Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Boss Reggae from Non-Reggae Artists: Wild Belle, LeaLea Jones with Horace Andy

(Review by Steve Shafer)

We ska types can sometimes be a little parochial in our tastes and overly protective of our minuscule slice of the music world (it's the by-product of loving an often-maligned and ridiculed subcultural music form: they don't like/respect us, so we'll reject everything outside of our little realm). Plus, we can be overly obsessed with authenticity (but that plagues any non-mainstream band and its fans now, doesn't it?). I've always had an aversion to/suspicion of any scene that is focused on excluding that which doesn't conform to an unyielding set of requirements, so I'm pretty much open to any non-ska/reggae act that decides to venture into these genres as long as they do it well (see one of my older posts related to this topic, as well as this other one, and that one, too). Reasonable enough, isn't it?

My attitude, no doubt, comes from growing up during the incredible New Wave era that encompassed such an extraordinary amount of musical ground (essentially any underground, non-mainstream music from power pop to synthpop to post-punk to hip-hop to ska and reggae and much further afield) and being lucky enough to live within the broadcast area of a couple of left-of-the-dial radio stations and a hard-to-tune-in music video channel (here's to you WLIR and UHF-based U-86!).

Having copped to all that, you can see why I'm crazy about "Keep You," one of the newish tracks from the duo Wild Belle, which mixes roots reggae riddims (and sax!) with detached New Wave-y vocals and moody, ethereal synths (this is a must for Santigold and Hollie Cook fans). Natalie Bergman sings from a position of strength and confidence (she's more frustrated than self-pitying) about a sad, one-way, dysfunctional relationship:

"Same song, again and again
You wrong me twice and I keep coming back
Tell me what the matter is, little man
I've got a pretty face and I wear a nice dress

Why can't I keep you?
Keep you

Every minute that I spend on you
I give you honey and I give you truth
All the other women they get treat so rude
Cry, cry, cause you make them blue
Running over town like you got no nerve
Sleeping in the shanty of a brand new girl
Call me after Nancy, but before Rachel
Why can't I keep you for myself?"

(Listen to Wild Belle's "Keep You" here.)

My good friend Ned turned me on to this boss track, knowing my love of things Jamaican and I've picked up the 12" single to play if/when I ever DJ again. Little did I know that there's a big buzz about the band here and in the UK--and that they were one of the "must see" bands at this year's SXSW festival. But all you really need to be aware of is that this haunting and catchy track is an all-out winner.

While Wild Belle's "Keep You" follows more of a pop song structure, LeaLea Jones's dubby take on reggae in "The Road" (stream it here) is a looser, almost free-form jazz approach to the genre (check out her unusual vocal phrasing in the beginning, and while you're at it, recognize her wonderfully expressive, pure, and powerful voice). There's not a well-defined verse/chorus structure and the song goes through several shifts in melody and rhythm. All of this lends an appropriate tension to the song (there's no musical release, really), which is about a relationship at the crossroads: do they go forward or do they go their separate ways?

LeaLea sings:

"You're so nice
and I'm feeling right
but I don't want no nothing else than
your loving eyes
No, we won't go down that road"

The always amazing Horace Andy replies:

"I know I can't do without you
Let's full joy this love
Forever and ever, baby
Opportunity comes once in life
So baby, let's get it on
Don't let it go, no"

This "Road" is a bit more challenging at first, as it doesn't have the immediate hooks to seduce your ear, but the song definitely works its way into your head after just a few listens. And even though the couple's conflict is unresolved at the end of the song, there will be no doubt that this is an extraordinary track from a gifted performer.

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