting the needle off a tepid ballad.

But to call Cymande merely a funk band is inadequate. The English nonet—who featured musicians from London, St. Vincent, Guyana, and Jamaica—also incorporated jazz, reggae, calypso, and progressive rock in their inspirational tracks, and such hybridization resulted in highly flavorful material that is bathed in a spiritual glow that can’t be faked. Cymande call it “nyah-rock,” which they describe in the liners as “the music of the man who finds in life a reason for living.” I’ll say.

Side 1 is largely mellow and meditative and marked by Patrick Patterson’s fluid guitar ruminations, Steve Scipio’s lithe bass lines, Mike Rose’s circuitous flute motifs, and Ray King’s soulful vocals that carry subtle hints of Caribbean patois. LP opener “Zion I” is the exception: a spiritual reggae tune with righteous massed vocals and a bass line on which you can trampoline.

Side 2 is where Cymande really shines. “Dove” (sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan in “Problems” and the Fugees in “The Score,” among many other places) is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever waxed. It begins in great intrigue, Patrick Patterson’s guitar modulating a Santana-esque wail, setting the scene for Steve Scipio’s world-beating, sidewinder bass line to lift the track onto a higher, more libidinous level. Stealthy, undulant funk beats and blissed-out “la la la la-la”s contribute to making the 11-minute “Dove” one of the ultimate sex jams. The aforementioned “Bra” is simply one of the most joyous pieces of music ever waxed. The next time you’re really down, play it and feel your worries dissolve amid its levitational rhythms, percolating congas and bongos, and triumphant horn charts. “The Message” is more subdued, but no less seductive with its nocturnal funk strut. “Ras Tafarian Folk Song” is definitely the album’s weak link, but that could just be my bias against religious belief systems talking. Thankfully, it’s over in three minutes. Everything else on Cymande, though, deserves to be blazed into your memory banks till your last breath—especially “Dove.” -Buckley Mayfield

UB40 “Signing Off” (Graduate, 1980)

Signing_OffWhat a debut album by reggae outfit UB40. Not only was “Signing Off” daring in it’s choice of subject matter, with issues including the yet-named globalization, but this thing charted pretty mightily. It’s powerful message was subdued by dub production, like it’s companion single “The Earth Dies Screaming,” and that message, still key, wafted over air waves like a chilled wind.

Sax melodies lead the way while a reggae / two-tone rhythm section switches on a dime frequently mid-track. But the pace is still swingable, low, “heavy” in it’s slow plodding. Two of the these numbers are covers that fit well within their rep, including Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” and the ever topical “Strange Fruit,” which still (STILL, huff) resonates today.

Here we are at the end of 2015. Echoes (dubbing) of Thatcherism on the way? Political rhetoric of killers and businessmen are in full swing, and UB40’s quiet, cold and cavernous assessment of their time still rings true here and now. -Wade

Prince Jazzbo “Ital Corner” (Clocktower, 1977)

R-648399-1236881143.jpegApparently an “Ital Corner” refers to where people live good today. This later Black Ark dub release is about high life (with low end) or living on the bottom in equal parts, but either way Prince Jazzbo is the vocal guide for the job.

Lee “Scratch” Perry is house engineer here, backed up by his Upsetters, and Prince happens to be a great subject for his producer foil. “Ital Corner” opens with an expansive self-titled track, and it becomes clear that this won’t be another wacky trip through the Blackboard Jungle… These tracks are low and cool and keep that way, utilizing few of the jarring tricks that Lee is known for pulling (pop-goes-the-weasel-horns, police sirens, rough mixing).

A ray of sunshine at the end of side one describes what to do at the Ital Corner… “You gotta live good for today,” Prince says, “justice, equality, humanity ev-er-y-day.” Fans of Upsetters need apply, and those put off by his production in the past? Turn the corner, live good today. -Wade

Peter Tosh “Legalize It” (Virgin, 1976)

PeterTosh-LegalizeItMore than Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, it was Peter Tosh who gave the Wailers their harder edge and roots credibility on famous tracks like “400 Years,” “One Foundation,” as well as his work on “Get Up, Stand Up.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Tosh took on all comers in his solo career, as well, with “Legalize It” and “Equal Rights” being two of the most militant offerings this side of Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey.”

On “Legalize It,” Tosh’s roots sensibilities are sharp, with beautiful rastafarian numbers like “Let Jah Be Praised” mixed well with his all out assaults on the government’s anti-herb policies, (“Legalize It”) and self pity and fear (“Why Must I Cry,” “No Sympathy”).

The album’s tour de force is Tosh himself, and his voice- a rough and ready, gritty tenor that in no way weraks of complacency; it strikes a deep, resonant chord- that of fear- but can also at moments, like on “Let Jah Be Praised,” be almost soothing and re-assuring. This LP is a must have in any respectable reggae collection, and is one of reggae’s shining moments and brilliant debuts. -Sean